“Dragon Girls” – 2013 Melbourne International Film Festival Review

Although the storyline zigzags as dizzily as its subjects’ quick-as-lightning martial arts routines, “Dragon Girls” is a compelling documentary that not only shows a backbreaking perspective of tradition largely hidden from public view, but also its quizzical place in China as the rest of the country modernizes around it.

The film opens and closes with wide-angle shots of boys and girls performing synchronized kung fu exercises outdoors. With battle cries serving as the soundtrack, the scene is not unlike a Zhang Yimou wartime epic. As it turns out, each of the performers attends the Shaolin Taogu School of Martial Arts, home to 35,000 students, teachers and trainers in the Yenan Province.  Unlike the Shaolin Temple, its famed Buddhist neighbor, the Shaolin Taogu is the largest non-government funded school in the country, taking in anyone who can fill out the registration form.

“Dragon Girls” focuses on the females in the school, and in the footage, there seem to be just as many women as there are men training to be martial artists. Six girls are featured in the documentary, and while their intersecting storylines at times bog down the film, there are a couple that are noteworthy. One of those is the youngest, a 9-year-old named Xin Chen Xi. Simultaneously demonstrating childlike charm and a jadedness about the world, she leaves home at the age of 7 while her parents struggle to make a living as melon farmers. Like most of the children and adolescents training at the Shaolin Taogu, Xin is the typical example of the student who travels hundreds of miles to attend the school not because of her God-given talents, but rather because her parents can’t afford to feed her or don’t know how to discipline her.  The same is true of another subject of the film, Huang Luolan, a teenager who manages to run away from the jail-like confines of her surroundings. 

By choosing girls as the subject of this film, director Inigo Westmeier is able to introduce a whole range of issues beyond kung fu facing modern China, such as the divide between rich and poor, the one-child policy, the preference toward boys over girls, the cultural need to “save face,” and the institution of family teetering between personal relationships versus a financial need to survive.  As such, these are heavy subjects to pack into 93 minutes, and the story loses its way when it is infused with a bit too many folk tales and philosophical musings.  Still, “Dragon Girls” is an extremely gripping watch. Beneath the flashy sword skills, acrobatics and steely determination is a dark undertone as these children train for recognition and national glory.  After all, when a 9-year-old tells the filmmaker that “tears are an expression of weakness,” there is more to those words than mere preparation for a competition.