Hot Docs 2013 Capsule Review: Dragon Girls

Dragon Girls

When I was seven my parents put me in a karate class at our local community centre and immediately quit after the first day. My breaking point? Push ups on my knuckles. I was a pussy then and I’m a pussy now and I wouldn’t last a second at the Shaolin Tagu Kung Fu school.

Director Inigo Westemeier’s ‘Dragon Girls’ follows a group of hardworking tweens who’ve dedicated their childhood to learning Kung Fu as a point of personal and national pride. In exchange for a strong body and strong will, they’re sacrificing a good chunk of their childhood thanks to long hours of intensive martial arts training. The whole ordeal makes Michael Jackson’s lost years in the Jackson 5 look like Disneyland (or Neverland, in his case). The meaning of Kung Fu is discussed throughout the film and while the masters loosely definite it as “Energy gained by hard work in the course of time”, the more telling answer comes from one of the young students who says “Kung Fu means to train and train and train again.”

The film starts with some stunning imagery of symmetrical martial arts routines performed with terrifying accuracy by an army of teenage girls who seem primed to take over a small country. While the dedication to the art and the extreme level of physical precision is initially impressive and inspirational, the oppressive work schedule and borderline abusive training regiment loses its charm pretty quickly. At one point in the film a group of girls compare battle scars, many of which are extremely impressive. It’s like a little girl version of the crew of the Orca exchanging war stories.

As much fun as tournament style docs can be, Dragon Girls’ more lyrical, contemplative approach was quite refreshing. It’s beautifully shot and edited and makes some interesting cultural observations that aren’t that far off from western ideals. China has the Shaolin Tagu Kung Fu school while we have toddlers in tiara’s and soccer Mom’s. — Jay C.