SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW: DRAGON GIRLS

DRAGON GIRLS review for the Sydney Film Festival by Salty Kernel, Andrew Brusentsev

DRAGON GIRLS is part of the Sydney Film Festival and will be screening on SUN June 9 at 145pm and SAT June 15 at 145am at Dendy Opera Quays– tickets can be purchased HERE. Be sure to check out the entire program for the SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL HERE.

The German financed and helmed documentary “Drachenmädchen” or Dragon Girls tells the story of the Shaolin Tagou Kung Fu School through the eyes of 3 young girls. Coincidentally the school is located right next door to the Shaolin Monastery in China revered world over as the birthplace of Kung Fu.  It is a vast training facility covering 560,000 square metres and housing 27,000 of the nation’s children.

 

Dragon Girls Documentary for the Sydney Film Festival
Dragon Girls Documentary for the Sydney Film Festival

 

Everything about the school is overwhelming to the senses, from the beginning scenes we see an endless sea of students drilling with military precision. The school is massive, overwhelming and discipline seems swift and severe. Students spend close to twelve hours a day training endlessly in order to excel in the various rigours of the Kung Fu discipline. For me I began to wonder when they actually went to classes.

 

 

Dragon Girls Documentary for the Sydney Film Festival
Dragon Girls Documentary for the Sydney Film Festival

 

Moving from the overwhelming scenes of thousands the film moves to focus on the lives of the three. This gives us context and an understanding of what daily life must be like within the schools walls. The three girls are golden gems from a storytelling perspective, each are experiencing life at the school differently.  The interviews are exceptional and the film makers should be commended.

The youngest girl we meet comes from a rural background and she is desperate to not only conform to the strict teachings of the school but also we learn her father won’t come to visit her unless she wins first place in a Kung Fu competition. Coming first means being the best out of literally thousands nationally. A monumental task to say the least. It seems all too much for her. It’s all bittersweet, especially during a heartbreaking moment when the girl breaks her hand; the pain in the girl’s eyes is palpable and powerful. I think the hand is not what is breaking her heart.

 

 

Dragon Girls Documentary for the Sydney Film Festival
Dragon Girls Documentary for the Sydney Film Festival

 

A second girl is a runaway from the school; she tells stories of beatings for mistakes and a harsh impersonal system where individualism is drummed out with hours of physical exercise. She now sits at home, playing video games all day. At first we get a sense that she is spoilt but there is something much deeper going on here. Her parents are concerned and encourage her to go back to the school.

The third girl also comes from a poor rural background. She is excelling at the school, although the scars on her body tell a tale of perfection through beatings. She is the oldest of the girls and informs the viewer after a while that she has volunteered to give up her “lessons” to concentrate on Kung Fu 12 hours a day.

 

 

Dragon Girls Documentary for the Sydney Film Festival
Dragon Girls Documentary for the Sydney Film Festival

 

As contrast to the school the documentary also inserts two remarkable interviews, one with the school’s commandant, and one with the Shaolin Master from next door. The Commandant agrees with the philosophies of the school which to me takes the Communist system and smashes it together with Eastern mysticism. The mysticism loses and the Kung Fu taught, I believe from my viewing (and perhaps too many Kung Fu flicks), is really a mask for complete and utter subservient obedience to the state. The Master on the other hand shows us the origins of Kung Fu. Sure there is harsh discipline and drill but it is all in the aid of strengthening individual centeredness with life for defining a set of values which are yours and yours alone. Kung Fu to him means harmony between an individual’s mind, body and the universe around the being. Somehow none of this makes its way next door. Not enough attention it seems is given to meditation, stillness and mindfulness.

As a documentary this is excellent and I understand why it has been shown at every major festival globally.  Audiences will be spellbound by the precision and movement of the girls practising their craft, even at such a young age they appear to be absolutely proficient in the physical aspects of kung fu. The interviews are given room to breathe and the scenes are presented without bias, commentary, or it seems heavy editing. I thoroughly enjoyed it but I felt incredible sorrow for the students and as a moral tale of life in a totalitarian school and nation.

 

4 Pops