By Keith R. Higgons
According to Inigo Westmeier’s bio, the director of Dragon Girls, he has some serious cinematic chops. He studied at the Film Academy in Moscow, did his graduate studies at Baden-Wuttemberg Film Academy and even had a scholarship to study at the UCLA Extension Entertainment Studies Department. That’s not too shabby of a background in film studies.
Dragon Girls is his first feature film. Here is the synopsis of Dragon Girls:
Dragon Girls’ tells the story of three Chinese Girls, training to become Kung Fu Fighters, far away from their families at the Shaolin Kung Fu School, located right next to the Shaolin Monastery in Central-China, place of origin of Kung Fu. Three girls in a crowd of 26,000 children, under pressure to conform to the norms and structures: they are turned into fighting robots and yet, if you look behind the curtain, you see children with dreams and aspirations.
OK, seems interesting enough. I mean, I like documentaries and the idea of 26,000 students studying Kung Fu was moderately interesting. Right?
Wrong. From a purely narrative point of view, the idea was the only interesting thing.
After 65 minutes of Dragon Girls, about 60 if you count the two times I nodded off, I had a critical decision to make. The Clash said it best, “Should I Stay or Should I Go.” I sat there for a good five minutes wrestling with that. Certainly, I have an obligation to acknowledge the work of Westmeier and be respectful of it. There’s a responsibility to readers to provide a fairly objective review of the film. What to do, what to do. I finally decided I had been respectful enough and had enough information and decided to walk out.
In full disclosure, I did not pay to see Dragon Girls, so I walked out of a free movie. However, I can assure if I had, the result would have been the same. And to put this into perspective, the last movie I walked out of was Yentl, in 1983.
Over the past 30 years, I have seen tens of thousands of films, some painfully horrible, but I’ve always managed to push through them to find something worth watching. Not so with Dragon Girls. Simply put, I just didn’t care about the girls or anything that was happening on screen.
Making a documentary about paint drying would have more narrative structure than Dragon Girls. Apply the paint, watch it dry, and see the results. BAM, three acts.
Now, I am not going to say everything is bad with this film because that is not true. Westmeier was both the director and cinematographer and there are some stunning images and some fantastic wide shots of the students practicing. There are some terrific choreographed shots of the students as well. And if I had to judge Dragon Girls solely on aesthetics, it is above average.
Unfortunately for Westmeier, I have to consider narrative and this movie doesn’t have one. I found none of the students that were interviewed engaging enough to stick around to find out what happened. In short, I didn’t care.
Documentaries, as a genre, are not supposed to provide a thrill a minute. But, by and large, there is always a structure and some sort of narrative. In documentaries, almost more than in a narrative film; you need to care about someone or something. The filmmaker has to engage the viewer somehow. Regrettably, with Dragon Girls there is a serious lack of engagement and nothing to care about.
Westmeier, and his crew, should be applauded for the accomplishment of Dragon Girls. I can’t begin to imagine the logistical and political headaches that accompanied the shoot. China’s reputation as a militantly insular country and extremely confrontational with foreigners could not have made this feat easy. In fact, I’d bet that story would be infinitely more interesting than what I saw in Dragon Girls.
Unlike most people, I hate being too critical of someone’s creative work. Aside from some nice shooting, I just couldn’t find anything interesting about the story. Well, I found no story from what I saw.
Dragon Girls clocks in at 90 minutes and is about 75 minutes too long.
Dragon Girls completed its run at the Brooklyn Film Festival on Thursday.