Philly Film — 29 November 2013 » Written by
PAAFF Round 2 – Review

Kung-Fu-LessonAlas, this wonderful little festival has come to a close. I tip my hat to all involved in making this event possible, and for making it such an easeful experience. There is such a human touch to PAAFF, such a focus on attentiveness and the creation of a full experience that one feels special as a guest.  The second half of the festival was held at the Asian Arts Initiative on 12th and Vine.

THE KUNG FU LESSON is a perfectly brief but full documentary “about three American brothers who travel to China to realize their dream of studying Chinese martial arts. As they journey from the old neighborhoods of Beijing to the legendary temples of the Shaolin Monastery, the brothers cross paths with martial artists from all walks of life. What follows is an amusing and intimate portrait of friendship, family and the lessons learned from lives dedicated to the art of combat.” What I adored about this film is its free and spontaneous sense of life. The brothers happen upon an older gentleman practicing Kung Fu in a small courtyard and decide to approach him. From that chance encounter, their journey finds a direction and the film finds one of its most endearing subjects, Master Wang. By the end of the film you’ve learned a little bit abut Martial Arts in China, a little bit about the ever changing landscapes of that country, and a lot about an old man who wants nothing more than to spread the Kung Fu that he has practiced almost his entire life. Director Khalid Ali, one of the brothers, attended the screening and I was won over by his sensitivity. The purity of his intent was evident in the film and in his own expressions. PAAFF Managing Director Michael Wingate Jones provided a martial arts demonstration before the film which was a great contextual primer. Things such as that demonstration, and the receptions after many of the features are evidence of the personal investment that PAAFF people put into their presentations and selections.

hafu-posterHAFU is a revelation and it is my vote for Best Film of the fest this year (it was in fact awarded the Best Doc honor). It is a documentary about mixed race Japanese, or so called Hafu (derived from the word Half). “This film challenges the “one nation, one culture, one race” identity that has shaped much of contemporary Japan’s self-image. Co-directors Megumi Nishikura and Lara Perez Takagi, both Hafu themselves, render visible the hardships of people who do not fit comfortably into categories of belonging, and offer them a platform to be heard. People whose looks do not match their nationality.” Hafu exposes their stories through an honest and person-centered cinema. I was gripped by the struggle of these individuals feeling disenfranchised, perceived as “other.” Hafu is strong because its subjects are strong, but also because the filmmaker’s selectivity and framing truly concentrates the material and provides a dynamic flow from story to story across the three years of production. Stories like David, a half Ghanaian half Japanese man who despite his more obvious ethnic givaway of skin color defines as being Japanese, or the 20-something Sophia who has decided to live in Japan for a year to access a neglected part of her Australian/Japanese identity. Or the young Alex Io, struggling at his Japanese school as a child of Mexican and Japanese heritage who feels a strong gravity toward his spanish language roots. All of these stories are deeply compelling because of how directly they are told and how honestly they are expressed.  What it does is help start a conversation. The discussion after the screening, moderated by Director Megumi Nishikaru, was lively and heartfelt, and I hope that it continues. Cultural and ethnic identity is becoming so complex in this age that we must re-evaluate the categorical lens we use to view the world. This is no longer a world of borders, but more than ever a world of blended interests and shared experience. Certainly, cultural distinctions are present and always will be, but there is a more pervasive desire to combine cultures and identities that can be felt and seen in societies around the globe. One hopes that this example, through cinema, can provide a warm and humanizing message of support to those, like the many Hafu in Japan depicted and undepicted, who remain the brunt of a social stigma because of their complexity.

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About Author

Aaron Mannino is a Philadelphia area artist, film enthusiast, and some other things. He has made contributions on film analysis to the publication Korean Quarterly. Visit his blog or his other blog for writings and art-ings.

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