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Thursday, December 20, 2012

Needle Through Brick

At the Museum of the Moving Image this month, I attended a screening of the 2009 documentary Needle Through Brick, directed by Patrick Daly, about Chinese kung fu masters who immigrated to East Malaysia following the Cultural Revolution, and are working day jobs while struggling to pass on their legacy to a new generation, who are less likely to learn traditional kung fu in favor of the acrobatics of wushu or the immediacy of video games. It was only an hour long, and was an insightful film that showed kung fu masters as not as the wise old men speaking in proverbs in the mountains as movies would have you believe, but just average men working jobs like selling shoes and landscaping and cooking in restaurants, all the while focused on maintaining a powerful art form.

At the Moving Image museum, the film was introduced by its composer,  Gil Talmi, who spoke of the film's origins. Patrick Daly was studying traditional Kung Fu with a master for a year in Borneo, East Malaysia, and had gained the trust of masters who wanted their stories to be heard. While martial arts for centuries was always seen as a family and military practice, never one to be taught to the general public or outsiders, the masters realized that a worldwide audience would see their art, and reduce its chances of being lost forever. It was a relationship between filmmakers and the masters of mutual interest and respect that led to this small yet remarkable film.

The speed and agility that these masters maintained was sharp and inspiring to see. They truly possessed their essence of chi, with a calmness that commanded respect. One of the masters said, "It's not just about fighting, it's a way of life. It's spiritual, it's physical, it's everything." And I agree with his statement. Martial arts is a practice that is popularized through action films, seen as only a means of attack or an act of violence. But when seeing artists practice their form individually with ritualized movements and steps, it reminded me to maintain my practice in dance and martial arts, because the peace that comes from practicing classic movements centers me, and I grow as a student when I learn the basics.

At times, the masters sounded like crabby old men when talking about young kids favoring wushu over traditional martial arts. The film intercuts this with students flying and twisting through the air in acrobatics that would be seen in a tricking video or a Jet Li film. I myself have taken a wushu class, and found it exciting and a lot of fun, a combination of beautiful movement with explosive acrobatics. As kung fu has an almost endless amount of forms due to combining styles and modern interpretations, I feel it is important that a student does learn the traditional form while also studying styles that are more suited to their personality or interests. I took Wing Chun because I wanted to learn more self-defense moves, and was breaking the habits that I had learned from Muay Thai, like positioning of stances, punches, and kicks. Similarly, I enjoy taking dance classes because I love different forms of movement and challenging my body to take on unfamiliar positions and steps. In that case, I take classes in ballet as a ground root for other dance styles, like hip-hop, modern, and jazz.

Another one of the masters said "Learning Kung Fu is like studying. You need to gather your information slowly, then you can achieve greatness." For true practitioners of dance and martial arts, learning slowly is a process that can be frustrating, but ultimately rewarding when you apply your lessons to advance further than you thought you could. When I first studied Muay Thai, I was frustrated because I wanted to throw punches and kicks with speed and power, like the advanced students. I would miss my mark, or would just be messy. I didn't want to be slow, because I didn't want to slow down others, and didn't want to progress slowly. I had to focus on technique, and the slower applications of the movements, as well as think about my body mechanically rather than focusing on the end result. From that practice, I did become more skilled because I maintained a deeper focus and serenity rather than just wanting to fight, and improved my punches and kicks as a student, feeling relieved that I was getting over the hump of not advancing. While I have not practiced Muay Thai in over a year, I was still able to take what I studied and compare my training to my classes in kung fu, and, most recently, samurai swordfighting. I am a novice in all of these forms, but I enjoy learning and studying, and growing not just as an physical artist, but also in confidence and maturity and maintaining a calm center when life feels stressful.

This film can be found on Hulu to watch, and I recommend just taking an hour out of your day to listen to the stories of these masters who only want to ensure that their traditional art form is not lost in a rapidly changing modern world.

1 comment:

  1. The write-up has also inspired me to become a writer and start my own blog. Wonderful piece of writing.