Extraordinaire (from left to right): Mei Juin Chen and Martha
is a refreshing documentary by filmmakers Martha Burr and Mei-Juin
about the odyssey of five Shaolin kungfu monks who emigrate to America
from the famed Shaolin Temple of China during the 1990s.
takes a rare human approach focusing on the individual monk's character
and very personal, sometimes funny experiences as they strive to
make their life in America. Burr, the editor of Kung Fu Qigong Magazine
goes behind the mythical god-like romantic stereotype of Shaolin
monks in flowing robes and physical Matrix-style kung fu mastery,
and portrays the monks as complex, living human beings, and surprisingly,
with a sense of humor.
Mei-Juin follow the monks as they set up bases to teach Shaolin
kung fu in Texas, and in Las Vegas, Nevada with aspirations to coach
America's future Olympian kung fu stars. The camera captures poignant
scenes with an engaging young female student who dreams of someday
acting in a kung fu movie with Jackie Chan, meanwhile using her
new kung fu skills to defend herself against the bullies in high
school. The camera also follows a monk's East meets West adventures
as one of his students shows him the Las Vegas scene.
was screened to packed audiences at the recent Los Angeles Film
Festival, and is scheduled to be presented at the Asian American
Film Festival in New York at the Asia Society July 25th. Shaolin
Ulysses will also be aired on PBS-TV in 2003.
Martha Burr chatted with AsianConnections Team about her experiences
in making this outstanding documentary.
How did this project come
I have been an editor at Kungfu Qigong magazine for tha past
5 years, and knew all the Shaolin monks in the U.S. from interviewing
them and doing stories on them. I'd also done several Shaolin special
issues, devoted entirely to Shaolin kungfu, which were very successful,
and visited Shaolin Temple in Henan, China several times.
I also have
a background in music video and studied filmmaking at NYU. I was
friends with my film partner Mei-Juin, who was already an established
documentary director with her last feature The Worlds of Mei
LanFang (2000) showing at the Berlin Film Festival and winning
the Best Documentary award for Women in Film. Both of us were interested
in the culture clashes (or synthesis) of East and West cultures,
and the Shaolin kungfu monks story in America seemed a perfect springboard
to explore this.
We came up with
it one day at lunch, researched it for about a year, traveling to
NY, Texas and Shaolin Temple in China, then applied for a funds
from ITVS, the Independent Television Service created by Congress
to promote diversity on public television. We spent another year
shooting more material, and finished editing last month.
|Click to see images from the film!
What were some of the challenges in producing your documentary?
The biggest challenges were getting the monks to talk about the
hardships of America, because they still have close ties with China
and the Shaolin Temple there. We knew there were many more hardships
than they were willing to talk about, but sometimes we couldn't
draw everything out. Also, although all the monks here speak decent
English, once we turned the camera on they were very shy about it.
Finally, we had to do most of our interviews in Chinese to get them
to relax and tell better stories. We were so happy that Li Peng
wanted to do everything in English, especially as the part about
his family in China is in Chinese.
challenge may have been in editing the film down to an hour for
PBS TV length, when we had so much great material. We shot 100 hours
of footage, and have so many great stories and characters that didn't
make it in because of length. The last month of editing was the
The documentary focuses more on the personal journeys and experiences
of the monks, which is different than most other martial arts documentaries.
What was your inspiration for this approach?
We wanted to make a documentary that was about human character and
experience first, although the martial arts was a very important
aspect of the story. But our themes about cultural interface, and
especially Chinese culture meeting American culture, was one of
our main topics for exploration. There seemed to be an inherent
drama around the question of would these Shaolin monks come to America
and be corrupted, culturally or spiritually, or would they prevail
and change America?
The answer was
neither in black and white, but their five separate journeys were
truly that - journeys. We also liked showing the monks as real human
beings, not romantic figures in robes meditating on a misty mountain
ledge, as many Americans like to think of the Shaolin monks. Their
complexity seemed more interesting than the myth, though we tried
to provide the myth of Shaolin as well, for context. Many people
are also overly serious about the Shalin monks, when the monks themselves
can be quite funny, with a great sense of humor, which we tried
to bring out.
There is a certain
surreal quality to their journey here, and that was also a quality
we wanted to touch on. The myth of Shaolin, and Shaolin monks, will
be around for a long time, but we wanted to do a little cultural
deconstruction and delve into some of the deeper issues of Shaolin
in the modern world.
What has the reception to your film been? Where can people view
We had a great reception at the world premiere at the LA Film Festival.
Nice short reviews in the local press (LA Weekly and New Times),
and we had a good buzz among the industry too. Our evening show
at the Sunset 5 Laemmle was sold out, and people were very enthusiastic!
We had a long Q&A after the screenings, with more questions than
we had time to answer. We are talking to several distributors right
now to package the film, and it will show on PBS sometime in the
next year, though we don't have exact dates yet.
What are your future plans? Will you do a follow up documentary?
We are looking at a number of ideas for future docs, probably still
exploring aspects of Chinese culture, and perhaps another martial
arts themed doc. We'd love to do one on Wudang kungfu next, and
balance the Buddhism and Shaolin with Taoism and Wudang style kungfu!
Our film will
also show next month in New York at the Asian American Film Festival,
with a screening at Asia Society on July 25th. Mei-Juin's previous
film, The Worlds of Mei LanFang, will also screen at the festival
July 20th. We are also looking to several festivals in Europe for
late summer/early fall, but are not confirmed yet.