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Alexander Lee follows four people's journies to the Shaolin Temple in his Special Jury Prize-winning documentary, The Real Shaolin.
When Bruce Lee kung fu-kicked his way into Hollywood, he probably never would have imagined the legions of followers his martial arts actions films would spring. In his debut film The Real Shaolin, director Alexander Lee takes this idol worship to a whole new level, by documenting four people's journeys to the Shaolin Temple in central Henan province in China. APA chats with the USC film school grad and former student of kung fu to get his thoughts on making the film and demystifying Shaolin for a wider audience.
Interview with Alexander Lee
May 1, 2009
Interviewed by Janice Jann
Transcribed by Timothy Natividad
Camera by Warren Kenji Berkey and Oliver Chien
Video by Warren Kenji Berkey
APA: How did you select the four subjects that you decided to follow and how were those four subjects cast?
Alexander Lee: In Shaolin, they have a Buddhist saying – yuan fen. It means "follow destiny." I guess that's a really simple answer, but basically, when I first went to Shaolin to learn kung fu, I trained in the same room as this performance team of mostly children. I was really inspired by the kids because they were so much braver than me, an adult male. And I thought that would make a really interesting story.
I was also intrigued by the foreigners, the Westerners, and their story – how they came to Shaolin, what motivated them to travel thousands of miles from the comfort of home and family to find this legendary place. So basically, I found my characters by going to the temple and asking if they knew any young boys who were training. They told me "Oh, there's this one master who has three young disciples." I went there, filmed for the first day, and out of the three kids I knew, this was the one who I wanted. I could see his demeanor and the purity in his eyes. No fear, no complaining. That was very inspiring to me.
The kickboxer, whose name is Zhu, was on the top kickboxing team in that region. I started filming that team, and he was the most comfortable being on camera. He's a photogenic guy and very likable. He was talented, and I could see that.
The American was the only American at the whole school that I went to visit. I literally told them that I was an American filming something, and they replied "Oh, we have an American! Come meet him!" So we met, and he was really cool, and I asked him if I could film him. It was that simple. He was very open and very disciplined. I would tell him to come out and have some fun, get a drink or something, but he was so focused on his kung fu like Bruce Lee. That was his dream.
And then there was the French guy who I had found, and he wanted to be a monk. The foreigners were so few and far between we all knew each other, so that's the long and short of it.
APA: There are a lot of males who are fascinated with kung fu and martial arts. What do you think is its appeal to guys, men in general?
AL: I think that every young boy at some point wants to be like Bruce Lee. I think that there is something about martial arts, being able to be so confident in yourself. I really feel that martial arts is about eliminating fear, and I think that makes a better world. Martial arts is a violent practice, no doubt. Let's not beat around the bush and say it's a peaceful thing. It is violent, but the purpose of the violence has this weird paradox – using violence to pacify. Basically, using martial arts to serve a just cause, kind of like the police. The police don't walk around with sticks anymore, or say "No you shouldn't do this." They walk around with guns because they have to. They have to use force sometimes to teach the evildoers what is wrong. So I think that it's a universal thing. Bruce Lee, for me, is the ultimate kung fu movie star because he has so much presence and was so fast. He was very dynamic on screen. I think until this day he remains the ultimate kung fu action star.
APA: Are there any other stars or movie actors that you think could replace him?
AL: I think people are very fond of making lists of who's the top, number one person. But they're all different. They all have their strengths and weaknesses. Obviously Jet Li and Jackie Chan are two living legends that have done incredible things for kung fu cinema, for the face of Asians in world cinema. But they're different. Jet Li is sexy, confident kung fu [laughs]. Jackie Chan is more like relaxed, bumbling kung fu. The difference between them is so beautiful because kung fu can have all these different forms and interpretations.
APA: On the one hand, while it's great that they are out there giving kung fu a reputation and spotlight, but you mentioned in the film that the form tends to be romanticized.
AL: I think movies have to romanticize life because that's why we go to see movies. We don't want to see a film about people doing everyday boring 9 to 5 stuff. I think there's room for people like me to have those different approaches to Shaolin temple or to kung fu. For me personally, I really would've liked to see a film that showed what the living conditions would be like. I mean I heard there were squat toilets, but to actually do it is a whole different experience [laughs]. But I think that kung fu movies are great. History is what is written down by the victor or whatever, who knows what really happened back in the day. But what's great is the rich tradition in celebrating the art. I'm happy that I have an opportunity to show a film that can show some real nitty gritty stuff. Hopefully people can be attracted to that and have that affect them as well.
APA: Are you interested in following women that do kung fu?
AL: Actually I did follow them. There are actually quite a few girls who study at Shaolin as well. My film premiered at Toronto, and there were some audience members who asked me "Did you follow any women?" or "Why didn't you follow any women? Why just boys?" And I said that I did follow two or three girls. It was just kind of a circumstance thing where eventually they kind of got uncomfortable with me filming them. The culture there kind of promotes this shy introvertedness compared to Americans. Besides that, I don't think they really appreciated me going into girls' dormitories and filming them sleeping. So it wasn't really a boy/girl issue really. It was just that those individuals weren't comfortable anymore. That was the toughest challenge for me, finding people comfortable being filmed.
APA: I'm sure as foreigners going into China to learn martial arts, it's already hard for them to deal with this new aspect of life. But to also have cameras follow them as they experience must be double the pressure and intensity. You yourself went to China to study Shaolin. I feel like a lot of the film, as much as it has to do with martial arts, it also has a lot to do with being a foreigner in a country. What were your thoughts on China when you went there?
AL: I think as an American, we're raised to think that China is Communist, and it's really not. When you go there, its very Capitalist and everybody wants to get their piece of the pie. I wasn't really sure what to expect. I assumed it would be poor, but luckily when I arrived at Shaolin, it was somewhat developed because of the two million tourists who visit there every year. And the hundreds of kung fu schools are fed by these thousands of students who are in a search for this dream to become the next Jet Li. So I guess in terms of what the kung fu training would be, I thought I was going to be slapping water and lifting buckets of water, maybe breaking stones and walking on logs of wood. I thought there might have been some of that, but there really isn't any of that anymore. Its kind of like the mythology of it, and I guess that's why most people go there. Who knows, maybe its just in the movies.
APA: Was there any difficulty filming in China?
AL: There was actually filming at the Shaolin temple. Filming there was not as difficult as I had imagined because that area gets a lot of film crews already as well as a lot of tourism. They're trying to publicize the temple a lot, they're very open to that. So it wasn't actually that difficult to get the approvals from the local government. I know that's a very big issue in America. We talk about that a lot. People always ask me at every Q &A, "Was it difficult? Did the government watch you?" Yeah they did, but I think they began to realize I wasn't there trying to prove some point like the Chinese are poor and backwards, this and that. I was there really just to document the experience and I think that maybe as a half-Asian person, they had a little more trust in me. Maybe more so than a Western crew who couldn't speak the language and was there for a week or something.
APA: What message do you hope the film is going to speak?
AL: For me, I just hope that people can learn something about Shaolin that they didn't know before and that they can kind of open their minds and hearts towards China. I think there's a lot of negative media about China, and although no country is perfect, there are a lot of wonderful things in that country. There's a very rich culture and tradition. I hope that my film can expand and be able to be seen by people of all races, age, sex. Because from my experience in Toronto, it was very diverse in terms of race; it was about half men and half women, I saw kids and old people. Hopefully if the film gets to the right avenues then it can be seen. That would be my hope.
Date Posted: 6/19/2009