Curse of the Shaolin is a documentary that seems to have lost its focus. Is it a film about the Shaolin warriors of Chinatown in Los Angeles, is it a film about the making of a film about the Shaolin warriors or is it a film about the director’s ongoing health issues? All of the above?
Let’s backtrack: Curse of the Shaolin sets itself up as a documentary about a troupe of five Shaolin warriors who live, and perform, in the Chinatown area of Los Angeles. At the same time, due to the troubled nature of the filming (failed fundraisers, other plans falling through, the director’s health becoming an issue), the filmmaker, Sven Kamm, begins to question whether the film is cursed, a carryover scenario from the same curse that was rumored to have been the death of Bruce Lee, relating to revealing the secrets of kung fu. Thus, the film becomes less about the warriors, who begin to receive cursory coverage (this is such-and-such’s name, here are the disciplines he is proficient in), and more about the events that occurred during filming.
Which is fine, except the film actually has a far more interesting subject hidden within it, the modernization and Americanization of this group of Shaolin warriors. As the film goes on, the group begins to change as their exposure to Los Angeles continues. There’s a story there, about where each individual warrior came from, what their personalities are like, how they became Shaolin warriors, the conflicts with their Shaolin values and where they are now. This story isn’t told, however, merely hinted at as the film wraps up.
Which is a shame, because if it’s to be a film about the warriors, then they’re who I’d like the film to focus on. Not Beate Antares, even if the film was her idea initially and she trains with them. Not the director, even though I’ll admit his story does show the stakes with which he continued the film.
Now, to be fair, the film does have entertaining moments, and operates on a tongue in cheek level of humor throughout (such as when budgetary restrictions cause the history of Shaolin to be acted out with a puppet). That, plus using dubbed footage from other films, and creating an interview between Bruce Lee and the director solely by editing footage in an interesting way, adds a novelty to the film, but it also makes the film itself a novelty that doesn’t say much.
Overall, when the filmmaker professes that finishing the film is partly due to an inability to finish another documentary, and a feeling that he must finish at all costs, many of these choices make sense. Perhaps, after looking at all the footage, and being immersed in so many events surrounding filming, Sven Kamm didn’t really know if he had anything, but he knew he wanted to make something, and got lost in what was truly the focus in it all, and just wanted to be done with it.
The result wound up being the hodge podge that is Curse of the Shaolin. Yes, Kamm finally finished a documentary, and that is a great goal to start with. Hopefully the next goal will be to finish a good documentary.
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