"Needle Through Brick" is a great independent production from Season of Light studio, which documents the loss of Chinese martial culture in modern SE Asia. Filmed in Borneo in 2005, NTB is a heart felt story about how the unique gift of Chinese martial arts is fast becoming an antiquated trinket in the age of new gadgets, bells, and whistles.
Running just over 50 minutes the production quality (as with many documentaries) is top notch, and quite frankly the editing work is some of the best I have seen in modern documentaries. Telling the story of the diaspora of Chinese to SE Asia because of the Japanese occupation, and the Revolution via still photographs was both complete and harrowing. Audio and video are excellently executed.
The masters interviewed throughout NTB are not famous by any means. No world champions. No noted authors. These are simple men who share a passion for the Chinese martial arts coming from various backgrounds, and that is the appeal. Normal every day people who are the inheritors of something so rich as a martial art, yet these strong men are as fragile as a newborn babe if they cannot pass along their knowledge to the next generation. Demo's overdubbed with interviews pepper the viewer showcasing the physical beauty of the arts (for those martial nerds, the arts showcased are mostly southern in origin such as Hung Gar, White Crane, Chu/Chow Gar, and some Taiji as well), while listening to the teachers sharing stories of their past and discussing concerns of their future.
On one hand the teachers tell stories of how strict their teachers were, some being forced to pray to Jesus, others not being taught anything for up to 10 years having to prove their dedication, discipline, and loyalty! Then in the same breathe the teachers complain how students now days do not have the desire and dedication to train. Perhaps the casual observer would not think anything of this as lots of mystery and myth surround kung fu, but those who know a bit more about the reality of training would have to kind of shrug and scratch their head. Withholding lessons for a decade, forcing students to adhere to the dogma of your personal religion, one would have to wonder where the mystery is. No doubt students lack interest!
"Needle Through Brick" does not assume an answer to the question it poses. In true documentary fashion it simply reports the story, giving its subjects the conch, if you will, allowing the story to lay out as seen through the teachers eyes. I found myself wondering if the masters of yester-year such as O Sensei, Sun Lu Tang, Chang Dung Shen, Mas Oyama etc. sat around complaining about the laziness of their students 100 years ago. I think to a certain degree every generation thinks the newest crop of students do not live up to the standards set forth decades before. I do not believe this is a uniquely Chinese issue.
A fascinating glimpse into the world of Chinese martial arts through the eyes of those living in Borneo, Needle Through Brick offers a different course then what we typically see in martial art documentaries. As much as I enjoy form and fighting demo's, the real stories such as this one all too often are overshadowed by the glitz and glamour of pure performance with many films! This film echoes the concern many of us have had regarding the traditional martial arts. I know in my own personal practice and teaching I have observed that the overwhelming majority of interest in traditional arts and forms lie in the hands of those 40+. Most young students of mine are interested in fighting much more than the actual specific arts. Perhaps coincidental, or maybe just a reflection of our current state as a society I am not sure.
With this film, attention should be brought to the forefront of Chinese culture of just how important the native arts of China are, and wushu is NOT the answer to our woes! Those of us whom are instructors need to take note that though we are the gatekeepers of these traditions, we need to change a bit with the times and make an effort to reach out and share with those interested, and ensure all of our efforts throughout life are not in vain.