30 May 2010

Psst! Sensei, it's the kettle.... (The Sensei)



There are many factors to a film which help determine its genre: action sequences, romantic elements, humor, adult situations, suggestive dialogue, and innumerable others. Genres in general bother me because films (like any other sort of media) can be very difficult to classify and run the risk of being pigeonholed unfairly. Should a martial arts drama be classified (by Netflix, among others) under "Gay and Lesbian" because one of its central characters is homosexual? Granted, I'm not saying "Gay and Lesbian" is any sort of stigma for a film, or anyone the film might appeal to or be targeted at for that matter.

I love women too much to be gay, and I lack the necessary anatomy to be considered lesbian, but I'm not homophobic, either. On the whole, my only real "issue" with those films filed under "Gay & Lesbian" is that they tend to be a bit preachy, but preachiness is as much a common theme of those films as gunfights are for Westerns or spaceflight is for Science Fiction or farce is for Romantic Comedies. So, when I say that I'm not a fan of those films, it's only because I'm neither the choir nor the heretic; I'm more the Good Samaritan. Speaking of which...

The story of 2008's The Sensei (a film my roommate got from Netflix and recommended to me after viewing) centers around McClain, a homosexual teenager who recently lost his lover to a lynch mob in a small, rural town in Colorado. Afraid for his life, he frequently tries to enlist in martial arts classes at a local dojo, only to have his applications mysteriously (read: deliberately) vanish. To further matters, the local minister turns the sermon at an Easter mass from the passion and resurrection of Christ to matters of Sodom and Gomorrah at the very sight of McClain and his mother entering the church to join in the ceremony.
In the dojo's defense, they turn young McClain away not directly because of his sexual orientation, but because they fear losing their students over the matter. In fact, the family that runs the dojo has had some acceptance issues of their own to deal with, not just because of being Asian, but actually because of being multi-ethnic, with Irish, Asian, and even Filipino members and relatives. They're also of mixed faiths, with the grandparents devout Buddhists and one of their sons a Christian actively involved with the local church. The family has a very proud tradition of teaching the martial arts throughout the generations, a tradition that sadly is not open to the women of the family, as we learn when we are introduced to Karen O'Neil (played by the film's director D. Lee Inosanto), a black sheep of the family who returns to town to settle a small matter which is revealed later on in the film.
McClain is cornered in the locker room after gym class and savagely beaten by the school bully, recently suspended from the football team (a move that lost him his scholarship, and the respect of his ex-convict brother). Desperate, McClain's mother approaches Karen and asks him to teach her son some fighting moves, in the hope he might have a fighting chance at defending himself. Karen is reluctant at first, but agrees to private lessons (emphasis on private, as Karen was denied her black belt thanks to the family's proud traditions), wherein she forms a strong and lasting bond with McClain. The lessons are put to the test when a fight breaks out in the school cafeteria, instigated by the bully (out on bail and awaiting a court hearing). McClain is able to subdue the attack, only to earn the scorn of the bully's older brother, who blames McClain for his brother's now-repeated incarceration. Things go south for Karen when her family finds out she's been teaching McClain, with her older brother the most (and, it turns out, only) disapproving, and she considers leaving town. McClain is devastated by her decision, and his attempts to outrun the pain sets him in the sights of the bully's intoxicated brother and his motley crew of hicks and hillbillies. Karen manages to come to the rescue in time, and the two just barely manage to hold their own against the brutes. As a result, everyone is hospitalized, but a small misunderstanding about bleeding wounds drives a wedge between McClain and Karen, leading him to think she's just as homophobic as everyone else. Karen's family arrives (even her disapproving older brother, now mellowed a bit) and Karen reveals the reason she came back has to do with her husband's death. She tells McClain that her husband, a boxer she'd previously said died of cancer, in reality had AIDS and passed it on to her (hence her concern over getting too close to McClain after she's severely wounded in the fight).
What follows in the rest of the film is the reconciling of all these revelations and the effects they have on the community as a whole. It's preachy in places and doesn't leave all loose threads tied up, but still offers strong and powerful dramatics and lots of poignant moments to hit home the reality of the film's message.

On the whole, there's only one real point of contention with this film, but it's a rather large and noticeable one. Following McClain's release from the hospital, he and his mother are visited by Karen's grandmother at an unusual hour of the night. The grandmother explains that she's there to ask a favor of McClain's mom to help Karen. After assurance by the mother that nothing is unreasonable, the grandmother utters a single word:

Pot.

There is, as one might expect, a moment of uncomfortable silence, followed by a hurried explanation that they are, in fact, referring to "the kind of pot that gets you high and not the kind you cook in."

Obvious question: What the Hell?
Obvious follow-up questions: Why would they think McClain's mother would have any or know where to get some? When did we ever have an indication that McClain's mother had access to marijuana? Why do they think this will help Karen's condition where years of medical treatment and a healthy, pro-active lifestyle have failed?
Obvious and appropriate summation of previous questions: What the Hell?

The scene that follows (and undertows the fielding of the aforementioned question, follow-ups, and summation) is two of Karen's brothers arguing how to prepare a joint, with the grandmother (the one who asked for it in the first place and even knew the gesture to indicate it) asking how they know to do this in the first place. The camera then cuts away to McClain sitting next to Karen in bed looking through some old books (with nary a doobie in sight), technically ending the joint-rolling sequence. For that matter, it ends any further mention or discussion of the sudden appearance of cannabis.

It truly is an enigma as to why a film that has so far tackled issues of homosexuality, racial diversity, misguided religious piety, AIDS awareness, and sexism would suddenly throw in a recreational drug reference without stating any kind of viewpoint on it. My roommate offered the explanation that, being an Asian family, they would try to find something equivalent to opium to ease the pain of the illness. Admittedly, she still thought the sequence was weak at best and out of place at worst, not to mention racist. In the end, the only real explanation that works is one of comedy. Put simply, the makers of the film thought it would be funny to have pot jokes because they needed to inject some comedic elements to lighten the mood following the film's dramatic climax. One can just imagine the conversation leading to its inclusion:

1: We need something to lighten the mood of the film a bit after all those deep revelations and intense characterization.
2: But what's funny? What kind of joke could we throw in?
1: I don't know, what's a good comedy out there?
2: Um, well, there's those Harold and Kumar movies, they're pretty funny.
1: Oh, what are they about?
2: They're about two pot smokers who go on a series of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby-inspired misadventures on their way to a fast food restaurant, among them an escaped zoo animal, a nymphomaniacal Christian couple, a pesky raccoon, a racist police officer, and a sexually ravenous Neil Patrick Harris.
1: ... what was that about pot?

Maybe I'm making too big a deal out of this, and I certainly wouldn't go so far as to say that scene is the reason why this film hasn't achieved a widespread release or much critical attention, but when questions like that come up, every facet of a film's content and character must be considered. For all the good this film does, and all the positive messages it teaches, it practically shoots itself in the foot because of a moment of sheer ineptitude regarding humor.

So, what do we have? We have a solid, well-made, and inspirational drama with a singular blemish that is tragically the size of the moon and twice as heavy.
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