For my weekly documentary critique I generally search online or at the library for a specific documentary that I want to watch, unless there’s an interesting live screening somewhere on campus. This week, though, I have to admit I just clicked on the first documentary that appeared on Hulu. “Needle Through Brick” is a documentary about traditional kung fu and the obstacles it faces in changing societal circumstances. It was first a battle and now a cooperation, between tradition and modernity, to save a classical cultural art form. Specifically it focuses on ethnically Chinese kung fu masters living in Malaysia.
This film works but is not spectacular. On the positive side, it does have beautiful cinematography in terms of the b-roll footage of the various masters showing their particular styles of kung fu. The usage of computer programs and animation to show drawings and archival stills was also very nice because it allowed the filmmaker to give a brief but informative history at the beginning of documentary on how kung fu and individuals like these masters arrived in Malaysia from China. The director also chose to use titles instead of narration to bridge different parts, which actually worked out really well because it allowed a few peaceful seconds for viewers to reflect on what they had just seen and heard. Archival footage is used adequately and efficiently throughout the rest of the film and helps not only provide a link to the past but also shows the urgency of the issue at hand. Dozens of traditional kung fu styles are dying off each year and these aging masters don’t have much time left to pass on their knowledge. My favorite parts of this documentary are the brilliant interviews with the old kung fu masters, many of whom curiously, or should I say, suspiciously, sport those stereotypical long goatees of the by-gone days of rural village elders. The filmmaker was able to capture incredibly genuine, uninhibited scenes and conversations with these men.
On their own, each of the interviews were inspiring and informative. Together, however, the content of these interviews became incredibly repetitive. Each of the masters seemed to be saying the same thing. Yes, they are all addressing the same issue, but there could have been other probing questions that would have elicited different answers. Yet despite this repetitiveness, there was no real linking of the individuals’ stories and thus the documentary did not have a cohesive story arc. The key issue was that the story wasn’t always fluid. For example, near the end of the film there is beautifully shot verite footage of when a storm came and damaged parts of the martial arts association’s building. The music paired with the footage created this amazingly suspenseful yet not ominous feel to it. Yet despite this great technical work and editing, the shot didn’t really fit into the story much. It was trying to hard to stretch and make a metaphor out of cleaning up after the storm and continuing the tradition of kung fu.
Beyond the story, there were several technical aspects of the film that could have been improved. The focus is often soft, the lighting is poor at times, and exposure is sometimes not controlled for. There were also various things that would have worked if properly executed in a cinema verite film but didn’t because it was obvious many of the shots in this documentary were not verite. There are random zooms in and out throughout the film and some interviews are shaky because they were not filmed on a tripod even when they could have been. There were also noticeable editing issues. Some subjects were interviewed at different locations, yet sometimes clips from the different interviews would be played right next each other and create a jarring shot. All of a sudden the subject was facing a different way, sitting in a different position at a different location and was wearing different clothes. The editor also tried to hide jump cuts by moving the camera to the person sitting next to the interviewee, but all that did was make the shot strange and not fluid.
“Needles Through Brick” had the potential to be better if only it had a better storyline and better editing.