Dragon Girls begins with an encompassing wave of red that vaguely reminds me of fire. Only when it approaches the screen do I realize that it is in fact a moving body of martial arts students running in unison, and every one of them looks like a lick of the flame.
Inigo Westmeier’s documentary chronicles the stories of three young girls training at Shaolin Tagou, the largest martial arts school in China. They are the Dragon Girls. They sacrifice the luxuries most children are able to enjoy, such as leisure activities and family time, for endless hours of Kung Fu training in thirst of success, honour, and “the ability to fly.”
Westmeier presents juxtaposition between dialogue from the school’s headmaster and from a Buddhist monk, which leads the audience to question the authenticity of Kung Fu at Shaolin Tagou.
The monk defines Kung Fu as an energy source that sustains daily life; it provides its practitioners with strength and inner peace. But we do not see these being attained at Shaolin Tagou. Instead, we see militant discipline, and stripped childhoods, and the stifled tears of Dragon Girls.
We see the 9-year-old Xin Chenxi drop her head down in shame as her father expresses his disappointment at her 4th place finish in a national competition.
We see the 15-year-old Chen Xi describe the boy she has a crush on simply as “the most familiar stranger” at her school.
We see the 17-year-old Huang stroll alone on the terrace of the school and admit her contemplations of suicide.
And we see the Dragon Girls compare their scars. They examine their stitches in awe and giggle at memories of the swords that have pierced them. They try to upstage each other with the scars that their parents were not able to kiss better.
The heart of the film does not lie in the hardship that the Dragon Girls endure, but instead in the optimism that pervades the young warriors despite it all. Dragon Girls is a story about perseverance, hope, and smiles that shine bright.