Saturday, July 30, 2016

"The Professor: Tai Chi's Journey West"

The eye of the hurricane, the sublime master of every art form he practiced, the betrayer of Chinese secrets, Cheng Man-Ching, aka The Professor, brought Tai Chi to America (royally pissing off the Chinese businessmen who'd brought him over to teach them, rather than the American hippies who flocked in). He was so slippery that even his best students failed to find a handhold - literal or metaphorical. In martial arts practice, they reported they could only brush the soft, light cloth of his tunic, never his person. Ching seemed to be nowhere.

Watching the 75 minute film, "The Professor: Tai Chi's Journey West", I strained to remember that the affable, listless, unexceptional man at its center is extraordinary. Without discernible effort, he throws much larger men far up into the air. Watch his opponents, and you see sharp, dynamic action. Watch The Professor, and there's only silence. The mind strains to link cause and effect, but cannot accept that the impassive Professor and the flying bodies have any relationship with one another.

The Professor was also a master painter, producing work that was lushly moving. There, too, he worked with utter casualness. That dude simply does not seem capable of producing these paintings. One student recounts having a casual conversation with him while The Professor appeared to be cleaning his brushes, realizing minutes later, with a start, that he'd been creating a masterpiece the entire time. Totally casual. Like it was nothing.

Same with his calligraphy: there's an utter disjoint between the Professor and the rich miracles flowing from his pen. Once again, his output has obvious presence, yet, regarding The Professor himself, it appears no one's home. You might lightly brush his sleeve, but never find a handhold.

His students, even his family, spend 75 minutes failing to say an insightful word about the man, making this something of a shaggy dog story. One sympathizes with the filmmaker (Barry Strugatz, writer of "Married to the Mob" and original tipster to DiFara Pizza). How does one make a movie about a cipher - an utterly empty vessel? What's to talk about when no one's there behind the empty tunic?

Strugatz nailed it. He pointed his camera at The Professor's output; the ripples, the fruits of his labors. Most of all, we watch and watch his students - mostly senior citizens now, and comically unable to pin him down in words any more successfully than they could with their hands. As the camera lingers on their faces, it becomes apparent that they, themselves embody The Professor, as much as do his gorgeous paintings, sumptuous calligraphy, and piles of bodies thrown high into the air.

Each student is palpably changed. You see him reflected in them; in their faces and spirits. Each is, superficially, a "type" you've seen before, but none turned out quite per original destiny. There's a marked skewing - a twist - no more accountable in concrete terms than any other aspect of The Professor's juju.

It's subtle. The film could never have been made by someone who wasn't himself a lifelong tai chi practitioner. It'd have failed due to the sheer non-materiality of its subject. The student interviews - laughably failing to capture the world's most un-capturable man - would have piled up in a film cabinet, unusable. In fact, I saw early pieces of this film (decades in the making), and worried the project was terminally stalled.

But, in its final form, the film weaves around The Professor, in his insubstantiality, intuiting its way into gaps like a tai chi game of "push-hands". As his students come into focus, you notice (via everything but the words from their mouths) that they remain in dynamic motion, and you can sense (though never glimpse) the hand which propelled them. They've been thrown up into the air, with no idea of what the hell happened to them. They can't read the writing on their walls, but we can.

Here's the DVD , and here is an iTunes link . And here's a short trailer:

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