Judge David Johnson's Sensei awarded him a chartreuse belt last week. It was awesome.
The courage to fight the strength to win.
Facts of the Case
In a small Colorado town—"conservative," of course, as the back-of-the-case synopsis notes—a gay teenager named McClain is facing a non-stop barrage of verbal and physical assaults from some school bullies. In fact, it seems like everyone hates him, so he turns towards his sensei Karen (Diana Lee Inosanto) to teach him the moves to protect himself from any further beatings.
But Karen has her own issues. She's denied a black belt from her karate school because she's a woman and the dojo's tradition is strict about not giving the honor to females. And then the other bomb drops on her and it's a shocking diagnosis of a certain immunological disease.
I'll hand this much to the filmmakers, they don't shrink away from tackling the issues. The Sensei lays the social justice stuff on thick, piling high on its plate themes dealing with self-loathing, gay bashing, misogyny, bullying, and anything else you could think of that would show up in a Very Special Episode of your preferred sitcom. Seriously, this film is like every Afterschool Special ever made, thrust into a blender, pureed into a fine paste, and headlined by actors who can't deliver a line.
And that's what ultimately deep-sixes this enterprise. Writer/director/producer/star Diana Lee Inosanto has obviously pumped a megaton of heart into her project, but the there just too many weakness in the script, acting and pacing for The Sensei to succeed.
Take these lines, for example:
"The Nakano black belt ceremony of 1980 was a tradition that existed for many generations."
"What's wrong with teaching people how to defend themselves?"
"What would happen if you sat with death and offered it a cup of tea."
"Life is a series of lessons where we are student and teacher for one another."
As awful as those look on paper, envision them being delivered with by an actor with the charisma of aluminum. These moments are so astoundingly tin-eared, you'll likely be ripped from the narrative. Which wouldn't be terribly hard to do, since the plot progression is confusing, with jarring changes in character and thematic focus waylaying the momentum. Also, there aren't really any martial arts to be seen. McClain does dole out a satisfying lunchroom smackdown, but that's it. The girl with the sword on the disc cover, looking like an extra from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? Yeah, I don't recall any swords in this movie.
The DVD has some trouble, too. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen looks far too scrunched, as if the aspect ratio is out of whack. Worse, the picture quality is shoddy, impenetrable during the dark scenes and soft on the details. A making-of featurette is the only extra.
Guilty. This Sensei needs to take some time and find her inner ki.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Echo Bridge Home Entertainment
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