Movie Review: ‘The Sensei’ Delivers a Wake-Up Punch Against Hate

Hollywood — Fil-Am Director Diana Lee Inosanto had a very important message that need to be expressed strongly in today’s postmodern world when we caught up with her. She was at the red-carpet opening of the 24th Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival that ran May 1-8, 2008 at the Directors Guild of America (DGA). The message has faced a lot of challenges and took two years to complete. D. Lee Inosanto, daughter of martial artist Dan Inosanto (taking the namesake of her honorary uncle, the legendary Bruce Lee) is herself a martial arts practitioner together with her husband.

The message was her directorial debut film ‘The Sensei’ which premiered at the Film fest and what Education Director (Matthew Shepard Foundation) Thomas Howard Jr. has labeled “A film that will change hearts and minds and save lives.” D.Lee Inosanto confides that she was compelled to make the film years ago after the senseless murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming in 1998. Matthew was tied to a split-rail fence where he was beaten and left to die in the cold of the night. Almost 18 hours later, he was found by a cyclist who initially mistook him for a scarecrow. D.Lee’s message about hate-crime, tolerance and diversity found further relevance today with the recent murder of 15 year-old Lawrence King who was shot in Oxnard, California because he was gay.

The movie is totally different than Bruce Lee’s movies which I grew up with where evil is always defeated. It jabs harder than ‘Karate Kid’ as the plot weaves its way from a lonely gay teen named McClain being bullied and delivers kick and punches to the social and sociological structures that struggle to stereotype human conduct and are relentless in punishing those that stray from the pre-conceived mold of society.

Set in a small conservative town in Colorado during the HIV-Aids panic of the late 1980’s, young McClain Evans (Michael O’Laskey) is a gay teen who was constantly harassed and bullied. Karen Nakano-O’Neil (played by D.Lee Inosanto) was denied the highly respected ‘Black Belt’ from the family’s successful martial arts business because she was a woman. After 5 years of absence, she returns home after the death of her fiancé, boxer Mark Corey (Louis Mandylor) to make amends with her Asian-American family, who were also very involved in the local church. When three teens badly beat up McClain sending him near death to the hospital, McClain’s mom secretly asked Karen to train McClain at night so he can defend himself.

‘The Sensei’ movie is not as comfortable to watch as other martial arts film. And it never pretends to be. The movie examines the intricate and complicated preconceptions that result in prejudices that allow hatred towards others. The plot hinges on Karen’s uncle, a Sensei in martial arts – a teacher who refuses to bestow the deserved Black Belt to Karen because she is a woman.

However, the discipline of being a sensei requires traits not only of skills in martial arts but of fairness, leadership, honor, and the ability to do the best for others. One of the pivotal moments was when Karen with her Christian background in the depths of hate’s darkness went to see a Buddhist priest who reminded her that all of us are teachers and students, always teaching as well as learning. All of us can be sensei.

D.Lee Inosanto who directed, co-produced (together with producers Tarik Heitmann & Ron Balicki), and starred in ‘The Sensei’ brilliantly brings a very difficult message on the wide screen thru the venue of martial arts. Having been endorsed by civil rights groups like the Matthew Shepard Foundation and the current Hate Crimes Bill Act – lead by Senators Ted Kennedy and Gordon Smith, and having been contacted by Human Rights Campaign, Simon Wiesenthal Center: Museum of Tolerance, and Rainbow Alley, indeed ‘The Sensei’ has awakened Hollywood and the world to ‘The Right to Protect Yourself from Hatred.’

Cinematographer Mark Ruthledge has brought the flashback to 1980’s and the high paced fight scenes its proper setting, while keeping the intensity of the complex human interaction as close shot as possible – lending a personal empathy to the characters; I could hear a number of muffled tears from the audience during premiere night. Brilliantly told, the story of ‘The Sensei’ touched more hearts towards the end when the most common hatred of all was uncovered – self hatred - which usually lead to other forms of hatred to others.

I am proud of D.Lee Inosanto’s work of heart: ‘The Sensei’ and do highly recommend viewers to watch the film. For all of its 103 minutes running time, and its fast paced scene development and dramatic flashbacks, it will surely touch and change not only your mind but most importantly your heart.

Watch ‘The Sensei’ at the following venues:

May 31, 2008, 4:00 p.m.
Hobokan Multi-Service Center
New Jersey

June 7. 2008, 4:45 p.m.
The New York LGBT Film Festival
AMC Loews 34 St. Theatre
New York, New York

June 7, 2008 4:45 p.m.
AMC 13
312 West 34th St.
New York, New York

June 28, 2008
San Francisco International Film Festival
117 16th Street
San Francisco, CA. 94118

Jay Fermin