The Sensei Presents a Spiritual Journey Worth Exploring
By Raymond Horwitz
Diana Lee Inosanto and Michael O’Laskey star in The Sensei.
(Echo Bridge Entertainment)
While many martial arts films focus on moving the audience through a series of flashy fight sequences set on dark city streets, questionably lit competition halls or picturesque pagoda-peppered locales, The Sensei is not a typical martial arts movie. Written and directed by Diana Lee Inosanto—daughter of martial arts legend Dan Inosanto and goddaughter of Bruce Lee—the movie features a conservative Wyoming town as its backdrop and tells a compelling story about people, prejudice, family, faith and fear.
Set primarily in 1985, the film’s two central characters are Karen O’Neil, who is deftly portrayed by Inosanto, and McClain Evans, a gay teenager played by Power Rangers alumnus Michael O'Laskey. In a somewhat predictable plot setup, Evans is bullied by high-school jocks. What isn’t so predictable, however, is the film’s portrayal of the brutality eventually inflicted on Evans, which is communicated on-screen in Hitchcock-like fashion. The film foreshadows the impending trauma without actually showing it, allowing what’s not seen to be more horrific than what is.
Regardless of whether one can see what happens, what happens to Evans qualifies as a worst-case scenario. This prompts Evans’ mother to seek help from O’Neil, a gifted martial artist whose family runs the town’s martial arts school. She agrees to provide Evans with private lessons in an old barn, where she teaches a variety of martial arts to the socially and physically awkward teenager. There’s a montage with a wing chun-style wooden dummy as well as throwing, kicking and striking drills. Evans’ physical skills and self-esteem improve dramatically as time passes.
So far, this sounds like familiar territory: an underdog-finds-help-and-fights-back story similar to a re-imagined version of The Karate Kid with inverted gender roles.
Despite this demographic rearrangement of the cookie-cutter premise, however, The Sensei’s similarity to such now-trite formulas ends here.
The film not only exposes gay bashing in the high-school locker room but also explores the dynamics of O’Neil’s conservative Asian family and their interaction with the town’s predominantly non-Asian population. Adding more complexity to the equation is the fact that O’Neil and her several brothers come from mixed ethnic and religious heritage. “I was raised by a Filipino Christian grandmother and a Japanese Buddhist grandfather,” O’Neil says. “It was a weird combination.”
Eventually, O’Neil’s family learns that she is training Evans in secret. This development does not sit well with them, and they move into damage-control mode. Evans is a gay teenager whose former partner was killed by town bullies—and in 1985 Wyoming, having their school associated with such a perceived undesirable is considered tantamount to professional suicide.
Allegorically, this concept of suicide extends beyond the professional world and into the medical realm, given the prevailing and often erroneous attitudes of the day about the transmission of AIDS. And while this theme is not fully explored in the film, it is definitely a subtext played with subtlety thanks to Inosanto’s keen writing and directorial choices.
Adding fuel to the conflict fire is the fact that O’Neil is teaching this ostracized gay student because she had been passed over in black-belt promotions due to the school’s conservative tradition of only promoting men. Her various acts of rebellion, told in brief yet effective flashback sequences, paint a picture of long-standing strife as O’Neil seeks peace with her place in the school hierarchy and her position as the proverbial black sheep of her family.
This complex backdrop, while perhaps plodding on paper, moves along at a surprisingly brisk pace thanks to its focus on tight editing and character-driven storytelling rather than on setting up the next fight. And while the film does feature several fight scenes, they serve to move the plot forward rather than the genre-typical reverse.
Ironically, it’s the martial arts sequences that raised my eyebrow at a couple of spots—perhaps because they were supposed to depict more true-to-life fighting rhythms than staged ones, or because the staging and editing weren’t on par with the film’s very strong dramatic narrative. However, because these sequences are peppered in sparingly for specific plot-pertinent purposes, they do not detract from the overall experience.
The Sensei is really about the characters’ internal fights, and the physical fights between them externally are vehicles for depiction and plot momentum. Family relations are strained, allegiances are tested, devastating secrets are revealed, and preconceptions about people labeled as “other” (often by men and women considered “other” themselves) are challenged—and this could all be laborious drivel without the catalyst of physical conflict, which Inosanto uses as color in her storytelling palette rather than a means to an end.
For a film written and directed by a martial artist, titled with a martial arts term and featuring martial arts as a narrative thread, The Sensei isn’t so much about a teacher-student relationship as it is about the often-ambiguous art of living life and continuing to walk forward in the face of fear, anger and heartbreak. The martial arts component is the backdrop, the vehicle for telling this story of the human condition in a particular time and place.
Across multiple viewings, I was moved emotionally at the same plot points each time, which serves as a testament to the performances by the actors, the thoughtful script by Inosanto, the film’s score by composer Dean Ogden, some beautiful cinematography by Mark Rutledge and editing choices by Reine Claire. The elements coalesce like a well-structured piece of music, knowing when to splash color, crescendo and retreat.
As a minister played by Keith David (recently seen in the film Crash) says during a pair of scenes that bookend the film, “Life is the sensei.” And this snapshot of life in a small Wyoming town is richly animated by invested performances from a passionate cast, including Louis Mandylor (Martial Law; My Big Fat Greek Wedding) as boxer Mark Corey; Tzi Ma as an ultra-serene Buddhist monk; Sab Shimono as O’Neil’s grandfather Taki Nakano, head of the town’s martial arts school; and his wife Flora Takano, played with honed comic timing and emotional sensitivity by Emily Kuroda.
The Sensei is a spiritual journey that presents a surprisingly complex yet successfully intertwined array of dilemmas, questions and crises as it bravely delves into some of the darkest reaches of the modern human condition: prejudice, fear, sexism, racism and homophobia, among others. And while a bit heavy-handed in its execution, the film’s overall delivery—and the moments when its elements truly harmonize in heartbreaking fashion—make the journey well worth taking.
(The Sensei is available on DVD, iTunes and various cable services. For more information, visit the senseimovie.com. Or for more martial arts entertainment, check out our Black Belt Shop.)