Kung Fu Elliot begins in classic martial arts form with Elliot “White Lightening” Scott conducting kata practice in the middle of a pristine grass field accompanied by a voiceover monologue about his quest to become Canada’s first action hero. That is, before the shot’s disrupted by a passing car.
It’s a subtle hint that filmmakers Jaret Belliveau and Matthew Bauckman know that their subject is a bit ridiculous and somewhat less than everything he claims to be. And yet there’s never a moment in the following 87 minutes in which Elliot is treated without at least a certain degree of compassion.
It’s not that the filmmakers are treating Elliot with kid gloves in their documentary, which follows the ostensible karate and kickboxing champion as he makes low budget “respectable cheese” action flicks, pursues a career in holistic healing, and takes an educational trip to China. It’s more like they’re giving him just enough rope to lightly choke himself with. As long as Elliot and his fellow moviemaking misfits are earnest in their efforts, Belliveau and Bauckman are willing to meet them with an equal amount of sincerity and enthusiasm.
There’s a Waiting For Guffman-esque quality to the cast and crew of Elliot’s latest feature, Bloodsport, but the documentarians never play these people for simple laughs. Songwriter Blair might not be the best lyricist in the world – his theme for Bloodsport is littered with so-bad-it’s-good gems like “lucky for you you know Kung Fu/ you can kill a man with your hands and feet” – but he’s a genuine guy who believes in hard work and honesty. Method actor and Bloodsport star Blake’s unhinged take on Hamlet, which he barrels through with a Shakespeare volume in one hand and a knife in the other is inhumane and lacking in any nuance whatsoever, but his heartbreaking story about the final moments of his late girlfriend’s life is the exact opposite. Elliot’s partner in film and life, Linda, isn’t just a long-suffering girlfriend, she’s also the film’s moral center and its sardonic voice of reason.
While Elliot appears to be an overenthusiastic geek who might be exaggerating his martial arts prowess, he works hard to make movies he cares about and hustles even harder to promote them at local stores in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the doc is along for the ride. When his actions begin to have painful consequences for the people who care about him, Kung Fu Elliot begins to take a deeper and darker look at his life.
This approach makes for far more compelling and emotionally brutal viewing than a more clinical representation of the material ever could have offered. Where a more dispassionate expose would have made Elliot a more simple object of scorn, Kung Fu Elliot takes its viewers straight into “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed” territory. And as anyone who’s ever said — or had that said to them — it hurts so much more than pure anger.
Kung Fu Elliot allows viewers to become attached enough to Elliot that his lying and cheating behavior almost feels like a personal betrayal when you watch it. It also makes you so invested in the lives of the people he’s been stringing along for much longer than the first two acts of a feature-length documentary that it’s hard to indulge in more than a passing bit of schadenfreude during his third act downfall. Yes, it’s brutally amusing to watch Elliot humiliate himself in front of a Kung Fu monk in China, among other misadventures, but the pain it’s causing Linda back home is palpable. If Linda – who is honestly far too good for any of this shit – can’t take any solace in the situation, how can we?
Unfailingly earnest and moral without ever slipping into dogma or preachiness, Kung Fu Elliot’s exploration of the lengths people will go to escape reality, and the emotional collateral damage they leave in the wake has a lot of staying power to it. Since premiering at Slamdance in 2014 – and picking up the trophy for best feature length documentary there – it’s been appeared at festivals all over the world and seen theatrical releases in both Canada and the United States, where it’s currently screening in select cities. But its cinematic stamina is nothing compared to the way that it lingers in the brain longer after the film is over.