At first glance, the superb documentary Kung Fu Elliot seem akin to Chris Smith’s seminal American Movie. Both feature determined low-budget filmmakers who may be short on technical talent but long on dreams, and who have enough charisma to infect others with their visions. Both have supporting characters who seem quirky, but are never ridiculed for their odd ways. Yet as Kung Fu Elliot film goes on, it becomes clear that there is a huge difference between American Movie’s subject Mark Borchardt and Kung Fu Elliot’s Elliot Scott: sincerity. Borchardt believes in his films and sees them as works of art — that’s what drives him. As for Scott, well, the B-movies he’s making are little more than ego-driven wish fulfillment. But where does one draw the line between being disillusioned and being a dreamer pursuing a goal? Matthew Bauckman and Jaret Belliveau’s documentary eventually answers these questions, but they haunt the entirety of their film.
Kung Fu Elliot is a film with a twist, so it’s recommended that viewers enter relatively cold: all you need to know is that this is an engaging look at a charismatic and singular character who aims to be the first Canadian action hero. Along the way, a turn comes that brings up questions about the filmmakers’ intent and their knowledge of the subject matter, as well as numerous other questions that stay with viewers well past the end credits.
The documentary’s subject, Elliot Scott, makes films with his partner Linda Lum, who also supports him while he studies acupuncture and whille she waits for an engagement ring and a proposal. Lum uses a digital camera (not intended for long-form film use) to record Scott’s movies — with titles like The Stalker and The Hero and They Killed My Cat — while also producing and financing them. Scott is aware that his films aren’t the most polished, and he’s fine with that and just dreams of becoming the first action star form Nova Scotia. He claims he’s sold more than 10,000 DVDs to fans around the world. When he goes on a trip to China, he tells tourists at the Great Wall (while getting them to take pictures with him & for free no less!) that he’s the Canadian Jackie Chan.
Something, however, seems off from the get go. For a man who claims to have numerous titles as a kickboxer and karate champion, Scott’s moves appear to be rather… amateurish. Any time he’s shown using his technique, it’s an awkward affair that can initially be chalked up to working with non-stunt people and his own inexperience in filmmaking. But once he encounters other trained fighters, his abilities seem even more dubious. That’s easily pushed aside, though, by his misplaced bravado and insistence on making films with gusto and D.I.Y. fervor. Interspersed with himi shooting scenes for his latest epic, Blood Fight, are scenes of Lum and Scott at home where Lum disapproves of Scott eating chocolate chips or bemoans his lack of a job and of a promise to get married. The filmmakers — the documentary ones — also check in with members of Scott’s supporting cast like Blake, a man who uses Stella Adler’s books to fuel his portrayal of a katana-wielding mob boss.
Though Elliot resembles American Movie in its subject matter and Catfish in its handling of narrative, the work I was most reminded of was Greg Sestero’s The Disaster Artist, a book about the author’s time working on The Room with Tommy Wiseau. In it, Sestero shows how Wiseau, through a combination of ignorance, will, and charm, is able to not only create his own world, but convince everyone else accept it, as well. Similarly, Scott draws people into his life through charms and pitches; they become satellites to the realities of Scott’s own making. As the film progresses, questions arise as to who Elliot Scott really is and doubts are cast on all of his personas: martial artist, filmmaker, and devoted boyfriend. This invites viewers to wonder just how much directors Bauckman and Belliveau knew going into this film, and when they knew it. But by holding off until the last act for these doubts to be confronted, they’ve created a documentary that is charming, funny, inspiring, infuriating, and provocative. Which is only fitting given their enigmatic subject and his abilities to spin dreams into reality.