Film Review: Kung Fu Elliot

Whether you ultimately rule it fact or fiction, the documentary Kung Fu Elliot is one wild story.
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It’s become a common practice for advocacy documentaries—think films like Food Inc., Gasland or the upcoming The Hunting Ground—to conclude with a postscript that points viewers towards a website or other places where they can gather more information about the subject at hand. Even though it’s not a passionate argument in favor of a political or social cause, the ostensibly nonfiction feature Kung Fu Elliot would benefit from that kind of post-movie study guide as well. That’s because Jaret Belliveau and Matthew Bauckman’s lively portrait of Elliot Scott, a Canadian martial-arts enthusiast with the dream of becoming his country’s first major action-movie star, always feels a little too good to be true.

It’s not just the way that Scott’s delusions of grandeur make him resemble an extra from a Christopher Guest mockumentary; the entire production plays like a sly riff on the hit 1999 documentary American Movie, where director Chris Smith chronicled the low-budget filmmaking exploits of a modern-day Ed Wood, Mark Borchardt. An alternate title for Kung Fu Elliot could very easily be Canadian Movie—although that might give the joke (if it is a joke) away too readily.

Throughout Kung Fu Elliot’s run on the festival circuit (which included stops at Slamdance and Fantastic Fest), the directors have maintained that the film is absolutely on the level. And some cursory Googling brings up both an official Facebook page and Twitter feed for Scott—although the latter notably hasn’t been updated since 2012—as well as his production company’s website, Bad Acting Good Kung Fu Canada, which includes links to local press stories about him. (One note: Several of these links lead to now-missing content.)

But that doesn’t entirely erase lingering doubts that this whole thing might be an elaborate put-on, doubts that arise from the way the story unfolds and the behavior exhibited by both Scott and some of the supporting players in his life, including producer/girlfriend Linda Lum and buddy/co-star Blake Zwicker, who could be the Canadian cousin of American Movie sidekick Mike Schank. There’s a certain amount of playing to the camera that goes on throughout the movie, which suggests that these folks are either enjoying the novelty of being filmed or signaling that they’re in on the gag.

Putting its veracity aside for a moment, Kung Fu Elliot is a modestly entertaining movie, and one that speaks to the eternal American (and Canadian) Dream of a nobody becoming a somebody through gumption, hard work and, to a lesser extent, talent. When the directors pick up Scott’s story, he and Lum have already produced two movies and are in the midst of making their third, Bloodfight, a tip of the hat to the Jean-Claude Van Damme kickboxing classic, Bloodsport. The first half of the documentary focuses primarily on the couple’s no-budget working methods, relying on homemade effects and judicious editing to mimic big-budget thrills. Woven into this storyline is the toll that Scott’s increasingly erratic behavior takes on Lum, a conflict that moves to the center of the frame as Kung Fu Elliot approaches its climax and its star starts indulging in the excesses of semi-fame: groping other women on-camera under the guise of it being “for the film” and talking about moving overseas to be a big shot in the Chinese film industry.

The fact that Kung Fu Elliot ultimately follows the same “fall from grace” arc that’s present in so many fictional “star is born” narratives is another subtle indication that things aren’t necessarily what they appear to be. The movie ends with Scott conveniently fleeing Canada for parts unknown (possibly China) and neither he nor Lum appear to have stepped forward since to confirm or deny the movie’s account of the final years of their professional and personal relationship. To borrow a lesson learned from Stephen Colbert, instead of accepting Kung Fu Elliot as truth, you might be better off approaching it as an illustration of “truthiness.”

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