It’s a common narrative in kung fu movies: the hero (a humble, simple person) gets picked on or is placed in danger, but after studying kung fu, they come out stronger, faster, and wiser than before and easily take on any enemy. It’s a narrative that’s resonated around the world and made a popular genre of Asian cinema well known beyond East Asia.
Kung Fu Grandma, a new short documentary by London-based director Jeong-One Park, borrows lightly from this narrative. But instead of ancient China or the gritty streets of Hong Kong, the kung fu is taking place in Korogocho, a low-income area outside Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. The story is incredible. A series of rapes — fueled by a rumor that intercourse with an elderly woman can cure AIDS — has led a group of grandmothers to band together and study self defense.
Her curiosity piqued by an article in NBC News, which includes the startling fact that 20% rape victims in Kenya is over the age of 60, Park set out to explore the story in greater depth. In an interview with Hyperallergic, she noted:
First of all, I was very keen on finding out more about the rumor — how could this happen? I wanted to examine if it’s true or not. And secondly, the grannies in the pictures looked very different. They looked brave, powerful, and confident. They didn’t have hopeless eyes that you can normally see in newspapers, TV or adverts featuring African women. I wanted to meet them and listen to their stories.
The film was the result of her investigation. In the film, we see the women strike punching pads with open palms and practicing kicks to the knees and groin. And in a common self-defense tactic, they also practice saying “No” and “I don’t want to talk to you,” working as much on verbal as physical defense. Park takes us on a journey through the social issues facing the area, where poverty, health care, and women’s self empowerment intersect. The kung fu brings some levity to a difficult story without diminishing the challenges of the situation.
And while I wanted to learn more about the origins of their study of kung fu and a deeper look into the systemic challenges that may have fueled the terrible rumor, the film does a lovely job of shedding light into the meaning of community empowerment through self-defense and dance, not to mention the many ways we find joy in difficult circumstances.