Film Review: The Professor: Tai Chi’s Journey West
The Professor: Tai Chi’s Journey West
First Run Features
In 1964, a 63-year-old Chinese academic and doctor named Cheng Man-Ching moved to New York and began to teach tai chi out of a small loft. As the Sixties counterculture blossomed, his ideas and teachings took hold among a diverse set of students, even as many Chinese were bothered by the idea of tai chi being taught to Westerners. Barry Strugatz’s documentary tells the story of Cheng through footage of him in action as well as testimonials from his pupils and family.
In many ways, the film is less about the man and more about the discipline he revolutionized—a series of movements designed to take advantage of natural rhythms and forces, using gravity itself as an ally. Cheng’s work took tai chi away from the world of martial arts and focused more on meditation, and energy—though many of his students also testify to this slight-looking man’s almost superhuman strength. By changing the way tai chi was perceived and approached, he helped popularize it among groups of people who otherwise might not have heard about it at all.
Strugatz is clearly an admirer of Cheng’s, and the film has to balance the needs of telling this man’s story while also explaining the basic ideas behind tai chi and exploring its influence. It’s an admirably clear-eyed film, though it probably works best as an introduction to the discipline rather than the man. Cheng remains a bit of an enigma throughout, despite some touching interviews with his family. But as numerous interviewees explain the benefits and philosophy behind tai chi, you will probably be tempted to try it yourself. That is perhaps the film’s most impressive accomplishment: It convincingly manages to advertise tai chi without ever feeling like a commercial.