Guest Review: The Art of Self Defense – bears a striking resemblance to a real life martial arts cult

GUEST REVIEW by Russell Johnson

Writer/Director: Riley Stearns
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots, David Zellner 

Synopsis: A man is attacked at random on the street. He enlists at a local dojo, led by a charismatic and mysterious sensei, in an effort to learn how to defend himself.

I met Jesse Eisenberg when I was an extra on the film End of the Tour when it was filming in Minnesota along with Jason Segel and Joan Cusack. As an extra I was instructed not to approach him, or talk to him and especially don’t ask for a picture. I stood next to him. He smiled at me, shook his head and acknowledging me, said hello. That was the extent of us meeting. There are well founded reasons for this set etiquette and overzealous celebrity worshipping fans is just one of them. That is not me. Of course, most of the footage of me was cut. What neither Jesse nor I knew then, standing next to each other, is that he would portray a character with striking resemblance to my life in the film The Art of Self Defense.

As a child and a teenager, I was severely bullied. When I was 16 years old I joined a martial arts school that was a front for one of the most notorious martial arts cults, The School of Chung Moo Quan. I have been outspoken about my experience there since the early 1990s and so this gives me a unique perspective to review this film. The use of answering machines and other electronics placed the film in the 1990s period. This was a time when the martial arts and a black belt still had a mystical aura around them, but that was coming to an end.

Eisenberg + Nivola in The Art Of Self Defense

In the beginning of the film, Jesse Eisenberg’s character Casey Davis is targeted and physically assaulted by a group of motorcyclists and hospitalized. Casey is timid, lonely, and socially awkward. His only companion is his beloved pet dachshund. According to mind control experts, cults seek out those that are vulnerable, that are lonely and lacking direction.

 As Casey enters the school for the first time, unknown to him there was a hidden agenda. Upon meeting the school’s charismatic and mysterious instructor only known as Sensei, played by Alessandro Nivola. He offers Casey a chance to come back for the “Free Lesson”. This is common in most martial schools and in my case when I did them, they were an orchestrated part of the indoctrination process. Casey would be led into a journey of darkness that he would never had agreed to if he knew Sensei’s agenda to begin with.

Upon stepping onto the practice mat, Casey is still wearing his shoes. Anna, the female brown belt instructor played by Imogen Poots, is teaching the children’s class. She chastises him that if Sensei sees him on the mat, he would be beaten. On the wall of the school is a list of 10 rules and the 11th rule: “Guns are for the weak.” “No shoes on the mat” is rule number 1. In Chung Moo Quan, stepping into the practice area with shoes on normally would result in the student having to do pushups. At other times they would be beaten. 

Imogen Poots + Steve Terada in The Art Of Self Defense

When I tell people that I had been in a martial arts cult, they are surprised that such a thing exists. But when you really think about it, it’s really not all that surprising. Martial arts have a leader, a master that is overtly praised, and rank and file observe a hierarchy created by the belts system. The myths and legends and mystical thinking of the martial arts, combined with the American ignorance of Asia, creates the perfect recipe for martial arts cults, some referred to as McDojo’s. It does not require any certification to open a martial arts school. Someone can get out of prison and open a school. I think that one of the only reasons you don’t see more of these cults is due to the efforts of legitimate schools to expose them.

During a promotional belt ceremony, the highest student in the class, Anna, was expecting to be promoted to black belt. As Sensei held the black belt in his hand, he announced that Thomas (Steve Terada) a lower belt than Anna standing on her left, was being promoted to black belt, now becoming her higher belt.  After he received his black belt he went back to the line and Anna was now in his spot and he ordered her to move to his left. She was now the second highest belt. In private, Sensei tells Casey,  “She will never become a black belt. I realize now that her being a woman will prevent her from ever being a man.”

You get the impression that Sensei at one time was in many ways just like Casey, which may have created a bond between the two men. Some might even call the beginning of a bromance. Now Sensei has become a symbol of masculine toxicity. Modeling of the leader is common in cults and Sensei tells Casey that his name is feminine. This might also give a clue to why he is just known as “Sensei”. Casey is told to stop learning French because the French are considered weak when it comes to war and he should learn language of a “tough country” like Germany. Casey has a German dog, a Dachshund, which Sensei says he should replace with a more intimidating German shepherd. Heavy metal is the best music, says Sensei, because it is “the most aggressive.” These things may seem comical, but imagine this in Chung Moo Quan. The leader was Master John C. Kim. He came from Korea, had a perm, and spoke with a broken accent. His instructors believed that he was the greatest martial arts master that ever lived. They emulated him, if he had a perm, they had a perm, if he spoke broken English, American-born men spoke broken English. 

Nivola as Sensei in The Art of Self Defense

In Chung Moo Quan misogyny the hatred, contempt for, or prejudice against women is something that I experienced firsthand. In fact, on the first day of every month I was not allowed to sign a women up for lessons unless an adult male or even a boy was signed up first. It was believed that if a woman was signed up first, that bad luck would befall the school. Anna was attacked in the locker room by the male students. In Chung Moo Quan, a female instructor wrote that she was raped and became pregnant by an instructor. He ordered her to get an abortion and he would later die of aids.

Sensei goes inside of a secretive room to get Casey a uniform, a room where no students are allowed. During a class, Sensei tells the story of his grandmaster, who killed a man with secret technique for killing by punching through his opponent’s head with his index finger, stating “He was the great man who ever lived”.

This reminded me of a story a former student told me of how he went into such a room that was used for secret training and was caught by the instructor, beaten and after quitting the school, was followed for several months. Another story I was told was how our Martial Arts Master John C. Kim would injure and kill a person without even touching them and went as far as claiming responsibility for Bruce Lee’s death killing him by “Injury without touch”. If you are in a martial arts school and they have secret rooms or claim to offer secret martial arts techniques only known to them, this should be a red flag. 

One of the students, Henry, played by David Zellner, wanted desperately to be part of Sensei night class, but in order to do so he had to be invited, by Sensei giving him a black stripe on his belt. There are some people rejected from cults for one reason or another. In Chung Moo Quan they called them “missing”. Henry shows up to the night class uninvited without the stripe on his belt. Sensei calls him to the mat for a demonstration, tells him to stretch his arm out and instead of demonstrating a move he breaks his elbow and kicks him out of the school. 

The assault of students happened in my school and is well documented in lawsuits and government records. Even death had occurred inside Chung Moo Quan. As an assistant instructor, I was taught to “get in on students”, to make them feel pain. This was an important part of the indoctrination process, because it set the instructor up as the dominant and the student as the submissive. 

Fear was an important tool in establishing control. Henry commits suicide by hanging himself within the school. A female student that I signed up and I remember thinking that she had psychological issues. At one point she told me that she thought instructors were reading her mind.  What she though was mind reading was observation followed by manipulation. Years after I left I heard the story that she tried to burn the school down and then hung herself. Seeing Henry hanging inside the school, I was overcome by emotion and had to look away. This is what happens when a cult takes over an already fragile mind and manipulates it.

 Casey walked into a local martial arts school like thousands of other people do.  He wanted to learn to defend himself.  There was no reason that suspect that it was a front for a cult.  Casey was taken down a twisted path of violence and control.   The groups will overtook his personal judgment silencing the voice in his mind telling him something was wrong. In the end, he becomes as bad as the gang that attacked him.   No matter if it’s a religious or a martial arts cult most people would never have joined if they knew agenda to manipulate them from the beginning.

Riley Stearns has created a film that is based in reality.  A scenario that has played out in dojos across the world. This is a dark comedy and when the viewer goes to see it with the knowledge that this happens, the film takes on an added level of reality. Stearns sets his story in what feels like the early-to-mid ’90s but never mentions the timeframe, only hints at it with some prominently placed VHS tapes. If offbeat is the goal, Stearns earns his black belt.


Russell Johnson is the writer and producer of Deceived Podcast.


Have you seen The Arts of Self Defense? Let us know what you think!

FlixChatter Review – Need For Speed

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NeedForSpeedReview

I’m not a gamer, in fact I haven’t played a video game in 2 years. But I have to admit I was a fan of the Need For Speed games back in my college years. So I was bit intrigued when Hollywood announced back in early 2000s that they were going to make a movie version. If I remember correctly, New Line Cinema was going to produce the movie and attached John Woo as the director and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was going to play the lead role. They even made a teaser poser with the release date of summer 2005. Of course that version never got made and the project was stuck in development hell for years. Well now after almost a decade from its original release date, the movie is ready to be seen by millions.

The movie opens in a not-so-speedy pace, we were introduced to a few characters including the hero Tobey Marshall (Breaking Bad‘s Aaron Paul). He and his pals runs a car shop and also participate in an illegal street racing to earn some extra cash. One night after work, they were at another street race, they ran into Marshall’s ex girlfriend Anita (Dakota Johnson) and her boyfriend Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper). Apparently Marshall and Brewster had a history and they don’t like each other much. Then we were treated to one of the most boring car racing scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie. Marshall of course won the race and the next day Brewster came to his shop and offer him a project he couldn’t refuse. Apparently Marshall owes the bank a lot of money for the car shop and he needs the money badly. Brewster offered Marshall and his team a job of building the fastest car ever made and if the car is sold, he’ll give 25% of the sale to Marshall. With the magic of movie making, they finished the job in just 2 seconds. The new Ford Mustang they built is supposedly can go as fast as 230mph and this drew an interest from a potential buyer Julia Maddon (Imogen Poots). Maddon turns out to be a rep for some very rich person who’s willing to buy the car for $3 mil but she needs to see that the car can go as fast as Marshall promised.

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Well the next day they took the car out for a drive and proved that it can go pretty darn fast. Maddon and her buyer were quite impressed and said they’ll pay $2.7mil for the car. After they closed the deal, Marshall, his good friend Little Pete (Harrison Gilbertson) and Brewster decided to make a friendly wager and went for another street racing. If Brewster wins the race, Marshall will have to give up his 25% percent but if he loses than Marshall will keep the $2.7mil. Fortunately this race scene was much better than the first one and of course tragedy strike and Little Pete was killed during the race. For some strange reason Marshall was blamed for his death and spent two years behind bars. Fast forward two years later, Marshall is out of prison on parole and wants revenge. He wants to enter into a super secret street racing which is being organize by the Monarch (Michael Keaton). The grand prize for this race can be as big as $9 mil. He contacted Maddon and ask her to convince her boss to sponsor him in the race. He also contacted his old crew who were more than willing to help him get to the race. Maddon’s boss agreed to sponsor Marshall but insist that Maddon must tag along with him. The rest of the movie was basically about Marshall and his team trying to reach the big race and win the prize.

I wanted to like this movie and for about 20 minutes, I thought it could be a fun mindless action thriller. But then as the movie progresses, it became more and more annoying. I didn’t care about the plot or any of the characters. The script by George Gatins was full of cliche one dimensional characters and I thought for sure it’s written by a 15 year old. Since I’m a fan of Breaking Bad, every time Aaron Paul is on the screen, I just think of him as Jesse and you know what, he’s basically playing the same character here. Lots of whining, yelling and crying, just like Jesse. Not any better is Dominic Cooper‘s one-note villainy performance, I guess he achieved what the role required, just being a big douche bag. The rest of the characters in the movie were a bunch of fillers and Marshall’s pals are supposed to be comic relief, but all of them were annoying to watch.

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Usually when there’s a bad script, the director can somehow turn it into something watchable. Unfortunately director Scott Waugh (Act of Valor) is not talented enough for the task. I don’t blame him, his background is in stunt coordination and he should’ve stick to doing that. He has no clue how to put together coherent scenes to create dramatic effect. The scene where Little Pete was killed and Jesse er I mean Marshall started bawling, I wanted to burst out laughing because it has this dramatic music cue that just didn’t fit the scene at all. Since his background is in stunt, he did a pretty good job of staging the climatic chase but by then I didn’t care about the movie and just wish it’s over already. For a pretty decent budget, the movie looked like it’s a made for a TV movie. The cinematography was flat and uninspiring, the movie was shot digitally and it looked like it was shot by someone who bought a camcorder at a electronic store.

It’s still early but this movie will definitely make my worst-of-the-year list. The movie has no redeeming quality whatsoever – it’s full of one clichéd scene after another and I didn’t care for any of the characters. I’m the type that loves dumb action movies but this one was just way too dumb for me to enjoy it. Also, at over 2 hours long, it’s way too long for audiences to sit through this mess. At least 40 minutes of the content could’ve been cut out.

If you’re planning to see it in theater, I recommend you wait till it airs on TV so you won’t have to waste your hard-earned money on this trash.

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What do you think of Need For Speed? Did you like it more or less than I did?

TCFF Roundup – Part 1 – A Late Quartet, Things I Don’t Understand & Problem Solving the Republic Reviews

Whew, this week has been quite a whirlwind! I saw a total of 13 films and attended four educational panels in the last nine days. Most of the films have been good to excellent, so even with a couple I didn’t really enjoy, it’s still a nearly a perfect record.

TCFF certainly has a super packed schedule all the way down to the homestretch. The nine-day film fest has come to a close last night with LUMPY, the Minnesota-shot dramedy by MN-born writer/director Ted Koland, starring Justin Long and Addison Timlin who were present at the panel earlier in the day. I didn’t get a chance for a one-on-one interview with Long, though I did meet briefly with Ted Koland and congratulated him on his film.

Justin Long & Ted Koland at the LUMPY panel – photo by James Ramsay

Below is a recap and review from Friday,

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Saw two very good films today, they couldn’t be any more different from each other yet both have intriguing stories about people dealing and coping with a dark chapter in their lives.

Things I Don’t Understand

Written/directed by David Spaltro and starring Minnesota-born Molly Ryman. I was very impressed with the character-driven story and also Molly’s excellent performance. June and I had the pleasure of interviewing David to talk about his film and also listened to Molly talk about her character Violet during the ‘Strong Women in Independent Films’ panel.

Thanks to David for sitting down with June and I at the ShowPlace ICON lounge to give us some insights about his film. Check out the full interview.

Meeting both David and Molly are easily one of the highlights of covering the film fest for me. David told me TCFF is the 16th point of their film tour all over the country, going to one film festival to the next. In fact, right after the panel, David was off to the airport to the the Tallgrass Film Festival in Wichita Kansas. They’re both so talented with so much going for them in their careers, yet they’re so down to earth and so fun to talk to.

Congrats to both David and Molly on the success of Things I Don’t Understand. Here’s my review of the film:

This film centers on grad student Violet who’s studying near-death experiences which led her to actually attempt suicide. After her failed suicide attempt, Violet becomes withdrawn and somewhat morose, plus she also has to deal with being evicted from the Brooklyn loft she shares with her two roommates. At the advise of her therapist, Violet reluctantly visits a terminally ill girl in a hospice and their unlikely friendship becomes her catharsis to start appreciating life again.

I sympathize with Violet right away though she’s not exactly likable at first. She’s sardonic and lacks self control, but you know deep down she’s a good girl. Spaltro frames her story well and surrounds her with interesting characters. Her two room mates, artist Gabby (Melissa Hampton) and a gay French rocker Remy (Hugo Dillon) also have personal issues of their own, but you could say they’re the comic relief of the movie. And then there’s the cute but mysterious bartender Parker (Aaron Mathias) who befriends Violet but refuses her advances.

It’s intriguing to watch Violet’s journey throughout the film, how her relationships with Parker and Sara (Grace Folsom) who’s dying from bone cancer changes her as the film progresses. Despite the dark theme though, director David Spaltro peppers the film with fun and lighthearted moments, so it’s definitely not a complete downer.

Like many of us who seek to figure out the basic questions of the meaning of life and what happens when we die, it’s certainly a thought provoking film that David has explored with care. One thing though, I feel like the themes of faith and spirituality aren’t explored as deep as I’d like, it merely scratches the surface and lacking conviction. That said, I appreciate that it’s at least being talked about and I’m also thrilled that David has crafted a compelling and multi-layered female character in Violet, something we need to see more in Hollywood.

I’m not surprised that this film has been winning all kinds of awards in various film festivals. It’s a bummer that somehow the movie appears very dark in the theater screens, as the cinematography in NYC looks beautiful. The day after the film screening, David told me that it wasn’t supposed to be so dark, and he gave me access to re-watch the film again.

Kudos to David once again and to Molly and Grace for their affecting performances. The scenes between Violet and Sara are very moving without resorting to overt sentimentality. I look forward to David’s upcoming film Wake Up in New York, hopefully it’ll be shown at TCFF again!

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A Late Quartet

When people think of Christopher Walken and Philip Seymour Hoffman‘s films this year, they’re likely going to think of Seven Psychopath and The Master, but I’m glad I’m able to see both of them together in this smaller independent drama. The story centers on members of the world-renowned string quartet Fugue, comprised of Peter (Walken), Robert (Hoffman), Juliette (Catherine Keener) and Daniel (Mark Ivanir). Soon we learn that the oldest member of the group, Peter, is diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which inevitably shakes the group in ways none of them could imagine.

In the wake of Peter’s medical revelation, the rest of the members deals with their own turmoil. Robert and Juliette faces a marital stride due to infidelity, on top of Robert’s pent-up rivalry with Daniel, as he’s no longer content with being the second violinist. To make matters worse, Daniel suddenly discovers his once-repressed passion involving a romance that certainly brings even more complication to the already-fragile group. One thing for sure though, the group wants to stay together as Fugue has been an integral part of their lives for more than 20 years.

This is director Yaron Zilberman‘s first feature film and what a great venue to display the fantastic acting prowess of the talents involved. Nice to see Walken in an understated role, he’s the most ‘normal’ guy in the group (imagine that), but he plays his part brilliantly. Hoffman’s role is much more explosive as Robert deals with unbridled ego and lust that threatens to break his marriage. Keener is always wonderful to watch, she definitely has the elegance and grace to play Juliette though her character is the most enigmatic of the four to me. Last but not least, the Ukranian actor Ivanir also plays his part of the über perfectionist violinist who’s been so obsessed with his music that he hasn’t had time for love. Imogen Poots has quite a memorable part as Hoffman & Keener’s daughter, she definitely holds her own against her much older, more experienced co-stars. Her scene with Keener in particular is quite gut-wrenching.

Though both contains beautiful classical music and also has a similar name, A Late Quartet is quite different in tone from Dustin Hoffman’s Quartet. This one feels like it’s got more depth in terms of character development and deals with such raw emotional situations that stays with you long after the credits. It shows that beneath such flawlessly-played music, there are real and flawed people behind them, struggling through change and relationships like the rest of us. It’s a compelling picture of humanity, and it’s such a treat for the senses not only for the musical arrangements, but also the lovely cinematography. I adore the gorgeous scenery of New York City in the Winter time, everything just looks so romantic! I highly recommend this for any fan of the actors involved, I sure hope this won’t get lost in the shuffle when it opens in limited release sometime in November.

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Problem Solving the Republic

Unfortunately I couldn’t see this one as it’s showing at the same time as A Late Quartet, but I’ll definitely try to see it when it’s available on VOD. It’s a Minnesota production and shot on location in Minneapolis, even just looking at the bizarre genre-bending tagline made me curious enough to see it. You can check out the TCFF interview with writer/director Elliot Diviney on TCFF Youtube Channel.

Below is the review by Emery Thoresen:

Problem Solving the Republic is a Minnesota-made political satire, that uses musical numbers and slap stick humor to tell its story. The humor turned out to be more entertaining commentary than knee slapping jokes. The movie had a charm akin to the campy-horror-movie genre, in that it isn’t for everyone, or, it doesn’t try to appeal to everyone, but viewers who do subscribe to the genre will have a good time watching this. It reminded me of Super, both movies incorporated  superheroes and animated inserts – like a comic book. They both share a similar sense of humor, but Problem Solving the Republic isn’t nearly as violent, super natural, or sad as the Rainn Wilson feature.

I started to get restless in the last couple minutes, it could have been because I had been seeing so many films all day, but it was more likely due to how long it took to wrap the story up. Overall it was a charming movie, the bloopers before the credits were memorable, along with the snap shots of the cast that rolled with the credits. I really enjoyed the characters and actors they chose.

During the discussion afterwards, the director and producer talked about the difficulties they encountered in creating a local film with a small budget, in less than a year. Through their brief explanation they kept pointing to people and mentioning names of contributors, it turned out that a surprising number of people in the audience have had a hand in making this film – which made the laughter and reactions much more genuine.

The TCFF was the premiere, it will be showing at The Riverview Theater in November, but in the mean time pre-ordering a copy online is always an option. Remember, it is always good to support local talent, and this could be a warm-up to election day.

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Check out the trailer below:


Stay tuned for Part II with reviews of Saturday films
and also my Top Five Favorites from the film fest!


Thoughts on any of the films above? Well, I’d love to hear it!