Sunday, May 4, 2008

Review: Fight or Flight

  • Directed by and starring Peter J McCarthy
  • Co-directed and cinematography by Shane Sutton
  • Released in 2007, reviewed on complimentary screener DVD
  • Rating: 4/5

Sometime ago, I came across a video of what was purported to be the "oldest Thai boxing footage ever", in which scenes for a documentary feature called Fight or Flight was embedded.

That led to the director and subject of Fight or Flight, Peter J. McCarthy, to get in touch with me, and, in an effort to get me to actually watch his film, he sent me the DVD.

I put the DVD on the stack of unwatched discs to watch at a more opportune time. But as the months went by, uncertainty about when that time might happen crept up. I decided to pop the movie in and see what it had to offer.

I wished I'd watched it sooner.

Fight or Flight is a spiritual journey of a man in search of his inner self. A 30-something guy from Ireland, McCarthy states in the film that he'd been in a street fight and had a falling out with his brother, and so came to Thailand -- like a lot of foreigners do -- in a bid to change his life. Why did he fight? Could he fight? Muay Thai seemed to offer the answers, and for the lanky Irishman, all muscle and bone, it seemed like a perfect fit.

The film follows his training and odyssey of self discovery that crisscrosses Thailand, starting at a training camp in Chiang Mai, to a gym in Bangkok, then to the ring in Koh Samui, back up to Chiang Mai for an abortive silent retreat in a Buddhist temple, and then to Northeast Thailand.

Visceral and stylized, a trippy sound design is coupled with repeated clips of a worm and a gecko being eaten by ants, as well as stock war footage of troops in trenches, B-52 bombers and atomic explosions. The film references The Wild Bunch (the ants!) as well as Apocalypse Now, with McCarthy specifically referring to the "heart of darkness" that he'd stumbled upon in searching for his soul. Seems he found it, and didn't like what it turned out to be. Chiang Mai. Shit. Still only in Chiang Mai. There is a marked contrast between the glowing, happy Peter McCarthy at the beginning of the film to the broken shell of man who is confessing a nervous breakdown by the end.

Like young Grasshopper in Kung Fu, McCarthy drops in at Wat Suan Dok and asks a monk, Phra Saneh Infong, why men must fight, why there is violence. McCarthy -- and all humans -- know the answers, but sometimes we have to hear them anyway.

"These feelings we get from thinking, seeing, hearing," the monk says. "Fighting in our world, is plan of men, not plan of God."

Not wishing any more introspection, McCarthy turns his eye to the outside world, hopping on his motorcycle with his backpack and hitting the road for Northeast Thailand for "a
journey into the depths of Thai culture."

Interspersed between shots of him training and fighting in the ring, as well as scenes of other fights, there's a look at children Muay Thai fighters, which is controversial in the West, as well as the also the controversial bloodsport of cockfighting.

Answers to these prickly issues are difficult, but the film seems to defend them because they are part of Thai culture. For some children, the sport officials and a long-time farang boxer-trainer conclude, Muay Thai is a way out of poverty, and offers a lifetime opportunity for many children and young men. I wonder: How is it different from Little League baseball or school sports? As for cockfighting, well the enthusiast interviewed says a fighting rooster actually has a better life than a chicken that's going to be eaten -- the former living for two to three years, and the former just a matter of a few weeks or months.

There will be differing viewpoints, but those are subjects for other documentaries.

Back to McCarthy. The conclusion for him after 19 months in Thailand, in which he "cracked", seems kind of anti-climactic. At 78 minutes, including end credits, the film feels too short. Back in Dublin, what were his thoughts? What was he experiencing? Another 10 minutes or so perhaps could have covered that.

I guess that's the power of this documentary -- to make me care about a guy enough to wonder what happens next. Maybe that will be the subject of another film.

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