"Iron and Silk," which opens today at the Charles, rides the very thin line between charm and preciousness, wobbling now and then, sometimes threatening to collapse into a cute widdle movie, but ultimately surviving its own worst tendencies.
To begin with, it's one of those weird jobs where the author of a book stars in the movie version. Mickey Spillane tried this to disastrous consequences once; I know Mike Hammer, and Mickey: You're no Mike Hammer. Fortunately, Mark Salzman does indeed make a pretty good "Mark Franklin," though I wonder why they bothered with the name change.
Salzman was a kung-fu movie addict and ardent Sinophile who in his most secret adolescent heart yearned to whiff the air effortlessly along the classical lines of his heroes in "The Shaolin Temple." But he was also, on the evidence, spectacularly bright. After a brilliant Yale career, he went to China in 1984 where he taught English, studied martial arts with a master teacher, and ran into the bewildering Chinese attitudes toward foreign devils.
He published an account of this adventure with Random House and director Shirley Sun uses the book as the basis for the film. The movie presumably somewhat romanticizes the experience, though as a nod toward realism Salzman's original teacher, Pan Qingfu, appears as himself . . . but without a name change. Go figure.
The movie has several things going for it. First of all, it takes us as far into Chinese culture as we are liable to get, capturing the entrancing beauty of the land and its utter bewilderment as well. The Chinese don't even seem to understand it, and Salzman-Franklin keeps bumping into humorous contradictions that his hosts can't explain to him.
Sometimes the film veers dangerously close to patronization with a lot of "Oh, those wacky Chinese" jokes, as when at his birthday his class sings "Dashing Through the Snow" rather than "Happy Birthday." A little of this goes a long way, and a lot of it goes no way.
Then there's Salzman-Franklin himself. He's an engaging young man, no doubt about it, a scholar, a humanist and an extremely proficient martial artist, interested not in the combat skill for the pleasures of hurting people but for the pleasures of their sheer physical lyricism, their aspects of dance. The film is quite convincing as it details his obsession and his learning process from the prickly, passionate, proud Pan.
But there's more than one uncomfortable moment after another when Salzman's narcissism breaks through, and you feel him preening for the camera, acting self-consciously "cute" and puppy-like. He's almost too good to be true and his virtue and smugness become irritating in small ways after a bit.
All in all, though, "Iron and Silk" is more engaging than irritating.
'Iron and Silk'
Starring Mark Salzman and Pan Qingfu.
Directed by Shirely Sun.
Released by Miramax.