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In 1985 - the early years of the AIDS epidemic - after a five-year absence and haunted by the recent death of her boxer fiancé, Karen O'Neil (D. Lee Inosanto) returns to her Colorado hometown to reunite with her family who are leaders within their church and operators of a successful martial arts business. After McClain Evans (Mike O'Laskey), an ostracized gay teenager, is severely beaten, his mother Annie (Gina Scalzi) asks Karen to take him as her secret pupil and teach him martial arts. When the secret gets out that she's his teacher, events unfold that effect her and her family.

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
If it was just about a bullied boy learning karate so he can defend himself and teach his tormentors a lesson - like some movies might portray - it would be less important than it is. The Sensei is set in 1985 but it could be set in 985 or 2985 and it would still tell a story about the human condition that is universal and valuable. The difference between 'just another karate movie' and The Sensei is the added dramatic factor of what's at risk for the boy's karate teacher, Karen (D. Lee Inosanto) his Sensei, as she goes against her community and even her own family.

The fact that young McClain Evans (Mike O'Laskey) is a homosexual is relevant as a time stamp - although gay-hate is still evident in 2012 (as is small town, small minded bigotry, sad to say). But the attendant HIV element is woven into the drama and has profound implications for the central characters.

Making her directing debut with her own screenplay, Inosanto (karate girl and actress) tells the story in flashback - in this case a device that preempts the story's dramatic arc to some extent and blunts our responses. Still, it doesn't deflate the film and the performances are all gripping.

The brutal attack on McClain that motivates his mum Annie (Gina Scalzi) to seek out the newly returned karate teacher is shot with restraint to avoid distracting us with the violence and keep the focus on its impact. On the other hand, juxtaposing an ethnic Asian family - whose experiences at being a minority are meant to ironically underscore their attitudes to McClain - is perhaps a tad obvious. Not invalid, of course, and depressingly realistic. The film's flaws are overcome by the irresistible appeal of the training process, a foolproof cinematic tool; striving for physical prowess is always dramatically engaging.

Inosanto has terrific screen presence and she shows crisp control of her material, also managing all the craftwork effectively. Not surprisingly The Sensei has won several awards including Best Supporting Actor for Louis Mandylor (in a crucial support role as Mark Corey, Karen's deceased ex) and a couple of Best Feature awards at various US festivals.

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(US, 2008)

CAST: D. Lee Inosanto, Mike O'Laskey, Keith David, Melissa Taylor, Shane Weingardt, Mark Griffin, Ryan Parker, Louis Mandylor, Ajyodeji Fadeyi, Curtiz Magee-Ortiz, Jeff Liu

PRODUCER: D. Lee Inosanto, Ron Balicki,

DIRECTOR: D. Lee Inosanto

SCRIPT: D. Lee Inosanto


EDITOR: Reine-Claire

MUSIC: Deane Ogden

RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes

DVD DISTRIBUTOR: Third Millenium

DVD RELEASE: August 22, 2012

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