Walk Run Cha-Cha [subtitled in part]

Walk Run Cha-Cha

Walk Run Cha-Cha is a 21 minute documentary, one of the films in the package of 2020 Academy Award-nominated short documentaries shown in theaters.

My mind wandered a bit in this one, as I had the impression it couldn’t quite decide what it was trying to do. Is it a film about a dance class? Is it a film about Vietnamese immigrant couple Paul and Millie Cao? Is the material about that couple just the lead-in to a broader film about that whole circle of Vietnamese immigrants in southern California?

It turns out it’s mostly the second of those three, but it’s too brief to really tell their story in any detail. It’s the skeleton of a story—they dated as young people for six months until the North Vietnamese won the war, he fled to the U.S., she was unable to get out of the country until six years later with his help, they reunited and built a life together, and now decades later their main hobby if not obsession is three hours a night at least four nights a week of ballroom dancing lessons and practice—which is more tantalizing than satisfying. But even less do we learn the ins and outs of ballroom dancing, and after being briefly introduced to various other Vietnamese immigrants we learn basically nothing about their stories.

By the way, could we please have more, a lot more, of that really interesting looking, muscular, hot, I think Ukrainian, female dance instructor?

I was ready to conclude that Walk Run Cha-Cha was a mildly interesting effort that mostly failed to connect with me, but then the ending blew me away. Without that ending, I’m sure I would have ranked it as my fifth favorite of the five documentaries in this package. The ending lifted it up at least into the same neighborhood as the others, and maybe as high as second and close to first.

Paul and Millie are shown dancing in a show or competition, to a cover of the Paul Williams ballad (popularized by the Carpenters) “We’ve Only Just Begun.” The absolutely correct decision was made to show the performance in its entirety, shot beautifully but in a straightforward way with no distracting special effects or surrealist nonsense.

They’re good to very good as dancers I suppose, certainly for civilians, though well short of flawless. The audience I saw it with chuckled once or twice—not with ridicule but with sympathy—at minor miscues. But ultimately that’s not the point.

What I got caught up in was the sincerity and commitment of the effort. Just watching the intensity, the emotion in their eyes and in their gestures, you realize how deeply this matters to them. They’ve spent years on this joint quest of being the best they can be at ballroom dancing and strengthened their relationship in the process. Maybe such dancing is an important and admirable thing, maybe it’s an unimportant and silly thing, but their willingness to put their all into it for a sustained period and to strive to excel at it together ennobles it.

It’s a reminder that there’s great value in doing your best regardless of whether it’s the best.

Something I’ve read of and thought about in the past is the fact that we can be adversely affected by living in a time of such global interconnectedness, where we have access to the best of everything in the arts, sports, etc. I remember Bill Clinton in an interview saying that he knew the saxophone could never really do it for him when he realized that he had the ability to be good and maybe very, very good, but would never be Stan Getz. So he needed to find something else—which turned out to be politics—where he could rise to the very top.

I think that’s a common attitude—why bother going to the local track with its mediocre horses when you can watch Secretariat on YouTube whenever you please?, why practice gymnastics when you know you’ll never catch up to those molded to be gymnasts from infancy through an inhuman childhood to make it to the Olympics?—but in some ways an unfortunate one. As I summarized the philosophy of bizarre restauranteur Kenny Shopsin in my piece on the bizarre documentary I Like Killing Flies, it’s crucial to have some goal, some purpose, even if it’s something stupid, and then to give it your all, because “your commitment and passion are what’s precious and what give your life meaning, and the stupid thing is just a necessary condition for manifesting those elements of your character.”

Paul and Millie are being the best ballroom dancers they can be, and that’s plenty good enough.

I’m reminded of a phrase from Sports Illustrated from many decades ago. It was in a piece by their boxing writer Mark Kram about the 1970 bout between Muhammad Ali and Oscar Bonavena. It was just the second fight in Ali’s comeback from over three years of involuntary exile from the ring, and Bonavena was a very clumsy, awkward brute who never looked good but made his opponents look worse. Almost the entire fight was a dull, unsatisfying affair with Ali building up a big lead on points but being unable to put together the kind of graceful, artistic performance people had come to expect from him. Then in the 15th and final round, out of nowhere Ali solved the riddle and flattened Bonavena three times, knocking him out for the first time in his career.

It was, as Kram described it, “a muddle of a fight, with a zinger of a finish.”

Walk Run Cha-Cha is a muddle of a film, with a zinger of a finish.

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