The diminutive Cheng, also an established doctor, poet and calligrapher, was already 65 years old when he moved his family from Taiwan to Manhattan and opened the doors of his Canal Street studio to a colorful assortment of martial arts enthusiasts, radicals, hippies and draft dodgers.
The Chinatown locals didn’t exactly welcome the long-haired interloper with open arms — they resented that ancient “secrets” were being shared with Westerners; Cheng established a nontraditionally informal, demonstrably more playful relationship with his students, judging from the rich amount of black-and-white archival documentation shot in those early classes.
Interspersing that footage with fond recollections from many of those original students, several of whom still appear to be living the enlightened life, the film also includes interviews with Cheng’s children (their father died in 1975) as well as a clip from a Canadian television interview with a relaxed Bruce Lee.
In his documentary debut, director Barry Strugatz, a screenwriter best known for 1988’s “Married to the Mob,” has crafted a brief but disarmingly cordial tribute to an overlooked Tai Chi “sifu” who didn’t believe in kowtowing to convention.
“The Professor: Tai Chi’s Journey West”
Running time: 1 hour, 12 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills.