Johnny Tai is a blind martial arts instructor. He teaches self-defense classes to other people who are blind and visually impaired.
Born in 1981 in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, Johnny lost both his eyes and one ear at the age of three to Stevens-Johnson syndrome, a life-threatening skin disorder.
As the son of his father’s mistress, he was especially vulnerable to his family’s turmoil. Johnny was shuttled back and forth between Vancouver and Taiwan; at different times, he lived with his father, his mother, his father’s wife and foster parents. For a brief period he was homeless and lived on the streets of Vancouver.
Johnny now lives by himself in a basement suite in Richmond, British Columbia. He has a BA in Social Work, runs his own counselling service and volunteers for several telephone and internet crisis hotlines. He leads a full life, dividing his attention between his job and volunteer work, his longtime girlfriend Liz (who is also blind) and his passionate commitment to practicing and teaching martial arts.
Johnny jokes that he is “growing an army of the blind” through his workshops and advocacy work — but he admits that his motivation has less to do with self defense and more to do with empowering other blind people to feel a strong sense of independance.
The presence of martial arts in Johnny’s life has been a constant in an otherwise precarious existence. From the age of eight, Johnny trained in various martial arts — first, as a way to connect with other children and boost him with confidence, and later as a means of survival inside his family. He now represents Canada in international martial arts competitions.
Johnny’s ambition is to make martial arts and self-defense widely accessible to other blind and visually impaired people. What started as a gathering in his basement has now become an organized movement to bring people in the blind community together for specialized training and to open doors to martial arts and self-defence training in community centres and gyms.
Underneath Johnny’s passion and independence lies an instinct for survival that sustained him throughout his tumultuous and abusive family life.
As Johnny introduces himself, we see the exterior of his basement suite home. An old bicycle sits in the foreground amongst overgrown weeds, plastic jerrycans and other detritus. A closer view of Johnny’s door reveals a sign with ‘Ring bell for John Tai’ handwritten on it and a doorbell beside it. Inside the suite, Johnny is lying in bed, still asleep, and through the blinds behind him we see the silhouette of his cat Tiger moving. Tiger, an orange tabby cat, pops his head out and Johnny turns to greet him. Tiger rests on Johnny’s chest as Johnny gives him a pat and a quick scratch before getting out of bed. As Johnny gets dressed and leaves his room we see more of his home: action figures hang from the ceiling and a small red plastic novelty guitar hangs on his wall. He heads to the bathroom, turns on the light and begins to shave. In the mirror, we see Johnny standing in a towel revealing his imposing physique. His black hair is parted and combed back, still wet from the shower.
Now we see close-up shots Johnny’s hands as he fills a water bottle at his kitchen sink, then fills his coffee maker, grinds coffee, and starts his machine.
Johnny stands in a room flanked by a martial arts dummy and other paraphernalia. He faces us as he continues his narration, "Little did I know that the normalcy, the comfortable life, would come to an end sooner than I thought."
Home video footage shows a young Johnny in a public garden holding hands with an older sibling. Another shot shows Johnny trying out sightseeing binocular high above a city. There are more handheld home video shots of the exterior of a eighties-style suburban house, the interior entrance, and an bed with a bare mattress. A final burst of VHS video distortion transitions to a close-up of a framed photo, Johnny’s mother standing in the snow in front of a magnificent chateau. In the same gold leaf frame, we see additional photos of Johnny’s mother and a small cut out photo of himself as a young child. In a wider view, we see that it is sitting on a dresser amongst action figures and CDs. A series of photos show Johnny as a young child, maybe seven or eight, with his stepmother and children. Another photo shows Johnny’s father holding a video camera, while the rest of the family stand by. A closer photo shows young Johnny holding the pant pocket of his stepmother while she addresses something out of our view, in another one she holds the video camera, we see one where she hold Johnny by the shoulders as the pose for the camera, and finally we see Johnny holding onto his father by his belt as his father films with the video camera.
Again we see Johnny facing us in his martial arts dojo, "I mean, what could he have been thinking, eh?"
More home-movie footage describes the darkened interior of Johnny’s childhood home: a curved staircase and chandelier, a hallway and then quick glimpse of a female figure exiting a door.
Now we see a familiar shot of Johnny’s present day bed room. It’s daytime and cars pass by in the window behind his empty bed. A closer shot of a television with static on its screen reveals the silhouettes of various action figures displayed on top. From above, we see a close-up of a computer keyboard and braille display. A shot of a sunny window dissolves into a darkened room. Johnny’s kitchen faucet drips in the darkness. A car passes in the background of Johnny’s darkened bedroom. In the dark, we see a wall-mounted phone and then a bookshelf with a framed photo of young Johnny.
As the voice of Johnny’s mother is heard, we see a close-up of Johnny’s smart phone clipped to his shoulder. On it is an image of his mother and her dog. A profile shot reveals Johnny is sitting in his kitchen during the daytime as he talks on the phone. In the background, his cat Tiger wanders across the kitchen windowsill.
Now we see a darkened kitchen again as the silhouette of present day Johnny enters, and he moves towards the fridge. As the freezer door opens, it casts a light across Johny’s face in close-up. In his eyes, we can clearly see the scars and damage that Stephens-Johnson syndrome left behind. He grasps for a bag of bread. We see a close-up of the toaster in silhouette as Johnny’s hands place the bread in and push down the lever. In a wider shot of the darkened kitchen, the red light from the toaster increases in intensity casting highlights on Johnny’s face. A close-up of the adjacent wall shows a large gilded frame containing a photograph of a majestic tiger. It is cast in the same red glow of the toaster. From outside, through the blinds of the kitchen window we see Johnny in the red glow standing by the toaster waiting.
A quick home-video footage clip shows Johnny’s stepmother standing in a kitchen looking at the camera, and we return to Johnny sitting in his kitchen. A close-up of him wringing his hands is followed by a wider profile shot the shows him ending his phone call. Tiger jumps up onto the table beside him and nuzzles him and he returns the affection with a pat on the head.
Johnny removes a red sports jacket from his wall, and as we see him put it on from behind, the letters ‘C A N A D A’ are revealed on the back.
Outside, Johnny walks with a guitar case and backpack towards a storefront with the words ‘Martial Arts’ above it. We see him enter the building and turn on the lights revealing a large fitness studio.
As Johnny talk about a hypothetical Time Machine, we see photos of a young Johnny at the beach. He looks happy amongst the giant boulders, playing with the sand and seaweed, and playing with a large ship’s wheel.
Back in the studio, Johnny removes his utility belt and prepares for his class. We see him stretch out his hands, revealing he is wearing sparring gloves. A wider shot reveals another man in martial arts uniform with his back to Johnny’s. He turns around, approaches Johnny, and Johnny swings quickly around and grapples the man to the floor. We see them splay out on the mat and their feet and legs go flying.
In the same studio, Johnny stands with a female student. She has her cane and arms wrapped around the back of Johnny’s neck as he directs her. We see her hands as she adjusts her grip on her cane. As she drops her elbows as instructed, Johnny falls down out of our view. Now, a group of students are doing drills, jumping over and crawling under a ribbon of fabric. Johnny calls ‘Time!’ and the class claps, and we see a guide dog waiting patiently in another room. Students continue to work on the heavy bag, their defensive position, and we see various closer shot of students with the fists raised in front of their faces.
Inside Johnny’s home again, we see Johnny in the mirror as he addresses himself, ‘That everything is okay.’
As we hear the live descriptive audio begin, we see various shots of people seated watching something off camera. One person tucks the top of their Christmas hat into their jacket. We see the woman providing descriptive audio standing behind the audience holding a respirator-shaped microphone over her mouth. From the rear of the stage, we see Johnny facing away from us toward the audience in the background. He is wearing a white team Canada martial arts uniform. As the descriptive audio continues we see closer shots of Johnny and more shots of audience members from behind, some wearing descriptive audio earpieces. With a lightning fast strike Johnny breaks the boards that Clement is holding, and then, as the descriptive audio ends, we see additional shots of the interpreter and audience clapping.
Outside, in the evening, it is raining as a bus pulls away and reveals Johnny walking home. The streetlight spills out onto the rain soaked streets, as Johnny walks away from us carrying all his martial arts gear. He enters his home, and as we hear his conversation with his mother continues we see a close-up of a stack of bowls and plates in the darkness. Johnny greets tiger as he enters his hallway, and Tiger walks up to Johnny’s outstretched hands to receive a pet.
As Johnny’s mother says "Violence has its uses," we see a close-up of Johnny’s toaster, the red glow inside gives way as the toast finally pops.
The title ‘Night Strike’ appears as we hear Johnny begin to describe a martial arts studio space. As the final credits are shown, we see Johnny’s guiding students through the studio space. Students make their way through the space, orienting themselves to the walls and objects. One student stops to touch the martial arts dummy and trace the contours of its face.
Johnny stands with a female student and places her arms on his chest while describing the movement. The student pushes Johnny back and grabs his arm throwing him to the ground and out of our view.
Narrator / Subject
Blind Beginnings Talent Show Live Description
Land on the Golden Gate
The Ballad of Ned Kelly
Stories About the World That Once Was
Take Off and Shoot a Zero
Archival Stills and Video
courtesy Johnny Tai
Richmond Martial Arts
Sapperton Pensioner’s Hall, New Westminster, BC
Pacific Wave Jiu Jitsu, Richmond, BC
Richmond Martial Arts: Johnny Ahmed
Blind Beginnings: Shawn Marsolais, Michelle Spindor
Vocal Eye: Steph Kirkland (www.vocaleye.ca)
Support provided by:
Canada Council for the Arts
BC Arts Council
For CBC Docs
Lesley Birchard, Executive in Charge of Production
Melanie Le Phan, Development Manager