Monday, 6 May 2013

[Feature] The Impact of Cinema on Martial Arts.

It is sometimes joked that martial artists train for years developing incredible skills with their feet and hands only to go on and make some of the worst films in cinema history. This might be true of many in the Martial Arts action genre since many of them consist of exploitative revenge filled stories so gratuitous as to make the average grindhouse film maker blush. Whilst the market for such films seems incessantly flooded with more bad productions than quality ones, some have actually served to showcase of a variety of styles, many largely unknown.

It all started of course with the legendary late and great Bruce Lee, a martial artist and actor who gained notoriety on US television in series such as Longstreet and The Green Hornet. After returning to Hong Kong where he became a huge star with his breakthrough film The Big Boss he returned to Hollywood and starred in Enter The Dragon. Bruce Lee's dream was twofold; to promote eastern philosophy and his non-style martial arts, and to elevate the status of Asian characters and actors from the stereotypical images of the day to international recognition and leading name status. Sadly he died before Enter the Dragon was released but his dream became reality. More people attended Kung Fu and Karate classes whilst Hollywood had tapped into a film genre largely dominated by Asian cinema. 

Here are a few actors/martial artists who, as ambassadors for their unique style have helped to bring a more diverse range of martial arts to the public’s wide eyed attention.

AIKIDO (Steven Seagal - Nico)

As a martial art Aikido is one of the few styles that is purely defensive in principle. Founded in the 1920’s by Sensei Morihei Ueshiba, and translates as “way of unifying with life energy” it came to prominence thanks to actor, singer and activist, Steven Seagal in his debut film Nico (US title Above The Law) in 1988. Although this is not the first time Aikido was featured on celluloid, briefly glimpsed in films such as The Challenge and Never Say Never Again (both of which Seagal choreographed the action) Nico is the first film in which Aikido is shown in its purest form.

Steven Seagal - Photo by Gage Skidmore
Seagal is shown dispensing with his attackers by blending with their movements and redirecting their force rather an opposing it. Using the attackers inertia Seagal employs throws and locks as well as entering and turning movements to deflect the attacker safely out of the way. Strikes, grappling and kicking are not studied extensively except to showcase Aikido’s counter techniques and have only been featured in Seagal's films purely for dramatic effect.

AMERICAN KENPO (Jeff Speakman - The Perfect Weapon)

Often confused being another style of Karate, Kenpo is very much a diverse mix of styles combining Chinese Kung Fu with Okinawan & Japanese styles karate. American Kenpo evolved around 1940's Hawaii when the traditional Jiu Jitsu form incorporated the circular flowing elements of King Fu into its existing arsenal of strikes, kicks, locks and throws. Hawaiian practioner by Ed Parker, who whilst a big proponent of the the traditional system felt it would be ineffective in a real life situations. Using a a more scientific approach, Parker scientifically re-examined Kenpo's every move at virtually a microscopic level, developing counter moves for every strike block and kick, thus American Kenpo was born. This approach heavily influenced Bruce Lee. 


Actor and Kenpo practioner Jeff Speakman, one of Parker's top students describes Kenpo as the science of street fighting. Whilst Speakman's debut The Perfect Weapon, is very much a typical revenge laden martial arts flick with some questionable portrayals of its Asian characters, as an introduction to Kenpo the film excels. Speakman takes on a bevy villains and the viewer gets to see Kenpo used in varied scenarios including taking down a group of muggers, hand to hand combat with well trained henchman and even a David and Goliath - eseque battle with the ultimate of Asian heavies, the late Professor Toru Tanaka. In Speakman's hands Kenpo is a unique and eye pleasing blend of the balletic flows of Kung Fu with the shock and awe bone crunching effectiveness of Karate.

CAPOEIRA (Mark Dacoscos - Only The Strong)

A quick glance at Capoeira in action and you would be forgiven for assuming it was a dance, especially on the streets of Brazil where this unique martial art derived. Capoeira is a martial art, developed in the 16th century by African slaves, that doesn't so much combine but contains music and dancing within its very core. Practitioners (known as capoeiristas) not only have to be physically fit, fast and flexible to perform the combination of swirling kicks and gymnastics, but also develop a sense musicality and rhythm to fully participate in the Roda (game). The form is largely devoid of hand strikes and blocks, used very rarely, as the emphasis is very much on skill and longevity with very little contact. Its effectiveness as a fighting form  saw Capoeria prohibited twice before being adopted by the police and military. 

Capoeira in Action - Photo by tbondolfi
What Only The Strong lacks in substance more than makes up for in its portrayal of Capoeira. It is easy to ignore the plot, essentially reminiscent of Dangerous Minds, and some of the cringe-worthy dialogue as the stage is offered to the various executions of Capoeira for some fun filled scenes featuring the Roda to its main lead Louis Stevens (Mark Dacoscos) using his skills to take on a Brazilian crime boss. While the film makes a bold statement that martial arts can help turnaround the lives of even the most troubled teens, it is not hard to see how. The musical fun elements of this eloquent fighting form is given more screen time than its more straight laced revenge fueled combat scenes. Viewers therefore are treated to singing & chanting, musical performances, and laughs all brought together in a breathtaking visual display of dance, fighting and gymnastics.

PENCAK SILAT (Uka Imwais – The Raid)

The name for this hard hitting and swiftly executed close quarters fighting form is deceptive giving the impression that it refers to a single martial art. Far from it, Pencak Silat is the umbrella term used to describe the grouping of martial arts from an assortment of nations in Southeast Asia which include Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, although the term is specifically used in Indonesia. Of all the martial arts it is considered the most obscure with a difficult history to trace (tradition dictated it be passed orally to the next generation). Pencak Silat is characterised by a veritable arsenal of hand to hand to combat manoeuvres including strikes, blocks, locks and holds as well a a variety of weapons forms and applications. It is particular effective for close quarters fighting and is a staple of military and police training in Indonesia.

Image Credit - The Pageman

The Raid; Redemption is the second collaboration between Indonesian martial arts actor Uka Imwais and Welsh film maker Gareth Evans. Featuring elements borrowed from the best of Hollywood and Hong Kong action, the film features fast moving, bone crunching martial arts performances executed with such zeal and professionalism the audiences are sure to wince and shirk from the screen with every blow. Pencak Silat is so brutal and effective on show one can imagine how suitable this would be for law enforcement and military use, a coincidence when it has been rumoured Yayan Rhuian (aka 'Mad Dog') trained the Indonesian Presidential Security Forces and Military Police Corps.

Many martial arts movies, mainly from the west, feature a generic kickboxing style filled with swift jabs and overstretched spinning and back kicks which look impressive but only really designed to thrill and excite whilst moving along a fairly basic story. Movies such as The Raid and Only The Strong provide a sufficient backdrop before stepping aside and letting the martial art speak for itself and in its purest form. For avid martial artists it opens the door to previously inaccessible forms but for action cinema fans, a visually impressive and refreshing change to a steadily growing stale addition to the genre.

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