Movie Kung Fu vs real Kung Fu

I was alerted to a great post by Reddit User drkaczuz about the role of stunt men and women compared to the same scenes done by “real” martial artists who are not trained in movie-fu.

I’ll quote it here (I hope he doesn’t mind because it’s really interesting, and he makes some great points):

“Yeah, people very often misunderstand the role of stunt doubles, especially in fight scenes. It’s often not as much about skill, or risk as about production logistics. Even if you have a physically capable actor, with MA experience, you still want to use the stunt doubles, simply to squeeze the most out of pre-production time. You can’t lock the star of the show in a room with the stunt crew for a few weeks to rehearse the scene to perfection, they need to well, act. Learn their lines, prepare for their non-action scens, do marketing stuff, photoshoots, etc. What you CAN do is have the stunt double rehearse the entire choreography for months untill it’s buttery smooth and them tag them in on a moment’s notice.

Another thing with actors that have MA background is how different movie fighting is from real fighting – a lot of time real fighting skills and reflexes actually make on-screen fighting look worse.

I think Donnie Yen vs Mike Tyson is a good example showcasing a lot of issues when working with real athletes – we all know Mike is insanely fast, but in this clip he appears slow and sluggish, and you can’t really see the power behind the blows – further below I’ll try to explain why.

 BJ Penn and Rampage in this clusterfuck of a movie – in this case choreography, montage, lighting are absolute garbage, but you can still see that they seem weirdly uncoordinated and slow.

 Anderson Silva from the same flick, notice the kicks especially, also look at all Randy Couture scenes from Expendables – they’re a dark, shakycam mess, but a lot of shakycam and bad lighting is damage control to hide hits that didn’t sell well.

I am not saying that having actual martial artists on set is bad – but you have to manage them really well, have an action director that will guide them and communicate their vision clearly. In a lot of cases a director will oh so wrongly assume that if they have the star martial artist on set they can just tell them to do their thing and it’ll come together somehow. Also it’s not that being good at actual fighting is somehow a hinderance – all good stuntpeople will be at least competent in one or more actual combat sport or martial art. It’s just they have a LOT of additional knowledge on top, as well as the ability to turn some instincts on and off.

There’s more to this post, including links to good examples of well done fight choreography.

Myth busting in Chinese martial arts

Look at those lovely brain boxes.

I’ve been re-watching the excellent conversation between Dr Paul Bowman and Dr Sixt Wetzler on Martial Arts, Religion and Spirituality and it’s sparked a few thoughts in my mind. At 34.39 in the podcast they get on to the subject of myth busting.

Bowman notes that instead of helping people, the myth busting of martial arts which is going on all the time in academic circles is probably destroying the careers of some martial arts teachers. So it’s “doing a service to the world which is actually also a kind of violence”. It’s an interesting point. He notes that people often fall in love with the martial arts for silly orientalist reasons – they fall for the myth of studying an ancient and mystical martial art, then read a well-researched book about it, by somebody like Ben Judkins or Peter Lorge, which shatters their beliefs and makes then doubt the validity of the art they are doing. 

My own Heretics podcast does its fair share of myth busting too – our Aikido episode, Kempo & Jiujitsu history series and Tai Chi history series spring to mind as good examples. I’ve had first had experience of those episodes visibly upsetting teachers I know. Whether they know it or not, these teachers are heavily emotionally invested in the myths of their own arts superiority – they believe all the stories of old practitioners and the amazing feats they can do, and know exactly why their martial art is superior to others. If you start to chip away at those beliefs then the whole facade is at risk of crumbling, and they don’t like it! Unfortunately reality is usually disappointing when compared to the myths. 

When the Chinese martial arts first started making an impact on the West in the 1970s they were full of obvious untruths. Tall tales of Buddhist and Taoist origins abounded. For example, that Tai Chi was apparently created by a Taoist immortal who had a dream about a crane fighting a snake, and Wing Chun was named after the girl who was taught it by a female Buddhist monk, when it turns out that there’s no evidence that she even existed. Over time these myths then get added to by other myths – like the one that Yang LuChan was “invincible”, for example. Even in the modern age the myth of Ip Man has been enhanced to bursting point by a series of pseudo-historical films in which he combats the Japanese, western wrestlers, boxers and even Mike Tyson at one point! 

Ip Man 4

These more marketing-orientated myths about the prowess of practitioners – how deadly they were, how unbeatable their martial arts was, how the power of Qi was greater than physical strength all fed directly into all that nonsense about no touch knockouts and “empty force” that has marred the image of Chinese martial arts in the modern age.

And politics also gets involved. When obvious myths about the origins of martial arts are dispelled they often get replaced by more politically motivated stories about the arts origins that are equally as unprovable and unreliable yet fit a natioanlist agenda. It seems like the Chinese martial arts are forever being used to support some sort of Chinese government propaganda.

In short, the Chinese martial arts world was in need of, and remains in need of, a lot of myth busting, because much of what we are being told and sold is basically not true. But Bowman’s fears, that we are in danger of spoiling the fun for everybody with this relentless search for the truth, holds true, I think. I was certainly attracted to Chinese martial arts by a steady diet of orientalist propaganda from the likes of David Carradine’s Kung Fu TV series and Marvel comics with heroes like Iron Fist. This is often what draws us to the martial arts in the first place and there has to be some way of searching for truth in the martial arts, but keeping the magic that drew us there in the first place.