Shang-Chi is here! And Brad Allen dead at 48

We stand on the cusp of a major new martial arts movie release – Shang-Chi and the Legend of the 5 Rings. On it’s own this should be something I write about, but it’s also the last film that Jackie Chan’s prodigy, Brad Allen worked on before his untimely death at 48.

Australian choreographer, performer and stunt coordinator, Brad Allen, was the first non-Asian member of Jackie Chan’s stunt team. He was incredibly skilled – here’s a short sample of his wushu and athletic ability:

It’s not clear how Brad Allen died, but 48 is very young. RIP.

I haven’t seen Shang-Chi yet, but by all accounts it’s a Kung Fu film done right, that avoids all the usual stereotypes, and a good chunk of the film’s dialogue is spoken in Mandarin Chinese, which is then translated into English subtitles for audiences.

“As an Asian (Taiwanese) Australian, it is so obvious that the film was written through the lens of those who have a lot of love for Asian culture and have lived through the Asian experience,” wrote kabutocat on Reddit, starting a fascinating discussion about the English-language translations of Mandarin dialogue in the movie. “The Chinese lines are written so well that a lot of the times the English subtitles actually failed to convey the nuances behind each line.”

Den of Geek article.

Shang-Chi’s origins lie in Marvels answer to the Kung Fu boom of the 1970s, with various Kung Fu-powered superheroes emerging, with perhaps Iron Fist being the post famous. The Shang-Chi comic was a product of its time and you can see orientalist tropes in its styling:

Shang-Chi was the first of the Kung Fu superheroes, and was designed to be the most gifted martial artist anyone had ever seen. He was trained in espionage, infiltration, assassination and more. But when he went on his first mission for his father, he broke his conditioning and dedicated himself to destroying his father’s criminal empire.

Here’s a breakdown of the film (warning SPOILERS).

Shang-Chi was the last film Brad Allen worked on, so let’s end with his excellent live performance with Jackie Chan on Saturday Night Live:

You can find out more about Brad Allen here.

Paul Bowman on Bruce Lee, martial arts studies and martial arts comedy

A new episode of the Tai Chi Notebook podcast is out, featuring Paul Bowman.

Click the link above, or you’ll find it on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Search for The Tai Chi Notebook.

Paul Bowman is a professor of cultural studies at Cardiff University. He’s the author of multiple books on martial arts, including several about Bruce Lee, and most recently, “The invention of martial arts: popular culture between Asia and America”, which was published by Oxford University press in 2020.

Paul also helped establish the academic journal Marital Arts Studies, and organised conferences for the Martial Arts Studies Research Network.

In this chat we reminisce about our times training together, talk about paul’s recent discovery of Brazilian jiujutsu and discuss the emergent field of martial arts studies.

Show notes:

10.15: The Bruce Lee period
Theorizing Bruce Lee: Film-Fantasy-Fighting-Philosophy
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Theorizing-Bruce-Lee-Film-Fantasy-Fighting-Philosophy-Contemporary/dp/9042027770/ref=sr_1_1

Beyond Bruce Lee: Chasing the Dragon Through Film, Philosophy, and Popular Culture 1 Mar. 2013
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Beyond-Bruce-Lee-Chasing-Philosophy/dp/0231165293/ref=sr_1_1

16.00: I am Bruce Lee, the movie
https://vimeo.com/96517261

17.30: Marital Arts Studies
https://mas.cardiffuniversitypress.org/

22.40: Understanding Identity Through Martial Arts, with Prof Adam Frank
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3BZb3WjosTs

23.53: On How to Talk about Taekwondo, with Professor Paul Bowman
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cALt0O3Y5_s

31.05: The invention of martial arts
On The Invention of Martial Arts with Prof Paul Bowman
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IOyAllbfYsM
The Invention of Martial Arts: Popular Culture Between Asia and America 24 Feb. 2021
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Invention-Martial-Arts-Popular-Culture/dp/0197540341/ref=sr_1_1

44.50: David Carradine – No Limitations Be Anything
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3q85cV3GOMw

55.00: Comedy and honour around martial arts styles
Are Filipino Martial Arts Realistic? | Master Ken
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wiuTGP-jnT8

Sensei Seth: If Every Martial Arts Style Taught Each Other
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SGo2_f50GLo

Dragon dance and street theatre – rare video of old China 1901-1904

Thanks to Jarek Szymanski for posting about this clip.

“Unique documentary footage taken between 1901 and 1904 in Yunnan in southwestern China by Auguste François (1857-1935) french consul stationed there. Street performers, barbers, funerals, official visits, leopard catching a pigeon and monkey wearing opera outfit doing somersaults, opium smoker, it’s all there – and more. Absolutely stunning over fifty minutes of footage from China that none of us has ever seen. Somewhere there were probably also martial artists, hiding in plain sight;)”

https://www.cinematheque.fr/henri/film/129752-images-de-chine-auguste-francois-1901-1904/

Of particular note for martial arts fans are the Dragon Dance scene at 32 minutes and the street theatre dancing at 46m which looks an aweful lot like Baguazhang….

The invention of martial arts

An excellent video by Prof. Paul Bowman to promote his new book, The Invention of Martial Arts: Popular Culture Between Asia and America.

This presentation looks at how martial arts arrived in the UK and when the concept of being a martial artist first entered into the popular consciousness. Along the way he covers Bartistu, the Avengers, James Bond, Bruce Lee, Kung Fu the TV series, Ninjas, the Wu-Tang Clan and the UFC.

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.