Superhuman leaps, flying fists, fountains of blood… so just how real are the martial arts tricks performed in your favorite action epics or kung fu flicks? This article will help you break down the real from the magic…
Audiences around the world love films that are “based on a true story.” It is the sense of realism that draws them, and most movie goers rarely concern themselves at the time where the line between fiction and reality is drawn. As it turns out, most martial arts in television and film is viewed this way. In fact, all theatrical martial arts are actually a “based on a true story” version of the real life thing.
According Dr. Maung Gyi who is a grandmaster of the Bando system and a martial arts pioneer, martial arts has three major Fs: function, form and fantasy. In the arena of theatrical martial arts, the major concern is with fantasy and form. Function is not so important in this realm of motion picture magic.
What makes form important when bringing martial arts to the big screen is that it epitomizes the actual mechanical movements of the techniques involved. It is what provides the crossover between the real kung fu or karate practiced by everyone around the world to the awesome moves we see on TV.
Every type of martial arts has a form – even in the most basic sense. The form ranges from simple movements such as the mechanics behind a kick, punch, or throw to complex series of predetermined movements complete with names such as juru, kata and poomse. The main function of form in movie martial arts is mostly about aesthetics – basically, they want the audience to think of all those swirling kicks and flying fists as “cool.”
This form must be both readable and recognizable by the audience. They have to recognize the movements they just saw flicker across the TV screen. This is where the art of movie martial arts takes a different direction; a movement such as a kick may have to be slowed down, telegraphed and “zoomed into” so as to make it “readable” by the audience. If it were to be executed that slowly in an actual fight, the opponent would easily predict it and have lots of time to react.
To maintain the fight’s aesthetic beauty, the movements ought to have a rhythm and some timing – not to mention being exciting, this is after all, where the true magic of martial arts choreography lies. The differences here between the real martial arts and movie martial arts are both obvious and subtle.
Of course, there is no choreography in a real fight. Real martial arts fights are typically free for alls where combatants have to rely on their superior techniques, opponent’s mistakes and their sheer will to win rather doing everything from a script.
Theatrical fighters execute complicated movements intended to dazzle the eye whereas the real fighters have to execute simpler and more direct movements that are far less likely to fail during the fight.
So where does Dr. Maung’s third “F” – fantasy – come from?
Fantasy also exists in real martial arts, but it is mostly limited to training halls and friendly sparring session. Fantasy techniques or methods tend to die out faster in street fights because, well, they just don’t seem to work.
But on the screen, well, you’ve probably seen it countless times — multiple attackers waiting their turn to attack the hero one at a time. That never happens in real fights. No self defense instructor will ever train a small woman to kick box a much large man as we saw in Bruce Lee’s “Live Free or Die Hard”, but of course this is film, and we need the fantasy.
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