SCREEN SHOTS

Black Belt - - CONTENTS - BY DR. CRAIG D. REID

'r. Craig '. Reid digs into Para­dox, which fea­tures di­rec­tor Wil­son Yip, chore­og­ra­pher Sammo Hung, and ac­tion stars Tony -aa and Louis Koo; Gong Shou Dao, which boasts Alibaba founder -ack Ma, as well as -et Li, 'on­nie Yen, Tony -aa and Wu -ing; and Kick­boxer: Re­tal­i­a­tion, with Alain Moussi, Mike Tyson and -eanClaude Van 'amme.

Some­thing dawned on me this morn­ing. In 2017 Hol­ly­wood churned out a dozen block­busters fea­tur­ing mar­tial arts– us­ing char­ac­ters in films like John Wick: Chap­ter 2, Won­der Woman and The Last Jedi. What’s unique about these movies com­pared to of­fer­ings in other years is that they’re de­void of Asian mar­tial arts char­ac­ters. Hol­ly­wood has copied Asian fight scenes and cam­era chore­og­ra­phy to cre­ate its own tal­ent and fisticuffs — and some­times the re­sult is OK.

How­ever, af­ter you’ve seen Hong Kong’s Para­dox, China’s Gong Shou Dao and South Korea’s The Vil­lai­ness, you re­al­ize that Hol­ly­wood still lacks artis­tic phys­i­cal cre­ativ­ity, novel chore­og­ra­phy and those ul­tra­cool mo­ments that re­mind you why Asia re­mains the mas­ter of mar­tial arts ac­tion.

PARA­DOX

In the vein of male-bond­ing mar­tial arts films from the 1970s by di­rec­tor Chang Cheh (Shaolin Tem­ple epics) and John Woo’s male-driven melo­dra­mas, di­rec­tor Wil­son Yip’s Para­dox mixes Tony Jaa’s fe­ro­cious el­bows of fury and Louis Koo’s angstrid­den per­for­mance with Sammo Hung’s su­perla­tive fight chore­og­ra­phy to rein­vent the rapid-fire melees of the 1980s.

In­flu­enced by Liam Nee­son’s Taken, Para­dox is about a wid­ower Hong Kong cop (Koo) who trav­els to Thai­land in search of his only daugh­ter and finds out she’s be­come a vic­tim of an il­le­gal or­gan trader. Work­ing the case with two Thai cops, a Hong Kong ex­pat (Wu Yue) and a psy­chic (Jaa), he’s in a race against time to find his daugh­ter be­fore she be­comes “dis-or­ga­nized.”

Although he’s head­lined in 106 films, Koo isn’t a kung fu star, so when he does any ac­tion, his fights are muted. Yet in Para­dox, Hung works pure magic as Koo en­gages in some ad­mirable ac­tion and ex­hibits re­mark­able pos­ture. (It’s easy to throw a punch or kick, but the real way to tell whether an ac­tor has had good train­ing or solid coach­ing is if

he or she fights with a straight back and uses both hands in­de­pen­dently — while main­tain­ing cor­rect hand and arm po­si­tion­ing. It’s the same when weapons are used.)

Thus, we’re treated to high-oc­tane du­els like the one that pits Koo and Wu against the head hench­man and his hos­tile hooli­gans us­ing fore­arm-length, meat-cleaver-like knives — not but­ter­fly knives — that are akin to the weapons made fa­mous by ac­claimed fight di­rec­tor Liu Chia-liang in Lady Is the Boss (1983).

GONG SHOU DAO

For many folks, Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves invokes im­ages of scim­i­tars and the myth­i­cal “open sesame” cave. To­day, there’s a dif­fer­ent story, and it in­volves Alibaba and the 11 kung fu leg­ends. It’s an en­chant­ing tai chi– in­flu­enced short film called Gong Shou Dao. In 15 min­utes of fights, Alibaba founder and tai chi spe­cial­ist Jack Ma bat­tles eight mar­tial arts stars, in­clud­ing Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Tony Jaa and Wu Jing. The chore­og­ra­phy comes from Yuen Woo-ping, Ching Siu- tung and Sammo Hung.

Gong Shou Dao is also the name of a new in­di­vid­ual and team mar­tial arts sport cre­ated by Li and Ma, who hope to get it in the Olympics. For that rea­son, the film also serves as a pro­mo­tional tool, which is why Li broke his six-year hia­tus from do­ing mar­tial arts movies so he could par­tic­i­pate.

In the film, Ma strolls up a ru­ral road amid wind-blown leaves and comes across an arched en­trance, then pen­sively stares at three Chi­nese char­ac­ters writ­ten on the arch: Hua Shan Pai, mean­ing Mount Hua Sect. Swal­lowed by a dream, Ma be­comes the le­gendary Feng Ching-yang, aka the Smil­ing Proud Wan­derer, a char­ac­ter from the wuxia novel Xiao Ao Jiang Hu. For those who don’t know, Hua Shan Sect is a fic­tional group in the kung fu un­der­world known as Wulin and a mem­ber of the Five Moun­tain Sword Sects Al­liance. The novel’s ini­tial plot re­volves around the cov­eted kung fu scroll Bi Xie Sword­play Man­ual. Yet to Feng (Ma), Hua Shan is real.

As Feng/Ma moves through the var­i­ous Wulin worlds and faces eight in­creas­ingly pro­fi­cient mar­tial artists, fa­bles about virtue, moral­ity and phi­los­o­phy dot the land­scape. The long­est du­els are against the calm Yen, with his hy­brid brand of wing chun, and the placid cus­to­dial monk Li, with his flash­ing wushu, tai chi and pole skills.

In a web video re­leased by Li, he said the ac­tors were so en­thu­si­as­tic about the project, cre­ated to pro­mote Chi­nese cul­ture and mar­tial arts, that they agreed to work for free. He also noted that rules had been for­mu­lated to help gong shou dao rise to the sta­tus of Olympic sport. Those rules will re­port­edly have the mar­tial artists vy­ing in a ring that’s 3 me­ters across un­til one man­ages to make his op­po­nent step out­side the cir­cle.

In a way, it re­minds me of what hap­pened dur­ing China’s Song dy­nasty (960-1279), when of­fi­cials cre­ated a sport called da lei tai in which winners would be­come the em­peror’s body­guards or im­pe­rial mar­tial arts in­struc­tors. The dif­fer­ence is that now the winners will — it is hoped — be vy­ing for Olympic gold.

KICK­BOXER: RE­TAL­I­A­TION

When the visual-ef­fects su­per­vi­sor for Thor: Rag­narok as­serted that be­cause of the size dis­par­ity be­tween Hulk and Thor, it would be im­pos­si­ble to stage their bat­tle as a real fight, Kick­boxer: Re­tal­i­a­tion di­rec­tor Dim­itri Lo­go­thetis wasn’t lis­ten­ing. He had the au­dac­ity to do what couldn’t be done in his film: cre­ate a crazy-ass phys­i­cal fight in which a seven-time World’s Strong­est Man vet­eran named Haf­pór Björns­son — who stands 6 feet 10 and weighs 400 pounds — mashes and bashes a puny hu­man named Alain Moussi — who de­pends on Brazil­ian jiu-jitsu, kick­box­ing and MMA to de­fend him­self — for 20 gru­el­ing min­utes. Just watch­ing the bout hurts, as Moussi is dragged and tossed around like a rag doll, as he flies through the air and then bounces on the floor. Watch­ing this wacky fra­cas alone is worth the ticket price.

As with many Amer­i­can-made kick­box­ing-com­pe­ti­tion film fran­chises — and even the de­but chap­ter of Kick­boxer (1989), with Jean-Claude Van Damme as Kurt Sloan — aveng­ing a death or fight­ing in a re­match

plays a piv­otal role in the plot. In this case, a year af­ter aveng­ing his brother’s death at the hands of Tong Po in Kick­boxer: Vengeance (2016), Sloan (Moussi) is co­erced into re­turn­ing to Thai­land for an un­der­world death match that in­cludes swords, knives and chains. That’s where he’s forced to fight a miss­ing link named Mongkut (Björns­son). It’s also where JCVD be­comes Sloan’s teacher.

Apart from the re­quired train­ing scenes, it seems that with each suc­ces­sive se­quel, in­creas­ing num­bers of real MMA fight­ers are added to the mix, per­haps in a bid to give the cin­e­matic bouts an air of au­then­tic­ity. Yet Lo­go­thetis was de­ter­mined to not just fea­ture testos­terone-ooz­ing hooli­gan­ism and mean-spir­ited ar­ro­gance; in­stead, he used these fighter-ac­tors to launch Moussi’s melees into un­charted kick­box­ing-film ter­ri­tory.

For ex­am­ple, there’s the Moussi-vs.Mike Tyson brawl in which the boxer ac­ci­den­tally bare-knuck­les Moussi’s face and knocks him down. Lo­go­thetis re­vealed that af­ter he asked Moussi if he was OK, the ac­tor laughed and said, “Mike Tyson just punched me in the face.” A badge of honor.

In an­other in­ter­est­ing bat­tle, Moussi takes on Asian hit women atop a speed­ing train. But there is a three-and-a-half-minute one-take fight in an aban­doned Thai prison that breaks new ground for Amer­i­can-made kick­box­ing movies.

“It took them a week and half to chore­o­graph,” Lo­go­thetis said. “What we did was re­place ev­ery sin­gle piece of wood with rub­ber wood. A lot of the guys said to me, ‘Oh gee, it’s rub­ber wood so they can go fly­ing.’ I said, ‘OK, how would you feel about fly­ing 14 feet through the air and land­ing on rub­ber?’ ( laughs) And you’ll no­tice dur­ing the fight, these guys are get­ting kicked in the face. I did seven takes, and around take five, I had to re­place the first guy Moussi kicked in the head be­cause he was get­ting dizzy.”

Lo­go­thetis added that when most Black Belt read­ers were kids, they watched fight flicks with com­bat that was stac­cato and stagy. “I wanted to up­grade and bring us into the 21st cen­tury, and I wanted to do it with au­then­tic­ity,” he said.

Dr. Craig D. Reid’s book The Ul­ti­mate Guide to Mar­tial Arts Movies of the 1970s: 500+ Films Loaded With Ac­tion, Weapons and War­riors is avail­able from Ama­zon.com.

Para­dox

Gong Shou Dao

Kick­boxer: Re­tal­i­a­tion

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