Martial Arts in Media 9/12

Rarely has the title of this column been more accurate. When I started this decades ago for Inside Kung Fu magazine, it was called Martial Arts in Movies, with my intention to shorten it to the apt moniker of M.A.I.M. When our illustrious editor Dave Cater nixed that contraction, the column rolled merrily along until the influences of television and, especially, videogames, needled me to amending my M.A.I.M. to Martial Arts in Media.

In months like this, I’m eminently grateful I did. Because, as I await the (legal) Eastern DVD release of The Four and Wu Dang (why are they dragging their digital feet?!) as well as the Western release of TaiChi 0 (not to mention Painted Skin 2, Double Trouble, Naked Soldier, Beijing Blues, The Bullet Vanishes, The Assassins, and The Grandmasters, among others), the cinematic pickings are, in a word, pathetic.

Until the aforementioned rear their non-boot heads, we are left with The Kick – a Korean-flavored Thai production directed by the man who made Ong Bak, Prachya Pinkaew. If you are a devotee of taekwondo (with the accent on “devoted”), just buy/download the flick, watch, enjoy, and skip to where it says “Taekwondo Safe.” The rest of you, fasten your seatbelts.

I suppose the word “pathetic” a paragraph ago gives a little hint as to my estimation of this tiring effort. With Tony Jaa still wandering the wastelands (although [improbably] rumored to be considering SPL 2), Pinkaew apparently decided to try something more family friendly after melding a clever concept and fine muy thai with an unacceptably brutal plot for Chocolate (the famed tale of an autistic teenage girl who learns martial arts from watching Ong Bak, then elbow/knees her wretched mother’s many persecutors for fifty minutes).

So perhaps acknowledging that muy thai might be a bit too harsh for the kiddies, he settled on taekwondo, that fine “energetically closed,” leg-centric sport pressed upon the Korean people by occupying Japanese many moons ago. Collecting a crew of faithful Thai veterans, experienced Korean actors, and promising martial art hopefuls, Pinkaew collaborated with Lee Jong-suk to cobble together the story of an evil Thai businessman running afoul of a Korean taekwondo teacher and his family during his attempt to steal the supposedly mythically-powered ancient knife-like artifact known as “The Kris (sic) of Kings.”

It’s really hard to decide which is worse: the agonized, ludicrous establishment and development of said story, such as it is, or the equally turgid, credibility-snapping, “action” scenes. If any taekwondo aficionados are still reading, look, your sport is great for exercise and discipline, but as a fighting technique, it is intrinsically flawed. And no where is that fact (yes, I’m sorry, fact) made more abundantly clear than in The Kick.

I don’t know which was more painful: watching the various heroes try to repeatedly get their feet high, fast, or hard enough to actually execute a believable defense/offence, or wondering what the various villains were thinking while patiently positioning themselves and waiting to disbelievably overreact to said kicks. For fans of such great kung fu leg fighters as Tan Tao-liang, John Liu, Sun Chien, Huang Jan-li, Huang In-sik, and even Bruce Lee, this is truly sorry stuff.

Contrivances and coincidences abound in a plot that could have been cute and clever as the concept of “cooking style, dancing style, and soccer style” are promised, then ignored, and the central character arc of accomplishing the legendary “720 whirlpool tornado” kick is betrayed when, climatically, the protagonist is obviously spun and swung on a wire to accomplish it. With that, I will leave you to come up with your own punny play on “kicks” as a last insult to dismiss this sad affair.


If you’ve read any other of my website posts, you probably already know my opinion of The Dark Knight Rises. Happily that opinion has not changed, even after I discovered the existence of the wonder/delight full Bat Man of Shanghai trilogy that’s a part of the DC Nation programs on the Cartoon Network.

On those shows, featuring the superheroes of DC Comics, they use short subjects as bumpers before, after, or even during the commercial breaks. Those shorts often upstage the main program, since the producers (Ben Jones, Jeff Prezenkowski, and Sam Register, among others) use a wide range of directors and styles befitting the subject matter.

In this case, the DC meisters saw a sweet animated short called Kungfu Cooking Girls by novice animator Jin Roh (not to be confused with the anime of the same name). Loving what they saw, they obviously told Jin to go crazy on their dime. What he came up with was a brilliant Bodyguards and Assassins tinged mini-miniseries of what it might look like if The Dark Knight Rises played out in 1930’s China for about four minutes.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, I’d have to write about five thousand seven hundred and sixty words to communicate the glory that is Bat Man of Shanghai. Find it on Cartoon Network, find it on YouTube, or just find it below. All I will say is, Christopher Nolan, THIS is how Batman should have fought Bane the second time!

Now given the media over movies content of this month’s column, I’d be remiss not to acknowledge one of the best martial art epics of the year. That would be Sleeping Dogs, the new videogame from Square Enix for PlayStation, Xbox, and PCs. General Manager Lee Singleton, lead writer Jacob Krarup, and senior producer Jeff O’Connell have obviously seen, and been inspired by, a lot of Hong Kong action films – of both the kung and gun fu varieties.

Wei Shen, the undercover cop assigned to infiltrate a Triad gang in modern Hong Kong, has his origins in the work of John Woo, and since the 2007 videogame Woo consulted on, Stranglehold — sold as a digital sequel to Hard Boiled – shot blanks both creatively and monetarily, England’s United Front Games did him an armory better when creating Sleeping Dogs (which derives its title from the admonition “let sleeping dogs lie,” attributed to Chaucer as well as Charles Dickens).

The game is full of obvious inspirations from classic Hong Kong action films, as well as sly winks to the genre’s giants – what with another leading character named Jackie Ma (“Ma” being the name of the cop Jackie Chan played in the Project A films), among other allusions.

While the chases and firefights echo the works of Woo, Ringo Lam (Full Contact) Andrew Lau (Infernal Affairs), and Johnnie To (Exiled), one of the games most memorable highlights is Wei’s sessions with his martial arts teacher Kwok (perhaps inspired by Hard Boiled choreographer/co-star and ex-Venom Kwok Choi?) voiced by James Lew (who, coincidentally, was a guest at my 2012 San Diego Comic Con Kung Fu Extravaganza).

Notice I said martial arts teacher, not kung fu sifu. For while the hand to hand stuff in Sleeping Dogs is hard-hittingly effective, it is based more on the muscle-driven, closed-fist mixed martial arts of UFC champ Georges St-Pierre then any high-level, open hand, chi-driven “real” kung fu. That doesn’t make it less entertaining and blood-thirstily satisfying, of course, since the creators could hardly be expected to go above and beyond the genre that inspired them.

Yet still …. Pardon me, I’m going to watch Bat Man of Shanghai again. Care to join me, Square Enix?