Friday, 5 April 2013

Shaolin (2011) and action

I've been thinking about reviewing martial arts movies on this blog but I've decided it would be a bit of a futile exercise.
There are just so many that even if I uploaded one a week for a few years, the sheer volume out there would mean it would in no way serve as a useful archive of kung fu film critiques.
So instead I'm going to talk generally about the genre in a series of posts (hopefully, if I stay motivated) with reference to particular films.

I recently watched Shaolin (2011) which is a film that has both the good and the bad of a modern martial arts movie.
In this post I'm going to talk about the good but I'll get to the bad later.
The good is the action which is incredible thanks to the high-quality cast - step forward Andy Lau, Jackie Chan and Jacky Wu Jing - and the fight choreography.
It's fast and believable - and by believable I mean it looks like they are actually hitting each other and that those strikes would hurt.
The kung fu teeters perfectly between the geniune and the implausible.
This must be a difficult thing to achieve but it's what makes the best modern martial arts movies.

I love the old Shaw Brothers films before wires were used to add fantasy elements to the action.
I'm still wowed by the speed and accuracy of the actors bodies as well as their stamina in the epic fight scenes.
Hand Of Death (1976), Snake In The Eagle's Shadow (1978) and The Drunken Master (1978) are perfect examples of this type of film making.
Early wire work used to get on my nerves. It was just too crude and largely unneccesary.

Cinema moves on though. The best of these films were made in the Seventies and starred the likes of Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao when they were in their late teens or very early twenties.
These days we need more from our action films, whether Asian or big Hollywood productions.
Bruce Lee's American outings may have been the start of the European love affair with martial arts films but they also helped perpetuate a thirst for action to be bigger, faster and louder on the big screen.
The Eighties produced a torrent of big-budget films full of muscular men blowing up everything in sight and ending their enemies with showers of bullets - The Terminator (1984), Commando (1985), Predator (1987), Rambo (1982).
And even when martial arts were employed as we moved in to the Nineties, the fight scenes were combined with the aforementioned hailstorms of lead - Double Impact (1991), Under Seige (1992), Jackie Chan's First Strike (1996).
It's my least favoutite period in the genre.

Which brings us to the Noughties and a return to the fists leading the action.
By now though, we had feasted on a diet of guns and explosions. We needed more than Shaw Brothers-era showdowns if kung fu was going to hold our attention.
So we got wuxia - beautifully stylised productions, stories packed with chivalry and sacrifice and where the action was a combination of great martial arts and clever wire work, far more developed than those early attempts.
This is really the era belonging to Jet Li, Andy Lau, Ziyi Zhang and Michelle Yeoh - Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), House Of Flying Daggers (2004), Hero (2002), Fearless (2006).
They are beautiful films but the action is firmly set in the fantasy side of things.
Watching the protagonists run across the treetops in Crouching Tiger is almost comical and it doesn't mean to be.

And so we're back at Shaolin. The action works because the wires have been reigned in.
They're there but you hardly notice them. It means the characters carry out moves that are both beyond what we know the human body to be capable of but also plausible.
The best kung fu movies do this. The action requires disbelief to be suspended - but only a little bit.
Ip Man (2008), Ong Bak (2003) and Dragon Tiger Gate (2006) fit in here. Thank you Donnie Yen and Tony Jaa.

There you have it. A brief history of action in martial arts movies as my explanation of why Shaolin works.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Ups and downs

While I was in Portugal recently, I had the opportunity to do some wing chun training at a friend's class.
The sifu was German and clearly skilled in several martial arts.
It was the first time I had trained with anyone outside of my club and, naturally I suppose, I found myself comparing what I had been told to what this sifu was teaching.

There were subtle differences noticeable in the first form but it was one overall idea that I struggled with.
He told his students that they should hit down - and down, and down, and down.
The idea being that you want to get your opponent on the floor as fast as possible, and keep them there.
It makes sense as fights tend to be won when someone hits the deck and stays there.

What if your opponent is bigger than you though?
I can't hit a guy downwards in the neck or face if he's taller than me.
Even if he's a similar size, I have to get on tip toes to hit down.
And that, as far as I have learnt, is a big no-no.

Power in the wing chun punch comes from the whole body. You ground your feet and push the energy up through your legs, torso, arms and fist.
The key to the turning punch, and what many in my class seem to struggle with, is turning while keeping heels on the ground.
But without the heels grounded, the punch lacks firmness and you are off-balance.
This is the other problem with being on tip-toe. Without rooted feet, you can be pushed and pulled all over the place.

Had I had the chance to discuss it further with him, I'd like to think the sifu in Portugal would have agreed with this.
Perhaps he meant hit down when it's possible to do it solidly and it got lost in translation.
Still, I'm not sure I agree as you can't hit down into the neck - even if you are the bigger guy.

What I concluded from all this was that the class wasn't teaching wing chun - it was a self defence system based on wing chun. I'm not sure if this was a widely-used system or the idea of this particular teacher though.

I would rather learn a purer form of the art. Not for any snobbish reasons, but if you are learning a martial art purely for self defence, why would you study the intricacies of techniques like bong and tan? You would be better off sticking to simple punching.

You learn the more sophisticated techniques to use with other wing chun practitioners.  OK, if you were in a situation where you had to defend yourself on the street, you may use some of them. But realistically, you're just looking to land a few blows to stop the guy. I would imagine it's harder for him to stop you if he doesn't know if the next one is coming up, down or sideways.

Grinding someone in to the ground is unnecessary too. If the aggressor finds himself being hit many times before he can land a punch, he doesn't need to hit the ground to stop. And if he does go down there's no need to get on top of him and keep hitting. If he gets back up, you can put him down again. Self defence, for me, is just about not getting hit and stopping the aggression. The other bloke doesn't have to be beaten up, he just has to be beaten.  

Friday, 11 January 2013

Video nasty

YouTube is an easy way to lose a few days of your life, especially if you start your trawl with a search for: "Wing Chun versus..."
It's so addictive seeing the practitioners, and the style, go up against exponents of muay Thai, aikido, karate, Shaolin and any other martial art you care to think about.
Sometimes Wing Chun comes out on top, sometimes it doesn't. I don't mind, it's just entertaining to see people spar, or in some cases fight, using the techniques that I am developing myself.

The only downside to YouTube's hundreds on hundreds of videos like this is the comment facility.
Rather than discuss the skills on show, so many martial arts practitioners use this tool to argue about which art is more effective and therefore the best.
The Wing Chun guy beat the karate guy so it must be better... Muay Thai beat Wing Chun so it must be superior... and on and on.

It's all rubbish of course. Firstly because it's impossible to assess the effectiveness of styles, only the people practising them.
A brilliant Wing Chun practitioner will beat someone who is very good at karate just as someone brilliant at karate will defeat someone who is very good at Wing Chun.
But by watching the videos, it's impossible to say how long the people in them have trained for, who they have been trained by and how hard they have practised.
That's before you consider natural attributes like size and strength that help or hinder their techniques.

Then there's the fact that while there are hundreds of videos of people facing each other using different styles, a smaller percentage are real fights with no holds barred.
Even in the brutal Ultimate Fighting arena there are rules and I'm sure many styles are hindered greatly when it comes to having some of their potent weapons removed.
In Wing Chun, we love a poke to the eyes or a smash to the groin. But you can't do that without inflicting real damage oon someone and that's not allowed in competition.
We don't even like gloves as they take away some of the power we can get in to attacks using our wrists.
Other arts, I'm sure, must be similarly hampered when they are taken to competition.

Finally, I'm uncomfortable with the concept of 'best' when it comes to martial arts.
I'm under 6ft and woefully inflexible so the raw power of muay Thai or the high-kicks of karate don't suit me.
But the speed, explosiveness and effeciency of movement in Wing Chun does.
A friend of mine is huge and loves the aggression of kick-boxing. It allows him to harness his natural power to great effect.

Then there's the concept of best being about which style allows you to hurt the person in front of you most effectively.
I'm not interested in that. For me, the best style is the one that I enjoy the most because it's the training I get the pleasure from.
I hope I never have to use my Wing Chun skills on the street because I don't want to have to hurt anyone.
The 'best' way of defending yourself is surely not to get in to a fight in the first place.

Now stop wasting your time reading this and let's watch some YouTube.


Friday, 19 October 2012

Robot wars

Think you've mastered lap sau by the time you get to intermedate classes? You haven't.
When you start rolling with guys who have been training for many years you realise that your technique is loose.
I can see that my strikes are not always perfect centre and sometimes my bong is collapsing. This is especially true at speed. I hadn't noticed when rolling with beginners because their technique was equally loose. When you do it with experienced students, though, their consistency of shapes highlights the inconsistency of your own.
The same goes for chi sau and, by extension, everything else you do in wing chun.
Experienced students can replicate the same shape over and over again with amazing precision.
Roll with advanced students, especially those who have been training seriously for 10 years or more, and it's like trainng with a robot.

Ask these guys to throw a bong forward 100 times in a row and they will do it almost identically every time. How do they do that?
I think the answer is simple repetition. Do it over and over and over again and your muscle memory will be so strong that your body will be pre-programmed.

I had to take a week off from training recently so I decided to try to use any spare time I had to make myself more robotic. I knew my tan was weak so I practised the bong-tan move 50 times a day. When I went back to chi sau the next week, it had made a significant difference. It made me realise that practising the form is incredibly important.

Make your form robotic and all of your shapes will be consistent. I'm going to go and run through it a few times now...   

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Nerve endings

I'm not someone who lets nerves get the better of them. At least not often. I do get nervous, of course, it's just that I feel the sensation in my stomach, or a slight tremble in my hands, and then do whatever the activity is that is causing it - public speaking, asking a girl out, a job interview - anyway.

As I was going my grading last week, though, I was affected more than I'm used to. It was because the physical manifestation of nerves - the shakes, butterflies, a squeaky voice - can usually be overcome with a deep breath and a cough. And once you begin speaking, you forget your fear and your confidence grows.

But at the grading, it was control of the body that was being assessed. So the nerves causing my limbs to shake were actually causing me to perform less efficiently than I do when nobody is watching. Usually I can chain punch, side punch, arrow step and first form to my heart's content. But usually, I haven't got Sifu watching every move I make and writing things down as he does so.

As I was chain punching, I could see my fists needed to be higher but as I tried to correct, I could tell my form was suffering. I side punch really fast usually, knowing to whip the hand bac faster than it goes out. At the grading, I was slower and less fluid. I know my stance needs to be wider - I've been working on it - but it was still a little narrow on the day because I was concentrating on so many things and forgot to make a point of moving my feet further apart. I do the first form most days with my elbows the correct distance from my body. At the grading, they were too close and I knew it.

I passed the grading - and with a good mark. The second highest in the class. The thing is, I know I could have done it better because, usually, I do all of those things better. I felt the nerves and I was affected by them.

It used to amuse me when athletes went through their little routines whether it be Rafa Nadal lining up his water bottles, long jumpers rocking back and forth while spreading their fingers, Linford Christie always being the last one down in the blocks or basketball players touching hands with all of their teammates every time they hot or missed a free throw. I put it down to habit or superstition.

Now I see that they will do anything they can to rid themselves of nerves. Concentrating on something as trivial as lining up labels seems insignificant but it is vital mental preparation if it helps you to relax.

I'm going to work really hard on emptying my mind while doing the first form in the hope that whenever I do it, whether before kung fu or anything else in life (it might look a bit weird in a bar before I ask a girl out mind), it removes the nerves and allows me to perform as if nobody was watching.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Dangerous . . . to myself

There will be a grading in a few weeks and I’m hoping to move from beginner to intermediate standard. Sifu says this will make me dangerous rather than just a danger to myself, as I am now. I hope this becomes the case as I think right now, I’m in a vulnerable position when it comes to fighting. At this point I have a lot more confidence when it comes to confrontation but I’m pretty sure my skill would fail me if it came down to it. If some big snotter started swinging at me, my first thoughts would be ducking, covering up like a boxer and running – just like it would be pre-kung fu. That’s because when it comes to the wing chun simultaneous intercept and attacks, there’s still a pause in my brain as it tries to work it all out. It’s only a short pause but it’s plenty long enough for the other bloke to land a haymaker while I’m thinking about it.

This week we did a drill simulating three attacks and set patterns to combat them. It’s the first time we have trained like this as, although common in other martial arts, it’s not a favoured way of training in wing chun as we don’t rely on patterns such as those I’m about to describe. We rely on shapes that can be used fluidly. Sifu wanted us to try this, though, as it was to train the process of recognising what type of attack was coming – the three we used were a straight punch, low swinging punch and a high haymaker, initially in that order but then jumbled up by our training partners. I was able to recognise the attacks well which was the idea of the drill. However, I did become frustrated when we started adding our own attacks

The drill would go something like this: Straight punch comes in – tan sau and punch, cover arm and punch, cover arm and chop. Low punch comes in – gan sau and punch, cover and back fist, chain punch. High haymaker comes in– high gan sau and punch, chop, cover arm and chop, low punch to the ribs.

Mine, though, would be like this: Straight punch comes in – tan sau and punch, think, cover arm and punch, think, cover arm and chop, and so on.

I’m hoping what intermediate level will bring to me will be the removal of those think pauses. Beginner has taught me the basic shapes and footwork so my strikes and blocks are okay. I don’t have to think about them too much now. I hope intermediate will teach me the intercepts and attacks to the point when it becomes automatic, too.

Right now, it’s not and that’s why I’m a danger to myself. With that bit of extra confidence that comes with martial arts training, if the big guy swing for me I might surprise myself and get a gan in the way. Seeing the way it opened him up, I could probably hit him back, too. Then, though, I would pause. Then I would get whalloped.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Why am I here?

When I signed the membership forms for my class, there was a section headed: ‘Why do you want to study Wing Chun.’ I scribbed down ‘fitness and self defence’ which, Sifu later told me, is pretty much what everyone writes. ‘There’s so much more to training than that,’ he said. Eight months in, I know what he means. If I was signing up today, I would write down just one word – focus.

Wing Chun is excellent for building strength and fitness and for defending yourself. But what I get most out of it is the ability to switch off to everything else I’ve got going on – work, relationships, money – and focus on one thing. That one thing is the training and it occupies my mind for the duration of the class and for hours afterwards. I can’t think of anything that I have to concentrate on so intently as I do with kung fu. I’m not in to meditation but I understand the idea to be relaxation by emptying your mind, often starting by concentrating on your breathing. Wing Chun relaxes my mind as I concentrate on my movements and the movements of the person in front of me, nothing else.

I concentrate hard because I have to. At 32, it’s rare to be taking up something completely new. Trying out a new sport cannot be compared to it if, like me, you are sporty already. Let’s take handball - I’ve never played it but I reckon you could stick me in a game right now, outline the rules and I wouldn’t disgrace myself. Because, you see, I play football so I can run and see passes and I used to play a lot of basketball and a bit of rugby so I can throw and catch. I’ve never played baseball either but I’ve swung a cricket bat and a tennis racket on countless occasions so I’m pretty confident of giving a ball a whack, even if the thing I’m hitting it with is a different shape. I know I’m simplifying but the point is, no sport involving running, throwing, kicking, catching or hitting is alien to me.

Kung fu, on the other hand, is different to everything else I know. I’m learning it from a starting point of zero and it put me off taking it up for a while because it frustrates me not to be good at something.
Now, though, I wish I had taken it up years ago because that lack of pre-knowledge and filling in that blank has been so rewarding. Many martial arts have a strong spiritual element to them. Wing Chun, however, is an art developed purely as a means of fighting. That’s one of the reasons I chose it because I didn’t think I needed any spiritual guidance. I thought I needed something for fitness and self defence. Being a complete novice, though, has forced me to empty my mind by concentrating on the art. It has given me focus and that, I suppose, is a spiritual thing.