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Shall We Dance?

With martial arts movies finally gaining mainstream respectability at last, a lot of people have expressed interest in the fancy footwork they see on screen, mistaking it for the real thing (someone even asked Keanu if he was now a better fighter than Jet Li). Film fighting and martial arts are very different things and, in fact, the best film fighters are often gymnasts and acrobats rather than traditional martial artists.

What is done for the screen or stage is an elaborate dance, choreographed and involving a cuing system so as not to place one's partner in danger. Camera angles and sight lines are carefully staged to hide the actual distance ("daylight") between performers when they lash at each other, with the victim always in charge and responsible for "selling" the blow by his or her reaction to it. While acting the fight, trained stunt professionals maintain safety at all times despite the apparent intensity of the action. The blows are larger, broader and telegraphed unlike in a real fight, and kicks are higher, stylized, frequent, and effective. The reactions are also often larger, but the fighter is trained how to isolate the part of the body struck, how the rest of the body reacts and how to fall naturally but safely (without looking like a breakfall).

In Hong Kong style film fighting, the distances between performers are much closer (in actual striking distance), and therefore need specialized moves and careful cuing. The result is exciting and easy for the audience to comprehend what is happening. Wire work adds to the style, but involves different rhythms and much practice. Weapons create yet another element of complexity, requiring knowledge of both actual use of the weapons as well as their adapted use for film or stage. Videotape tends to exaggerate distances, in which case weapons need to come very close to keep the illusion of danger without its actuality.

The best example of the difference between the two can be found in Jackie Chan's documentary My Stunts. In one segment, we see Jackie blocking a fight with a professional martial artist who keeps reverting to his fighter instincts, seeking advantage rather than following the scripted steps. Turning off the fighter head takes time and practice, as I discovered myself. Instead, one learns to turn on the actor head, expressing the same struggle to impose one's will, but under control and in tune with the choreography.

The end result can be breathtaking, as in the stunning House of Flying Daggers. But we're trained professionals, so don't try this at home or at your local bar. Both film fighters and martial artists know how dangerous an actual fight is, especially when it involves real, not rubber or aluminum, knives or guns and an assailant who is not your friend. Real world violence is ugly, furtive, random and not visually pleasing. Nor do the good guys always win.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 20th, 2004 08:55 pm (UTC)
what do you practice?
Dec. 20th, 2004 10:15 pm (UTC)
It runs the gamut from European sword, katana, Chinese sword, staff, kali sticks, open hand, gun disarms, etc. Martial arts techniques include a variety of disciplines from Shaolin to Wing Chun. Before studying film fighting technique, my martial arts background was in jiu jitsu and my prior training was in dance and gymnastics.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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