Thursday, May 30, 2013

Film Review: The Bladed Hand

Last night I attended the Hawaii premiere of The Bladed Hand: The Global Impact of the Filipino Martial Arts at the Honolulu Art Academy. As a student and teacher of Kali, I may be biased, but I thought it was one of the best martial arts documentaries I have ever seen.

Here's a description of the film from producer Sonny Sison:
A documentary featuring numerous Filipino Martial Arts luminaries and established styles and systems propagating the growth of an indigenous form of self defense from the Philippines with historic and social contributions to the world at large including its influence from military and law enforcement training to Hollywood films and television.
The film took over two years to complete, and was a labor of love for director Jay Ignacio.

The Bladed Hand proceeded in a fairly chronological fashion, moving from the indigenous, pre-Spanish conquest roots of FMA to modern trends of the early and mid-20th century through FMAs increasing popularity in Hollywood and the international special forces community.

An obvious highlight of the movie was the great footage of important Grandmasters training and sparring. It was a real pleasure to see Antonio "Tatang" Ilustrisimo in his early 80s beating the crap out of guys a quarter his age. If I didn't already think FMA was incredibly cool, I would after seeing all of this footage, and if I didn't already train in FMA, I would immediately start.

Some of the most famous masters of FMA were highlighted in the film including Rodel Dagooc, Bert Labaniego, Daniel “Mumbakki” Foronda, Christopher 'Topher' Ricketts, and Dan Inosanto. I'm also pleased to note that my own instructor, Burton Richardson of Battlefield Kali, was also prominently featured.

Roland Dantes and some Austrian guy.
Though I've trained in Filipino Martial Arts (FMA) for over 10 years and have read quite a bit about its history and lineage, there was still quite a bit in the film that was new to me. There were several Grandmasters profiled that I had never heard of. For example, I am embarrassed to say I was unfamiliar with the late Roland Dantes, a bodybuilder and martial artist who was quite well known in the Philippines and played a considerable role in the modern development of FMA. (He was also one big guy… sort of a Filipino Arnold Schwarzenegger.)

I think part of the reason The Bladed Hand is so successful as a documentary is because Jay Ignacio is not himself a practitioner of FMA. Why is this a good thing? Because it means he doesn’t have a stake in the endless (and needless) bickering and quarreling that seems to be part of the FMA community. Also, because Ignacio didn’t initially know very much about the subject, he has a legitimate curiosity and unbiased desire to learn that reflects in the film.

There was a touch of melancholy to the film that is worth noting. As the film points out, FMA is not particularly popular or well regarded in the Philippines. Most Filipinos who practice martial arts gravitate towards arts such as Karate or Tae Kwon Do. Why? Partially because those arts are far more structured than most FMA. (Plus they have neat uniforms and multicolored belts and things like that.) There also seems to be a class issue involved, as FMA is apparently deemed something only poor people do by many Filipinos. (There may be some truth to that: Despite being an incredibly important and influential martial artist and war hero, Antonio Ilustrisimo died poor and was buried in an unmarked grave.)

Because few Filipinos are interested in FMA, as the various Grandmasters die (and four died while The Bladed Hand was being made) no one is opting to carry on their legacies. Since most traditional FMA is passed on verbally and via teaching as opposed to through books, this means techniques developed over generations risk being lost forever. For better of for worse, the future of Filipino Martial Arts may very well lie in the hands of non-Filipinos.

Do I have any quibbles with the film? Nothing serious. I would have liked to see a bit more about FMA empty hand arts such as Panantukan and Dumog. And it would have been nice to include something about the influence of FMA on western boxing. But these are small complaints that no doubt reflect my own preferences and biases.

If you have an interest in martial arts, you should check out The Bladed Hand: The Global Impact of the Filipino Martial Arts. However, if you have even a slight interest in Filipino Martial Arts, than the film is a must-see. It deepened my depth, appreciation, and love of the art I am proud to teach and practice.

(FYI: The Bladed Hand is slated for a DVD release in Fall 2013.)

The Bladed Hand from ShowVIS LLC on Vimeo.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Cats, Convicts, Darkness, and Light

I once watched a documentary about a maximum security prison in California. Many of the tough, older convicts took care of the cats and kittens on the prison property, often taking time to stroke them and play with them. 

In one scene, two prisoners, both young, musclebound gangbangers, were talking. One was a newbie, the other had been in prison for a few years. The newbie was making fun of the convicts and their "pussies," and joked about doing something to the cats. The other prisoner looked very concerned. "You don't want to do that, man! You don't want to mess with those guys' cats!," he told the newcomer, who immediately realized he was on dangerous ground.

The camera than cut to some of the old-timers with their cats. These convicts were 50-plus years old, and far from big or muscular. In fact, they were wiry and lean. But if you looked at their eyes, you could see why a bigger, younger man would be scared of them and know not to mess with those cats. While playing with their cats, the cons had a light in their eyes, as if they were children again. But as soon as they said goodbye to the cats, that light went out, and all you saw was darkness.

You don't want to be the one who robs a man of his only source of light.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Finding Real Life Inspiration from Fictional Heroes: The Bourne Trilogy

I was very excited when I first heard about The Bourne Identity. The idea of an old-fashioned thriller directed by Doug Liman (who had already directed the excellent films Swingers and Go) and starring Matt Damon sounded very promising. And then I discovered that Damon would be training in the Filipino art of Kali for the role. That was just the icing on the cake!

While I had not trained in Kali myself at that point, I was very interested in the art based not only on what I had read but on some family history. My grandfather—a Marine saber champion—knew some Kali from his time fighting in the Pacific during World War II. He was taught by Filipino rebels working against Japan. Plus, the idea of swinging sticks around just sounded fun.

Doug Liman explained how Kali was more than just Bourne's fighting style. It came to define the character.
The martial arts actually ended up being the thing that helped us define Jason Bourne and his entire character. Right after Matt agreed to do the film, we arranged for demonstrations of different martial arts and Kali really inspired us. It is ridiculously efficient. You don't break a sweat or expend any energy, you use your opponents energy against him. And we thought - that's Jason Bourne, that's how he'll do everything in this movie. He'll figure out the simplest, least energetic, most efficient way to get something done. For example, when the cops surround his car, he's going to calmly pull out the map, browse through it and figure out a route before he starts driving.
(I respectfully disagree about the "you don't break a sweat or expend any energy" line!)

Then when I actually saw Matt Damon's Jason Bourne in action, I knew this was what I wanted to pursue. The mixture of Kali, Boxing, and Jeet Kune Do looked practical, efficient, and (I must admit) cool. After all, the fight scene in Bourne's Paris apartment is far and away my favorite fight scene in any film.

When I finally got serious about martial arts training, I specifically looked for a school that would incorporate some Filipino martial arts as part of the curriculum. I ended up finding Burton Richardson's JKD Unlimited and Battlefield Kali,  which utilized not only Kali but also kickboxing, grappling, etc. I started training with Burton back in 2002 and haven't looked back. Not only am I still a student of Burton's, but I'm one of his instructors as well.

And all in part because of Jason Bourne. No wonder I still sometimes listen to Moby's "Extreme Ways" on the way to train!

The Bourne Trilogy is inspiring in other, non-martial ways as well. The character of Jason Bourne is street smart, with excellent survival and tradecraft skills. He also knows a variety of languages. These are qualities worth having. Plus, both Bourne (and Bond) are partially responsible for my love of simple black jackets.

Also, the films have a moral and political complexity not usually found in a Hollywood action movie, which I appreciate.

Amazingly, the Bourne Trilogy maintained a high standard of quality throughout all three films. (The Damon-less The Bourne Legacy is an outlier.) The final movie, The Bourne Ultimatum, even managed to beat the dreaded three-peat curse and proved to be just as good as the first film.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Finding Real Life Inspiration from Fictional Heroes: Man on Fire

This book is probably best known as the inspiration for two films: The first made in 1987 starring Scott Glenn, the second in 2004 with Denzel Washington. Alas, I haven't seen the Glenn version, but I did enjoy the latter film, even if I thought the last third or so had some serious story flaws.

Unlike the 2004 movie, the 1981 novel Man on Fire takes place in Italy and around the Mediterranean. One thing in particular I liked about the book is how it describes the hero, Marcus Creasy, getting back into shape after being seriously wounded in a gunfight. He doesn't do anything fancy. Creasy instead retreats to a small island of Gozo in Malta, where he spends his time going on long ocean swims and helping villagers with projects such as building stone walls out of heavy rocks. 

I'm a big fan of ocean swims, especially for active rest days. Sometimes when I'm out there and the currents feel especially strong, I think of Creasy's hard swims and it helps to motivate me to keep going.

A beach in Gozo.
The novel Man on Fire is also rich in characterization. You learn quite a bit about the characters, and Creasy in particular is given a good back story. The sense of place is also strong. After reading the book, you might very well want to take a trip to Italy and Gozo.

Actually,  a fair number of Japanese travelers have made the trip to Gozo specifically because of the Creasy collection. In an interview on an excellent A.J. Quinnell fansite, Quinnell said
The Japanese connect to Creasy. They see him as a 'Ronin' - a disgraced Samurai warrior who spends his time trying to redeem himself by doing good deeds. 
Quinnell with some of his Japanese fans.
Incidentally, Man on Fire is the first of a series featuring the character of Marcus Creasy. I can't comment on the rest of the books as I haven't read them, though at some point I will.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Finding Real Life Inspiration from Fictional Heroes: Atticus Kodiak

The Atticus Kodiak series by Greg Rucka follows the adventures and (more importantly) transformation of a ex- U.S. Army soldier turned bodyguard.

The first four books of the series are very well-done but fairly straight-forward thrillers. A few things make them standout among the competition.

For one, the characters are interesting and nicely developed, especially Atticus himself. There's a certain melancholy to him that becomes more and more apparent as the series progresses.

Also, I like the fact that Rucka is not afraid to delve into social issues and get political. This sort of thing can be a big turn-off for many readers, but I think it adds depth and substance. Also, I was a Political & Historical Studies major in college so I might be biased. A word of warning: If you are in the Vince Flynn/Brad Thor/Tom Clancy political camp, Greg Rucka might not be for you.

Then there's Rucka's writing style, which is brisk yet atmospheric.

The fifth book in the series, Critical Space,  marks a turning point in the series. While the first four books were essentially bodyguard-based crime novels, from here on the books become something more akin to international thrillers. Many fans were not happy with the changes, but I think the series went from good to great with this book.

While all the Kodiak books are worth reading, this one really stands out from an inspiration standpoint. Atticus Kodiak finds himself on an island in the Caribbean, where he spends months making learning to be one hell of a badass. The chapter in Critical Space detailing his regimen is one of the best of its kind I've ever read. It's sort of like a written version of a training montage from a movie. Essentially, Atticus spends his time strength training (with lots of pull-ups) and practicing martial arts. To aid in balance and recovery, he uses yoga and ballet. (Don't scoff at ballet; it's far more challenging and even dangerous than people realize.) He also goes on long ocean swims. As for diet, Atticus gives up alcohol and caffeine while eating lots of fresh fruit (especially watermelon) and seafood.

By the end of his training, Atticus Finch is essentially a new man. Critical Space is a great example of how a committment to fitness and wellness can lead to something akin to a personal rebirth.

The remaining books in the series, Patriot Acts and Walking Dead, are also great books. I particularly loved Walking Dead, which deals with human trafficking and the sex trade. It's very dark and gripping, and reads sort of like a thinking-man's version of the Liam Neeson film Taken.