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Endangered Species How To Save The Martial Arts Film Industry

Craig D. Reid
hong kong action
jackie chan movie
kickboxing films
martial art

April, 2015,

As digital communication takes over our lives, it naturally affects the way we connect with each other. It seems as if more and more people are studying writing at AU (Acronym University), which enables them to use “capital” punishment as a means to say a lot by writing a little. For the longest time, it seemed that the martial arts world was immune to this affliction. But now we live in the era of mixed martial arts, the sport that’s better-known as MMA. So who came up with the phrase that led to the acronym MMA? It must have been some famous martial artist, right? How could someone not in the know have devised a term that would have such an impact on the evolution of the arts? Well, let me save you the google. In 1993 a non-martial artist named Howard Rosenberg used the words “mixed martial arts” in a review of the UFC 1. He probably never thought the phrase would stick, let alone become a war cry for a new form of martial arts competition.

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Such occurrences happen from time to time. Here’s another one that’s closer to home: In 1995 I wrote an article for the magazine Imagi-Movies, in which I coined the term “fant-Asia films” to describe Hong Kong's new wave of motion pictures that mixed horror, sex, sorcery, fantasy, science fiction and swordplay. These were basically revamped and wildly stylized wuxia films injected with a frenetic pace, over-the-top martial arts action and gravity-defying “wire fu” stunts. Several months later, I wrote a second article titled "Fant-Asia: Hong Kong Action Without the Mouse." It ran in a film-industry pub called Boxoffice. Things took off from there. The term "fant-Asia” struck a nerve with three Canadian film enthusiasts, who in 1996 created one of the biggest shindigs in North America. Dubbed the Fantasia International Film Festival, it now draws genre flicks from Asia, Europe and the Americas. At this point, I’d like to introduce a new acronym: MMMA. Bear with me while I explain what it means. Over the years, most martial arts film genres have been born in Asia. The Chinese invented five genres: wuxia, gong fu, guo shu, wu da and fant-Asia. The Japanese created three: chanbara, karate and ninja. Other countries added to the mix based on their traditional arts: Filipino escrima movies, Thai kickboxing films, Indonesian silat cinema and so on. Even Hollywood has a fight genre — yup, it’s barroom brawling.

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MMMA is similar to MMA in that, at the end of the day, every martial arts film made is a result of a mishmash of combat skills and fight choreography used by earlier genres. So I say the time has come to lump all the past, present and future martial arts film fights under one cinematic genre umbrella: MMMA, which stands for “mixed movie martial arts.” The easier — and cooler — way to refer to it is “3MA.”

3MA has deep connotations and implications. First, when a person says he or she is a 3MA connoisseur, it means that person has watched lots of martial arts films from around the world and probably possesses a deeper understanding of why scenes in movies look the way they do. (I smell awesome 3MA conventions in the future.) Second, a more important part of the MMMA equation is that it can ensure the survival of martial arts cinema — and, in fact, fight scenes in any film — for the next 50 years! Consider: How many fight directors and choreographers in Hollywood can create a scene in which an eagle-claw hero battles villains who use praying mantis kung fu, karate, tiger-claw kung fu and MMA — and do it so every move looks different? How many can do that off the cuff?

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This is how fights in Chinese films have always been done. I learned this skill while working on Taiwanese kung fu soap operas in the 1980s, when we'd create 10 to 17 minutes of martial arts action every two to three days. I gained knowledge of many kung fu styles and was forced to figure out how to sell them on film. Back then, when my sifu (also my choreography mentor) taught me a new form, he tasked me with coming up with three ways to apply each new movement to a real combat situation. Then I was told to devise a way to use them in a film-fight sequence. This means that if I learned a kung fu form with 20 movements, I was expected to be able to derive 60 film-fight skills from it. When I worked as a fight-director apprentice under Yuen Tak on CBS's Martial Law, in the beginning, the crew was skeptical because they had never heard of him. When he told everyone that his next fight would be done in 92 shots and that he'd do it all in his head, they laughed. Ten hours later when the fight was complete, the continuity lady counted the shots. No one ever questioned his filmmaking ability again. So, yes, it is possible. For martial arts films to survive as a genre, choreographers must learn how to shoot a fight, how to do camera choreography (lens, movement, angles, speed) and how to edit. With today's technology, even a simple leaping punch can be made to look dynamic — so much so that audiences now demand it. My advice to fight choreographers is to start thinking 3MA. Watch hundreds, even thousands, of martial arts films and TV programs — it’s the only way to see what's been done. Then use your martial arts sensibilities to create new ideas from those old sequences. Imagine you're a studio exec, producer or director. You get an inkling of what 3MA experience can bring to a film. Surely you'd want to have a 3MA expert on hand during any action scenes. Only by exploiting the skills of a person with extensive knowledge of martial arts films would you be able to avoid redoing what's been done to death, to shoot a fight in a way that’s guaranteed to please the audience and to create something that’s completely different.

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Don’t think moviemakers need to take advice from this humble writer? Think they’re doing fine on their own? Better think again. Did you know that there may be no more theatrical releases of Asian martial arts films in the United States? These days, even Jackie Chan movies are going unnoticed and getting the straight-to-video treatment. Good fight scenes are few and far between these days. And when they do occur, they all tend to look alike. That has the potential to be the death knell for martial arts cinema. However, if the 3MA mentality catches on and creativity once again takes center stage, movies will start blowing away audiences like they used to. Martial arts on film will thrive. Trust me on this. Go here to order Dr. Craig D. Reid’s book The Ultimate Guide to Martial Arts Movies of the 1970s: 500+ Films Loaded With Action, Weapons and Warriors.

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