Hero was a bona fide hit in theaters! Find out what went into making this Chinese martial arts film a success — and why its successor House of Flying Daggers didn't fare so well.

Zhang Yi-mou directed three well-received motion pictures — Red Sorghum (1987), Ju Dou (1990) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991) — and even though the latter two were Cannes Film Festival award nominees, the Chinese film auteur didn’t attract mainstream attention in the West until he tried his hand at the martial arts. Specifically, it wasn't until 2002 when he made Hero, which stars Jet Li and Donnie Yen. The irony about Zhang's ascendancy into the worldwide wu xia film craze is that he never saw a Bruce Lee movie until 1979. And as of 2004, he’d watched only 15 martial arts films, one of them being his second wu xia film House of Flying Daggers (2004). "It's not that I don't like the films," Zhang said when I interviewed him in 2004. "But growing up during the Cultural Revolution, we never saw these films, and it wasn't until film school that I learned about Bruce Lee movies and watched wu xia films." Rather than making a film adaptation of a work from Chinese literature, Zhang spent three years developing an original story for Hero. However, just as he was about to start shooting, Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) was released. That caused Zhang to shelve the project. "I was concerned that people would always think that I was trying to emulate Lee and have Hero be China's answer to Taiwan's Crouching Tiger," Zhang said.


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Fortunately, Jet Li persuaded Zhang to resurrect the Hero project and finish the film. In the movie, which boasted a $17-million budget, Donnie Yen plays Lone Sky Iron Shield, part of a trio of assassins trying to kill Emperor Qin Shi Huang Di, the infamous dynastic figure who fought to unify China during the third century B.C. (He’s the historical figure whose burial site is guarded by 8,000 life-size terracotta warriors near the Chinese city of Xian.) Jet Li plays Qin's bodyguard. "I loved the script so much that when I finished reading it, I cried twice because my character Nameless has strong feelings about what's going on,” Jet Li told me before heading to China to film. “In my career, it's the first script that made me cry. It's an incredible story where drama is first and action is there to help the story." Donnie Yen joined the cast at Li's insistence. "I thought I wasn't ready to go back to China to shoot a film yet,” Yen confessed after Shanghai Knights (2003) premiered. “I was kind of spoiled working outside of Hong Kong [with] all the catering and pampering. But when Ching Siu-tung (Hero's fight director and the father of ‘wire-fu’) said that I'd be fighting Jet, I said OK. “I was also thinking that after 10 years, Jet just wanted to beat me up again." Yen was referring, of course, to the battles the two of them had in Once Upon a Time in China II (1992). The unique aspect of the Jet Li–Donnie Yen rematch in Hero is certainly the way they fight without fighting. According to kung fu folklore, martial artists with powerful chi could sit in front of each other, send their spirits out of their bodies and have the spirits fight. A fighter died if his spirit died during the fight. This is the first time most Americans had seen this on-screen. Zhang wrote Flying Daggers while shooting Hero and thought that if the film's tone wasn't in direct contrast to Hero, he'd quit the project. "I originally intended Flying Daggers to be a sequel to Hero but realized that would interfere with making it different,” Zhang said. "They're both differing stories of sacrifice. Hero is sacrificing for righteousness, and that's more in line with the traditional Chinese culture and philosophy. In Flying Daggers, the characters are willing to sacrifice their traditional values in order to achieve their own individual ends … and this moves it away from traditional wu xia films."

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In some ways, the success of these two different approaches was measured at the box office. Hero became the first foreign-language film to open at No. 1 in the United States (August 27, 2004). It went on to gross $53 million. In contrast, Flying Daggers grossed only $11 million in the States. (Photos Courtesy of Miramax, a subsidiary of Filmyard Holdings) 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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Do you want to maximize your self defense skills? Learn the game of combat chess and most importantly the queen of all moves.

Allow me to intercept those who would object to the title of this article. I'm not claiming that there's a secret move, shortcut or hack that will give you the edge in any fight. Even if there was an ultimate weapon or strategy, you likely would avoid it because you
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Looking to buy some weights to gain some strength?

Looking at Dumbbell, Kettlebells or Weighted bar? How about an all in one that won't just save you some good amount of money but also space? Look no further, we bring you the GRIPBELL!

Let's face it, when we do want to work on some strength building, we don't want to go around shopping for 20 different weight equipment things. That would just not want us to even do any sort of strength training. But what if we only needed a few, a few that can do the things we want without having 20 things lay around? That's where the GRIPBELL comes in. Let me clarify with you first, these are not some heavy duty, muscle exploding weights, they are for building the level of strength we as martial artists want without going crazy and insane in bulk sizing!

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Many different types of "blocks" are taught in most martial arts school. We are taught high blocks, low blocks, middle blocks, knife hand blocks, etc. Some schools will also teach how to use the legs to block an attack, as well.

The purpose of this writing is to possibly open some minds to the possibilities of going outside the box and considering alternatives to the basics.

Blocking is taught as a way of protecting oneself from harm. Truly, we don't "block" anything, as a non-martial artist would think of it. What we call "blocking" is more of a redirection of an opponent's attack, or even a counterstrike against the opponent's attacking limb.

To block something would mean to put something, like your arm, leg or other body part directly in front of the attack. That would certainly hurt and possibly cause some damage. The goal should be to move the attack out of the way in order to prevent injury and provide a way to fight back. For example, many schools teach blocks as a limb moving toward the strike such as a circular high block.

The movement required for a block might have other uses, if you keep an open mind. The blocking techniques can also be used as attack techniques. For example, your "low block" may be used as a striking technique against the outer thigh of the attacker. Your high block might be used as a strike to the jaw. The set up for a block can be used as a deflection, as well as the actual block.

Doing a block or a series of blocks will most likely not end an attack. A block needs to be followed by a counterattack. While the block is usually taught as a separate technique in order to learn it correctly, it should also be used in combination with a counter.

The more you know, the more you realize how much you don't know. Intensive books can and have be written about basic techniques. With this writing, I am hoping to create interest in exploring the additional possibilities for what we have been taught and what we teach others.

About Grand Master Stevens

GM Stevens has been training in taekwondo for 47 years under the tutelage of the late legendary Grand Master Richard Chun. He holds an 8th degree black belt and is certified in the USA and in Korea. Grand Master Stevens is a member of the Board of Directors of the prestigious Richard Chun TaeKwonDo World Headquarters organization. He has been very active in his community and has been a volunteer with the Glen Rock Volunteer Ambulance Corps for over 11 years. He is a certified member of C.E.R.T. (Community Emergency Response Team).

Gary Stevens Taekwondo is located at 175 Rock Road in Glen Rock, New Jersey.

For more information: call (201) 670-7263, email: StevensTKD@aol.com or go to www.StevensTaeKwonDo.com

Having partners at or above your skill level is important for improving in your martial arts training. At some point, however, you will probably find yourself with a shortage of skilled partners, especially if you are an instructor.

This can happen for any number of reasons: students can move away, change their work schedules, start a family, etc., and just like that, you find that you're the highest-ranked student, or sole instructor, in your gym or dojo. This doesn't have to be a bad thing. In fact, if you take advantage of it, even working exclusively with lower-ranking classmates or students can improve your skills.

I used to host a twice-a-week training session at my dojo where I invited mostly black belts from other schools (as well as a few of my advanced students) to come and run drills. It was a blast. These were tough two- to three-hour sessions where I got to work with fighters of all different sizes, speeds, and technique preferences. My sparring improved dramatically over the next few months, and I don't think I've ever been in better shape. But unfortunately, it doesn't always work out that way. And as the old saying goes, "You gotta work with what ya got." So, make it hard on yourself.

I like to set handicaps when fighting my students. Specifically, I focus on forcing myself to work on improving my weak areas. Is you right leg weaker than the left? Then only kick with the right leg when sparring your students. Not much of an inside fighter? Don't kick at all. Training with partners of lesser skill not only helps you improve your weak points but gives them an opportunity to improve as well by working on strategy. It's also great for building their confidence. It can also be a low-cost opportunity to test new techniques and combinations, which benefits you as well.

In grappling, just like sparring, there is little benefit to wrapping lower ranking classmates into pretzels over and over, for them or you. Instead, let your partner put you in a bad situation. Let them get the mount; help them sink in that choke or armbar. If you start standing, such as in judo, allow your partner to get the superior grip before attempting a throw. This way you will get comfortable working out of a weaker position and your less-experienced partner can perfect their technique (and get experience using multiple techniques, if you get out of their first one).

You might think that giving advantages like these to students who may be far beneath your skill level is much of a challenge. Trust me, you'll reconsider that sentiment when you wind up sparring a 6'5" novice with zero control over his strength after deciding to only use your weak leg, or have a 250-pound green belt lying across your diaphragm trying to get an armlock after you let them get the pin. Remember, this is exactly what you signed up for: a challenge.

If you find yourself at the top of the heap without partners who are sufficiently challenging, there is no need to despair. Use it as a low-stress opportunity to improve your weaknesses and develop avenues to help your less experienced classmates and students to grow. You may even be surprised. One day they might present more of a challenge than you ever imagined!
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