Martial Arts TV

Contestant on the Hit CBS Reality-Series Survivor Is a Taekwondo Teacher!

On September 23, 2015, CBS premiered the 31st season of Survivor. Titled Survivor Cambodia: Second Chance, it brings back fan faves from past seasons so they can have another shot at the $1 million prize. One of the returning contestants is a taekwondo teacher named Yung “Woo” Hwang. This story, which we ran after his first appearance on Survivor, will explain why he’s being given a second chance.

— Editor

How much is your integrity worth? It’s a question few us will have to answer — and one even fewer will be forced to face in front of 10 million viewers. Martial arts instructor Yung “Woo” Hwang has a clue about his own price: One million dollars is not enough.

In the finale of Survivor: Cagayan, Woo became a guaranteed finalist when he won the last immunity challenge. That meant he could choose his opponent at the Final Tribal Council, where the winner would go home a millionaire. Woo selected ultra-aggressive New Jersey police officer Tony Vlachos over California attorney Kass McQuillen, who was universally considered an easier opponent. Vlachos went on to win and claim the seven-figure prize. At the Survivor reunion show, host Jeff Probst asked the contestants if they would have voted for Woo had he faced McQuillen. The majority said they would have given Woo the nod — and the money.

It can’t be easy to swallow a million-dollar pill of hindsight and second guesses, but Woo has accepted it like the weather. After all, in his mind, there was only one path to take.

“A lot of my decision was based on my way of living,” Woo said. “Growing up in taekwondo, my father always stressed that in order to be the best, you have to go up against the best.

“My decision to take Tony was in the same respect: He played a great game, and I thought I had a 50-50 shot at beating him even though he was one of the stronger players of the season. I thought, If I could take someone like Tony and manage to beat him, how wonderful that would be? If not, I can walk away with my head held high because I lost against the best.”

A sixth-degree black belt, Woo, 30, is the son of Chi Sung Hwang, a ninth-degree grandmaster and the owner of Hwang’s Martial Arts in Massillon, Ohio. Woo began lessons at age 3 and never stopped. Going into Survivor, he knew his years of training and superior balance, agility and coordination would allow him to surmount obstacles and win immunity challenges. The years on the mats paid off for the ultra-likable Woo, but not because of his wicked spinning crescent kick. His genuine people skills resonated with the audience, and he became one of the most well-liked competitors in the history of the show.

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“I have been training adults since I was 13, so my ability to interact and socialize with all age groups comes naturally,” Woo said. “A lot of my social skills came from emulating my father. When he would speak, people would listen. I loved how he was able to gain the respect and attention of whoever he was speaking to.”

Since returning home, Woo has focused on two things: building his business and rebuilding his body. The 5-foot-9-inch martial arts instructor and surfing coach entered Survivor at a lean 170 pounds, with etched abdominals. He finished the season at a gaunt 140 pounds. After the show wrapped, Woo immediately got back in the weight room and resumed surfing to reclaim his lost muscle tissue. It took two months for his body to get back to full strength and his digestion to return to normal — although he’s still 8 pounds lighter than when he began the show.

Promoting his athletic training facility and martial arts studio — HB Academy in Huntington Beach, California — has been a bit easier. After all, having 10 million people watch you give up $1 million in favor of your integrity is priceless in terms of marketing.

“The positive feedback I have received from social media and people on the streets has made me feel like a million bucks,” Woo said.

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Don’t be surprised if you see Woo on the screen again. Like many martial artists, he grew up idolizing Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme. Besides taekwondo, Woo has trained in wushu, capoeira, muay Thai and various weapon styles, and he believes his skill set would translate beautifully to the screen. He’s spent the past few years …

Is Arrow American Television’s Unwitting Take on the Kung Fu Underworld of Chinese Literature?

In April, I blogged about new TV shows that featured entertaining martial arts action but allowed their boldness to dwindle as seasons progressed. One of them was Arrow.

When it debuted on The CW, Arrow displayed impressive weapons choreography. However, during the fall 2014 season, the combat quality waned. It eventually culminated in a highly anticipated sword fight between Arrow, aka Oliver Queen (played by Stephan Amell), and the skilled-but-ruthless leader of the League of Assassins, aka Ra’s al Ghul (played by Matt Namble). It was a disappointing battle, to say the least.

Arrow’s expertise vanished — he seemed to forget how to move and wield a sword. Ra’s appeared less skilled than a quarterback averaging 10 interceptions per game. The episode caused me to stop watching the series, but my DVR kept recording it. That prompted me to give Arrow a second chance, and once I stopped scrutinizing the fights — wow!

Photo by Jordon Nuttall/2015 The CW Network

I’ve concluded that although Arrow is based on the superhero character Green Arrow, launched by DC Comics in 1941, the series comes across more like an old Chinese wuxia novel. I also noted a nod to World War I’s renowned Battle of Gallipoli (1915-16) — more on that later.

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Background: Jiang Hu is a staple of wuxia novels, a form of Chinese prose that gained repute during the Tang dynasty (618 – 907). The stories are romanticized tales of altruistic heroes with magical martial arts skills. Jiang Hu, meaning “rivers and lakes” in Chinese, is an alternative society composed of beggars and outcasts, as well as kung fu heroes and villains. They all coexist in communities that have their own laws and ethics.

The essence of wuxia can be seen in the Chinese characters that are used to write the word. Although wu means “martial,” the character’s components mean “to stop the fight.” Xia loosely translates as “chivalrous hero.” Anyone with virtue is described as xia. Thus, wuxia writings feature virtuous people who use martial arts skills and morality to do good deeds. This winds up being a perfect description for Arrow and his clan.

Photos by Cate Cameron/2015 The CW Network

Jiang Hu includes a sub-community called Wu Lin, in which inhabitants compete to be the head fighter, swordsman or clan leader. They strive to attain that position by adhering to the unwritten but respected ethical codes of loyalty and righteousness. Yet some avoid virtue and attain power via violence. This is reminiscent of Arrow’s Ra’s al Ghul, head of the League of Assassins.

In Chinese films, Jiang Hu is often called the Kung Fu Underworld. In it, clans frequently vie for a symbol of power — perhaps a secret martial arts book, a special weapon or an ancient emblem. Whoever possesses the symbol rules the underworld. The Arrow parallel: Whoever wears the full-finger golden ring becomes the Ra’s al Ghul.

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In 1915, when Mustafa Kamal of the Ottoman Turks arrived at the Battle of Gallipoli, the out-of-ammo Ottomans were retreating from the Allied forces. Kamal ordered them to fix bayonets, then famously said, “I don’t order you to fight; I order you to die.” The Ottomans won the battle, and Kamal became Turkey’s first president in 1923.

In an episode of Arrow titled “The Offer,” Ra’s paraphrases Kamal’s words to Oliver: “My men don’t have to kill for me; they have do die for me.” Then Ra’s explains that the League of Assassins has roots in the Koran and Muslim history.

Photos by Cate Cameron/2015 The CW Network

If Arrow consistently had good fights that didn’t tend to look alike, it could become a creative leader in the genre. It’s an ironic observation when you recall that in season 3, Malcolm teaches Thea how to fight, warning her to never use the same move twice. Unfortunately, that’s precisely what Arrow does: The action scenes have used the same techniques hundreds of times.

Nevertheless, I find Arrow intriguing because of its connection to Jiang Hu, Wu Lin and the wuxia genre. In fact, it’s that connection that makes me wonder how much of what comic-book creators have done since the 1930s stems from wuxia. It’s possible that they were so inspired by wuxia literature that they — knowingly or unknowingly — borrowed from them. Maybe that’s their “trade secret.” Just saying.

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The Martial Arts of Marvel’s Daredevil TV Series, Part 2

In my June 1, 2015, blog, I discussed how the soaring popularity of Marvel’s Daredevil on Netflix hinges in large part on its realistic fight scenes, the essence of which is encapsulated in a three-minute, single-shot battle that takes place in the second episode “Cut Man.” The already bloodied, bruised and battered Matt Murdock (Daredevil) must rescue an abducted child from the depths of a Russian mob’s hideout. At the end of the altercation, our hero is much worse for wear, but he emerges with child in hand.

Daredevil approaches its fight scenes in an unusual way. Because the lead character is a mere mortal — like us — he feels pain, sustains bruises and ultimately bleeds a lot. Also, because of the nightly nature of his personal war on crime, he doesn’t have the luxury of being able to disappear from the public eye while his body completely heals.

The result? On any given night, he’s likely to be out on the streets with stitches still in place, sometimes with blood still seeping from his wounds. We’re reminded of that every time he makes a mistake and allows a bad guy to hit an injured part of his body, every time he rolls the wrong way in a fight, every time he stretches his aching limbs to execute a kick or punch. Each fight is a struggle, one that leaves him more exhausted and more racked with pain.

Adding to the physical intrigue, Daredevil, who’s played by Charlie Cox, is clad in a black outfit and fights only at night. That puts his opponents at a disadvantage while it leaves him unaffected because, being blind, he’s used to navigating and maneuvering without sight.

All that leaves stunt coordinator Philip Silvera with lots of opportunities to be creative. By shooting in low light, he gives the audience a glimpse of what it’s like to wage war in Daredevil’s world. It also makes it easier for Silvera to insert stunt doubles into the action. Because Cox isn’t a martial artist and thus doesn’t have well-honed postures and techniques to display, stunt doubles are essential, especially when the script calls for a fancy technique that’s beyond the scope of Cox’s abilities. (You often can tell when a double is being used just by scrutinizing the character’s punches.)

Because Daredevil is so often injured — or about to get injured — the fights seem more realistic. Just as important, they’re shot at normal camera speed, and the actors are allowed to look tired and hurt, even wasted.

Part of the reason all this works is the premise on which Daredevil is based: The hero can heal more quickly and thus fight through some injuries, but he’s still human. However, because of his martial arts training and the belief that he’s doing the right thing, Daredevil can overcome crazy amounts of pain and adversity. When all seems lost, his survival instinct takes over — just like it does in real life when warriors face overwhelming odds.

Sometimes this style of combat is presented most effectively with a slower pace — which brings us back to the aforementioned three-minute fight. When a battle doesn’t need to be frenetic, when it’s one in which emotion trumps fancy skill and stuntmen need to be inserted via the “Texas switch,” a slower pace is often the best choice. The actors don’t need to remember as many moves, and that can make them perform better by eliminating the pressure that comes from the fear of making mistakes.

Back in 1980, I worked on a Chinese kung fu soap opera in which we Texas-switched two stunt doubles for the same star in one shot. We learned that when the cameras roll longer, it can add a new dimension to the action.

Based on that, I have a tidbit of advice for Philip Silvera: If you train your actors and stuntmen so they have the confidence to do 20 or more techniques per shot (like pro dancers do) and use more than one stuntman for the same actor in the same shot, you can create stretched-out fight scenes more frequently. In addition to pleasing martial artists, this will open the doors for some amazing choreography and draw the audience deeper into the action.

Read Part 1 of this article here.

(Photos by Barry Wetcher, Courtesy of Netflix)

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.

The Martial Arts of Marvel’s Daredevil TV Series, Part 1

When was the last time you heard of a TV show being renewed for its second season just 10 days after it premiered? Practically never. Yet that was the situation with Daredevil, a Netflix original series that’s become wildly popular almost overnight.

But wait — there’s more! According to Netflix, Daredevil is but the first of four epic live-action adventure series. It will be joined by Marvel’s A.K.A. Jessica Jones, Iron Fist and Luke Cage. The multiple launches will culminate with the title characters appearing in Marvel’s The Defenders.

Daredevil diabolically digs into the backstory of how the low-key, ethical and blind lawyer Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox, above, with Deborah Ann Woll, who plays Karen Page) evolves into the law-breaking, morally gray and remorsefully ferocious Daredevil, guardian angel of New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen. At the center of Hell’s Kitchen’s plumbing gone wrong is bald and bellicose madman Wilson Fisk, aka Kingpin (Vincent D’Onofrio, shown below), who’s trying to remodel the Kitchen by first destroying it.

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In addition to the gripping story, which features superb caricatures of characters created by Stan Lee in 1964, Daredevil benefits immensely from top-notch martial arts. In fact, many regard the fights as the main event — even the mainstream press has chimed in on the subject.

The brains behind Daredevil opted not to cast actors with a track record of doing swashbuckling adventure films. In fact, Cox and D’Onofrio don’t fit the bill in any way, shape or form. Yet their action sequences deliver real gut punches and shock value to the show’s demented dark side. The man responsible for all this belligerent brouhaha is stunt coordinator Philip Silvera.

Although Daredevil is the centerpiece for the martial arts fights, Silvera said that when Fisk gets to a certain point, he likes to have the character lose control and let brutality take over.

“When he’s in rage mode, he just keeps going until he’s done,” Silvera said. “That is Kingpin, that is D’Onofrio. He’s a very smooth, calculating individual, but when you bring out his rage, he’s like a bulldozer.”

Whenever I’m watching Daredevil and see Fisk violently take apart his opponents with his sledgehammer fists, I find myself thinking, “It’s clobbering time!” Hmm, now where have we heard that line?

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The fights in Daredevil aren’t just stuck into the story lines for the hell of it. Apart from moving the plots forward, each fight contributes to Daredevil and Fisk’s character development. Depending on the unique circumstances that lead up to each altercation, it can reveal a weakness or a strength. Either way, we know there’s going to be a major showdown between Daredevil and Fisk.

In my April 3, 2015 blog, I examined what was supposed to be Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D’s flagship fight, but it turned out to be like the French loss at the Battle of Trafalgar. Everything that the fight should’ve had to make it superiorly smashing was done in what’s considered the defining fight moment of Daredevil’s first season — and it was done with panache by Colin Firth in Kingsman, as described in my March 13, 2015 blog.

What battle am I referring to? The three-minute, single-shot fight scene highlighted in the second episode, which is titled “Cut Man.” In it, Daredevil viciously defeats a gang of Russian thugs. It’s the first of its kind for television — so noteworthy, in fact, that I’ll save it and the rest of my combat commentary for the second half of Black Belt’s Daredevil analysis.

Read Part 2 of this article here.

(Photos by Barry Wetcher, Courtesy of Netflix)

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The Martial Arts of Transporter: The Series — The Good and the Bad

In the never-vacant category of “TV shows based on hit films, either in development or on the air,” there are currently 35 entries. One of the newest is Transporter: The Series, which plays on TNT in the United States. It’s derived from Luc Besson’s Transporter movies, which featured Jason Statham as Frank Martin, a freelance courier whose driving style is as fast and powerful as his fighting style.

Unfortunately, the key to the films’ success — Statham’s ability to deliver the goods in frenetic, Hong Kong-style fight scenes that were choreographed by Cory Yuen Kwei — is absent from the series. So just how do the resulting TV battles compare to the film fights?

There are three reasons the fights in Transporter: The Series fall short. First is the star. Chris Vance as Martin resembles Roger Moore’s debonair Simon Templar in The Saint TV show (1962-1969) more than he does Statham’s portrayal of Martin. Suffice it to say that Vance’s martial arts skills could use some work, as well.

Transporter The Series

Second is the choreographer. Mohamed Elachi’s fight scenes are like a seesaw. In other words, the action goes up and down. It’s bad most weeks, but sometimes it gets better — although it’s never really great.

Third is the fact that the fights in the series are not as important to the plot as Besson demanded for his movies.

None of this means that Transporter: The Series sucks; it just means the fights need work.


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The first episode, which aired in late 2014, showed Vance using weak boxing stances, performing one-step-sparring moves with big windups, and doing silly things like stepping onto a car hood and then jumping into the air (not very high) before executing a simple punch.

The second episode tried to conceal Vance’s skill level by using shifty camera movements — aka the “earthquake cam.” Interestingly, this technique was used often in samurai movies from the 1970s.

Transporter The Series

In the ensuing weeks, Vance’s signature movements became apparent: the head butt, the noggin smash into a wall or plate glass, the step-jump that leads into an attack and a front kick that’s reminiscent of Kwai Chang Caine.


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On the positive side: An episode that aired in January 2015 had Vance fighting the Chinese Triads, and the star actually did a ton of decent martial arts moves. Making it even better, the choreography involved more props, incorporated the environment, and used wider angles so viewers could see — and appreciate — the combat. Such is the nature of seesaw choreography.

Sometimes, the first season of any TV series brings with it a learning curve that challenges the choreographer, the stuntmen and the actors. They’re tasked with developing a fight rhythm so that by the time the second season is under way, everyone is in sync and the choreographer knows how to work with non-martial-arts-practicing actors. That seems to be the case with Transporter: The Series.

Transporter The Series on TNT

Because the choreography and camerawork in Transporter: The Series can change from episode to episode, it’s hard to predict whether a particular installment will feature good fights. With any luck, the cast and crew will find the right balance that will keep everyone happy.

(Photos Courtesy of TNT, Cauvin-Chognard/CCSP)

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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