Black Belt's entertainment blogger takes a look at the new AMC series Into the Badlands, starring Daniel Wu. It's Wu's real-life martial arts skills that make this post-apocalyptic series a cut above the rest.

No American-made TV show — whether it's produced by Netflix, the networks, cable or the premium channels — has come close to capturing the essence of Hong Kong cinema's frenetic-paced, over-the-top, highly stylized martial arts action. Until now. I am, of course, raving about the outrageous and audacious martial arts action served up by the hit AMC series Into the Badlands. More than 8.2 million people tuned in for its premiere in November 2015, making it the top-rated new fall series on either cable or broadcast television. It was also the third-largest audience for the launch of a cable series. I interviewed Badlands star Daniel Wu a wee while ago for the cover story of the February/March 2016 issue of Black Belt. He discussed in depth his martial arts pedigree and philosophy, as well as how he got into filmmaking and why he wanted to do the series. Don’t worry! This blog won’t give you deja vu if you’ve already read that article. All I’ll say is that Wu, a Chinese-American, is a legitimate martial artist who’s famous in Asia for his non-martial arts roles. His latest film, a doctor-and-patient-who’s-going-to-die tear-jerker called Go Away Mr. Tumor, is China's 2015 Academy Award contender for Best Foreign Language Film. Inasmuch as there's been some decent martial arts action in series like Netflix’s Marco Polo and Daredevil, several fair stabs with ABC's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and a few good seasons of the CW's Arrow, none has gone beyond the call of duty the way Badlands has.


Photo by James Dimmock/AMC

Badlands is being labeled a martial arts drama, akin to Chinese television’s lien xu zhu, or “kung fu soap operas.” It just so happens that this is the genre in which I honed my choreography skills while attending National Taiwan University circa 1979-81 as a graduate student. (Yes, I fake-fought my way through college.) Because I’ve seen so much in this wonderful genre, I knew the martial arts world would love Badlands as soon as I watched the opening episode's first fight. In it, Sunny (Daniel Wu) takes on a band of Mad Max-ian, apocalyptic ruffians using a combative tai chi skill that’s never been seen on American television. The technique was first featured in Hong Kong cinema by Donnie Yen in his debut film Drunken Tai Chi (1984). Yuen Woo-ping choreographed the scene, in which Donnie Yen kills a crazed villain named Iron-Steel, played by Yuen's brother Sunny Yuen. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the fight choreographer for Badlands is one of Yuen Woo-ping's disciples, a man named Dee Dee Ku. He choreographed Donnie Yen's fights in Iron Monkey (1993) and Jet Li's action in Tai-Chi Master (1993), both of which were directed by Yuen Woo-ping. It's an interesting yet convoluted tie-in.

Photo by James Dimmock/AMC

Filmed in Louisiana, Badlands takes place 500 years into America’s future, during a time when a feudal society known as the Badlands is run by seven barons. Each baron controls a vital resource and owns a private army of enforcers called “clippers.” Sunny is the head clipper for the most powerful baron. No wonder all Daniel Wu's fights end up being close shaves! I’m not joking. I’m referring to the rain-drenched sword showdowns, slice-and-dice mayhem, blood-squirting gore and broken-bone bashing that viewers get in every episode. "We had six days to do each fight, compared to two weeks in typical Hong Kong films,” Wu told me. “When we got into it, we were like, Now we know why no one else is doing this — because it’s so hard!”

Image Courtesy of AMC

Unlike his Hollywood counterparts, Badlands executive producer/action-unit director Stephen Fung, who directed Tai Chi Zero (2012), doesn't have to use the “earthquake cam” effect or extreme close-ups to hide the fighting ineptitude of the star. That’s because Wu is a skilled martial artist! Instead, Fung uses wide angles so you can see that, in this case, it’s actually Daniel Wu who’s fighting 10 opponents in one scene. Furthermore, Fung ensures the stunts are filmed so you can tell that Wu (and a few other talented Badlands actors) really have been knocked backward by a strike and really have crashed into a wall.

Photo by James Minchin III/AMC

It's rare to see a fresh Asian-American face burst onto the American small screen. It’s ever more rare to see someone do it by busting the Asian-American stereotypes that the major networks seem to be perpetuating. Daniel Wu is doing both. Yet there's an ironic conundrum attached to his portrayal of Sunny. "He's Asian but not an Asian character,” Daniel Wu said. “There's nothing Asian about him — Sunny could have been black or white. So on the cultural side, it wasn't the point for him to be from Asia or have a Chinese accent. He's born and raised in America, like me, so you won't see any Asian-ness. But then it's tricky because one might argue that an Asian doing martial arts is a stereotype." The way Daniel Wu manages the challenges associated with Into the Badlands seems to be resonating with audiences. It’s been announced that the series likely will be picked up for a second season. If you’re wondering where Wu might take Sunny’s character in Season 2, read the story in the February/March 2016 Black Belt. 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. Subscribe to Black Belt here.
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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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