Sucker Punch, A film about self-defense

I am a collector of arguments. I would much rather hear a finely crafted argument than sip a glass of fine wine. A year or so ago I got myself in an argument about whether Chinese culture had the notion of self-defense 500 years ago. My contention is that self-defense is a new idea that has been developing very slowly since the American revolution (and other "Enlightenment" events) proposed that social order could be rooted in individual freedom. (I tentatively conceded the argument after my primary contender presented a translation of a 16th Century Chinese Encyclopedia which I'll include at the end of this post.)

Certainly there have always been people who found ways to practice fighting and reasons for claiming their actions were righteous. But that is not the same as claiming self-defense. For instance, in China it was common to claim that one had to fight to protect ones honor or property. But what if you had no property or no honor? Theater professionals were the lowest social caste, below even thieves, clearly they had no honor to defend. Similarly Biblical justice, an eye for an eye, is framed as the settling of a score, it is not an argument for self-defense.

This is why I was so taken by Sgt. Rory Miller's arguments in Meditations on Violence. He explained that very few forms of social violence justify an act of self-defense. With a few exceptions social violence is avoidable and deterrable. Social violence is the form of violence that most people have experience with, consequently they tend to confuse it with asocial violence which is a much rarer form of violence. Asocial violence almost always requires an act of self-defense. For instance, in the international arena we hear the absurd and incomprehensible argument that Israel responds to attacks against it's civilian population with disproportionate force. This type of argument only makes sense if you believe this is a social conflict. In an asocial conflict one is expected to use the minimum amount of force necessary to neutralize the threat. In the case of Israel, it has yet to neutralize the threat, up until the threat is neutralized any level of violence is justified.  Likewise in a social conflict, if we can easily retreat we are expected to do so. But you don't retreat once someone has broken into your house. Retreating from asocial violence tends to leave a trail of blood. The 1948 declaration of Jewish autonomy will continue to be an offense to all those who consider Jews less than fully human.

Bernard Lewis recently explained that there is no word for 'Freedom' in Arabic, the closest term is something a kin to 'justice.'  In the recent demonstrations in Egypt people were chanting "Freedom" in English.  As hopeless as it may sounds to say it, autonomy and self-defense are concepts which require novel and complex arguments to comprehend.

The arguments explaining when and how self-defense is justified are actually new. The argument for women's self-defense may have gotten some inspiration from great figures of the past like Harriet Tubman, but the moral arguments which justify it are still being articulated. The same is true for children's self-defense; witness the national "bullying" debate, and the ever growing number of films and TV shows about girls who fight back.

Self-defense is in the air.

The new film Sucker Punch, by the same guy who made 300, is about justifiable self-defense. Freedom, all freedom, is predicated on our notions of self-defense. Most people reviewing this movie don't seem to understand that. For instance I've read about 30 reviews criticizing the shortness of the plot--not incoherence mind you--shortness. As if the length of the plot matters. The film explores the relationship between the power of dance and the power of the mind to fight for freedom and autonomy.  It's a sublimely beautiful film.  Check it out.

If you want see the Ming Dynasty Encyclopedia entry about martial arts, make the jump below!

The following is a quote from Josh, a scholar of Buddhist studies who was posting on Rum Soaked Fist last year.  Later in the argument he acknowledged that for the most part these texts don't explain why people are practicing martial arts.  The arguments below fall under defense of property and defense of honor which are weak arguments for self-defense unless you are in Texas.  Being a master of ones body does imply some notion of autonomy in the same way a dance style like Flamenco does.  The 'self-protection' quoted below does imply self-defense, however in my recent readings of Historical Chinese plays about the justice system the actors are surprisingly inarticulate about why they were justified in fighting.  Also note the theatrical nature of some of the pictures and challenge match nature of others:
"In the Ming and Qing periods, it became popular to print large encyclopedic collections of commonplace knowledge, which are generally known as riyong leishu "encyclopedias for daily use." Endymion Wilkinson says of these that "These riyong leishu "encyclopedias for daily use" form an important source on popular religion and everyday attitudes, social practices, law, and the economy not found in other extant sources." (Chinese History: A Manual, p. 608). In other words, these writings were intended for a broad (but literate) audience. Among the variety of topics they present, several of these collections include chapters that briefly cover martial arts. I'll provide a few examples. The first of these collections, Wanbao quanshu, is generally considered to be a 16th century compilation. In fascicle 19, there is the chapter called "Wubei men" ("Skills of Martial Readiness") which offers a number of excerpts on martial arts practice. The chapter begins with a short verse extolling the virtues of practicing boxing. One of the lines states that after learning boxing, "During the daytime you will not have to worry about people coming to borrow from you, and at nighttime you will have no fear of thieves coming to steal from you."
In another collection from roughly the same time period, the Wanyong zhengzong, the introduction states that the one who studies boxing "will master his body, and will not be bullied by villains... [boxing] is the basis for self-protection.... The gentleman who does not practice this art will be bullied, cursed, have his possessions seized, and will unknowingly be subjected to worry and harm."
I think that these quotes and their presence in works intended for a general audience speak for themselves, and very much contradict the statements that you have made above regarding the perceived function of CMA in pre-modern Chinese society, at least at this particular time."



The Laundry Warrior

warriors-wayThe Laundry Warrior is the correct and original name of a new movie which just came out under the bland title Warrior's Way.  This is a ground breaking film and I loved it.

Had I known it's original title I might not have been so astounded by the detail and beauty of the fabric and clothing in the opening scenes.  This is a film about beauty.  The sets and props are incredible.  Really! The film is also about fashion, the deepest subject there is.

Toward the end of the film it occurred to me that everything can be viewed as a rough allegory of the relationship between North Korea, South Korea, and America.  The role of America is played by a cowboy-circus group, they are very happy but regularly traumatized by gangs of other cowboys who are criminally evil.  The split between North and South Korea is twisted and complex, an inter-family feud among assassins over a baby.  The screams of the dead are trapped in the hero's sword, but the audience never sees or hears them.

Watch the clips here:

laundryThe fight choreography is good and the love interest part of the story is as good as it gets.  Did I mention that the clothes are amazing?  Oh yeah, the fights are mostly with swords, a little old-school Zatoichi technique and a little slow motion computer animation like the movie 300.  The Koreans can all jump really high, especially out of water, it is almost like flying but they seem to come down hard.  This style of fantasy fighting is cool and can really work but they really should consult me on the nature of momentum.  The best fighters in the world, cats, do fight in the air!  But cats must spiral and twist.   Cats use rotational momentum combined with maximum internal power to fight.  The films fighters rely too much on force generated from turning around a vertical center-line.  Folks, if you are going to spend millions of dollars on an international project that employs people from Korea, Japan, the US, New Zealand, India and Australia--then I demand perfection!

warriorswNow to the important stuff.  Every little kid knows that the outfit, the kung fu or karate uniform, is a key component of the art.  I often hear parents tell me, "My son really wanted to do kungfu and begged me for a long time, but when I finally signed him up and he started taking classes I realized what he really wanted was the outfit not the hard work!"  Kids get shamed about this pretty early.  They are told that the uniform is just a vain symbol and that what really matters is doing forms.  Later they shame you about that and tell you that it's not the forms it's the applications and techniques that matter.  And if you make it that far you are likely to get shamed about those too, sparring and competitions are what really matter!  And if you make it through all that it's all about philosophy and health.  It took me many years to realize that the observations of little kids were correct all along. The power is in the outfit!

I resisted teaching with a uniform for at least ten years.  When I finally got one it made a huge difference.  Wearing a uniform helps get the teacher's charisma out of the way.  With out a uniform some kids may admire me right away and want to learn from me because they want to be like me.  But with a uniform it isn't about me any more, it is about the art, and everyone can relate to that.  Duh.

armourAdults think they are more savvy.  They are less likely to be 'fooled' by an ethnic costume.  But growing a beard doubled my credibility teaching at the college level.  Imagine what a couple of inches in eyebrow length could do?  What you wear and how you wear it has a profound effect on teaching.  Clothing conveys ones degree of seriousness, whimsy, toughness, or irony better than anything which can be said or written on a white board.

Readers may be thinking, dude, what about skills?  What about the movie you were reviewing?  At the higher levels of internal martial arts techniques and applications barely matter because whatever you do is unstoppable.  And eventually you realize that for self-defense in a surprise attack situation you can not expect to see, hear, feel, or know which way is up.  The five senses are likely to be seriously distorted.  That's why the old masters said, "Just do the form."  That's what you can count on, and if it is a well designed  form it will work for attacks from any direction, it will work in the air and it will work on the ground.  At the higher levels of internal martial arts structure, mass and even fluid, the inanimate aspects of the body, just don't matter anymore.  The body becomes like an empty suit moved by the spirit.  The spacial mind turns off all the controlling impulses of the gross and fine motor movement, and the whole body become like someone else's body.  Like a suit of chain-mail armor, or like a burlap sack (with arms and legs) filled with rice.  In the end the body becomes like clothing.



Check out these cats fighting in the air with rotational momentum and internal power!


Monga is the latest blockbuster movie from Taiwan and it is playing twice on opening night of the Taiwan Film Days festival put on by the San Francisco Film Society.  This gangster movie by Niu Doze has several male heart throbs in the lead roles and tons of hand to hand group fight scenes--Thus making it a great date movie!  But maybe not a first-date because it is actually quite complex.

The fight scenes are a lot of fun.  The choreographic style is not classic kungfu, it is loose and even sloppy.  But that's a good thing because the characters doing the fighting are talented fighters, not skilled fighters.  The free-ness of the choreography tells us the protagonists are young, a bit crazy and that they clearly love fighting.

The plot basically follows the emotional development of a few young men-of-prowess, a band of brothers, as they deal with more and more confining choices and harsh fates.  The plot has some twists in it, some are fun, and some are brutal.

But what is really important about this film is that it attempts to deal with the historic role men-of-prowess played in maintaining a social order outside of government control. This is what makes the movie special.  The action is centered around a temple.  The temple itself is martial, and the lead characters are all devoted to a martial god.  The film beautifully illustrates the thesis of the scholarly work Bandits, Eunichs and the Son of Heaven:  In order to keep commerce safe enough to keep thriving in such a vast country, Chinese civilization has depended on complex sometimes haphazard alliances between men-of-prowess.  The central government was never strong enough to control banditry or rebellion on it's own.  Magistrates were spread thinly throughout the country but righteous heroes, often centered around a temple to a martial god, were easy to come by.  These rough independent men tended to walk a fine line between community service and community extortion(More posts on this idea are here, there, over here and here too.)

The film can also probably be viewed as an allegory for the conflicts between native Taiwanese and the Mainlanders who came with the Guomindang in 1949.  It can also probably be read as an allegory for the influence the current Mainland Chinese have on Taiwanese politics, specifically the conflicts over independence between the KMT and the DPP.  But honestly I probably missed most of the nuances of these allegories, you'd have to be steeped in Taiwanese politics to get them.  Hopefully one of my readers is steeped and will enlighten us in the comments below.

The film Monga (Taiwan, 2010) is showing a 6:15 PM and 9:40 PM this Friday, October 22nd, 2010. It's at the New People theater which is a fantastic new theater in Japan Town.  Check it out!

New Jet Li Movie

At least the movie had some cool swords! At least the movie had some cool swords!

The new movie Warlords staring Jet Li comes out this Friday and I would have had to see it even if I hadn't been given a free preview ticket because it is a historical epic film dealing with the Taiping Rebellion! This film is really dark and normally I love darkness, but in this film I just couldn't see the point.

I just happen to have been re-reading Jonathan D. Spence's classic God's Chinese Son, The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan.  There is so much truly great theatrical material in the actual history of the Taiping Rebellion that is truly inexcusable for a contemporary film to bore us by following the bond between three men of prowess--two bandit leaders and a Qing Dynasty general named Pang (Jet Li).  There are a couple of OK fight scenes but we've come to expect so much more, stay home and re-watch Once Upon A Time in China if you want action.

Ching Shih 1836, Female Pirate Leader Ching Shih 1836, Female Pirate Leader

I rarely get on my high horse and defend women, probably because none of the women I know actually need defending, but as I walked out of the film with my friend, who happens to be a female martial artist, we turned to each other and the first thing both of us said was, "What was that woman doing in the movie?"  You see, the film makers wrote one of those romantic subplots into the story.  It was totally irrelevant and uninteresting.  You're probably thinking, yeah, whatever, but consider this:  During the period of the Taiping Rebellion there were many well known female bandit and pirate leaders. That's great theatrical material that was completely neglected, no?  These were powerful leaders, some of whom actually went back and forth between being pirates and being bandits--from horseback to sailing-- These were women with skills! Damn it, I want to see that movie! Not some drivel about men who fought for 5 years without taking a bath.  Hello.

But there is more:  During the Taiping Rebellion, copies of the Bible in Chinese were widely distributed.  At one point there are so many people going into trance and becoming possessed by Jesus, Mary, Moses, God, God's wife and other characters from the Bible, that the leaders of the Taiping Rebellion have to go around from village to village authenticating Prophets--you know--is that really Jesus talking, or is it the devil pretending to be Jesus?

And this was a huge war that lasted for more than 15 years, with millions of combatants.  The Taiping population was fanatical.  They separated men and women into different encampments during the whole rebellion.  It's possible that hey fielded millions of female troops for battle.

Would it be too much to ask that they make a better movie next time?

Blogs, a Forum, Some News and Reviews

I'm finally pulling myself away from the forum Rum Soaked Fist where my comments were the center of controversy on two threads.  One now has over 100 posts, the other is at about 50 posts.

Here are some new blogs I've discovered:
Forum for Traditional Wu Tai Chi Chuan
Hao style Tai Chi Chuan Blog

eastpaw's yeast pause
The Tai Chi Notebook

and Masters of the IMA could keep you busy for a while.

I ran across this article on Stem Cell Experiments:
As military doctors in Iraq and Afghanistan have seen more horrific injuries involving skin, nerve, vascular and bone losses from explosions, they have tried to think of what more could be done for the victims besides bandaging things up and hoping for the best.

Maybe they could regrow the tissue: Grow the cartilage, grow the blood vessels, grow the nerves and even grow the bone.

If you're in San Francisco this Saturday and you want to see some Kabuki with a lecture, check this out.

And I'm going to try to catch God Man Dog at the Taiwan Film Festival.

Meanwhile, I saw Whip It! I think Drew Barrymore is the greatest film maker alive.  I pronounce her King of the Date Movie! Why did I have to come of age in a world without Roller Derby?  What did I do to deserve that.  God, are you listening?  If we are going to win hearts and minds in the Middle East, we've got to put together an Arab/Persian Roller Derby Team (any suggestions for a name?)

I also saw Zombieland, and if you often have the feeling that you are surrounded by zombies and only occasionally meet a human, this is the movie for you.  Fun stuff.

And I also saw Jennifer's Body, I don't know why people say it's full of metaphors, I think it was written by someone I went to high school with.  That's exactly how I remember it.

Oh and District 9, great story, and it makes fun of protesters.

Chocolate (2008)

We were told that the new film Chocolate would be released in February, it never showed up.  It looks like San Francisco is now a second rate film release city.  I think it got a two day release in Cupertino.  Or perhaps it just went straight to DVD.

So anyway we rented it this weekend.  They stole my idea!  I said that great martial artists probably have a subtle form of Asperger's syndrome.  Well the guys in Thailand who made OngBak have made a Kung Fu movie about a girl with Asperger's syndrome who can kick, kick-it-i-kick some serious booty.  She starts out fighting all the guys at the ice factory, think ice claws, picks, and saws.  Then she takes out all the guys at the giant Bangkok butcher shop, think cleavers, hooks, bare chests.  And I think you get the idea.  There are some yakuza moments and even an Asperger's capoeirista (I think) in one scene.

My g-friend/0.5wife cried at one point, so I'm not giving this up as a date movie, but we both liked it and there are some truly great kung fu routines.

The name is autistic.  It has nothing to do with the film.  It should have been called "Fists of Asperger's," or "I Kick 'o yo' Asperger's."