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!

Mao's Last Dancer (Review)

I just saw the movie Mao's Last Dancer. As my readers probably know, I love horror movies and kungfu movies, and scifi-action type stuff. I love the types of movies which give me that male hormone rush! Which is probably why I hate drama and romantic comedy, you know, chick flicks. My half-wife and I now joke that watching chick flicks is a form of estrogen therapy. But whatever, sometimes I give in to my weaker side.

Mao's Last Dancer gets an A grade for acting, and an A for the storyline. I spent about two years training ballet very seriously, but going to the ballet is not usually my thing; ballet is usually so focused on stimulating female hormones what am I going to do? But this movie is a true story about a great male dancer and the guy who plays him (Chi Cho) is a great dancer too. You get to see the best parts, the male parts, of classics like Swan Lake and Rite of Spring. Lots of great dancing and great choreography. So it gets an A for dance too.

The politics aren't perfect, I give it a B+, but for a non-horror movie that's high praise. I love when his mom tells the party officials to f--- off. Politically it feels honest.
Taijiquan practitioners will love the hard-ass but caring dance masters. What do they demand of their students? "Fa song" (relax!).

Alright, whatever, I cried. I sobbed. I simpered. I'm a confident macho man with a sleek hairy one pack (not a six pack), but if you have any doubts about your manhood, avoid this great movie. (Perhaps you should rent 300 instead.)