The Grandmaster (2013) is the first and only kung fu movie to come from Hong Kong film auteur Wong Kar-wai, but by no means does it suffer because of that. In fact, Western critics loved The Grandmaster — even though most probably didn’t grasp its full meaning.
Wong is no noob when it comes to filmmaking. His resume includes Happy Together (1997), In the Mood for Love (2000) and My Blueberry Nights (2007). So when he conceived of The Grandmaster as an authentic depiction of wing chun kung fu that features purposefully hidden martial arts nuances, it’s safe to say he knew what he was doing.
You can’t blame the reviewers for failing to notice those concealed treasures. The truth is, anyone who’s not a martial arts practitioner likely won’t appreciate the subtleties of the film.
Before Wong Kar-wai started shooting the movie, he devoted several years to research, roaming around China in search of old kung fu masters. He even lived with a few so he could learn about and actually experience the traditions of the martial arts. During that time, many of those masters shared stories that otherwise would never have been told.
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Wong began to understand what it means to be a martial artist. Hint: It’s not about fighting or winning tournaments. The most important parts of the picture Wong discovered were intelligently inserted into The Grandmaster, as were the words that became mantra for the film: seeing, knowing and doing.
That mantra is what inspired lead actor Tony Leung to practice kung fu for three years in preparation for the role. The first year of his training took place under the shadow of not even knowing who he would portray in the film.
After suffering two broken bones, which served as his comeuppance into the real world of martial arts, Leung became concerned not that he’d be unable to execute the required film fights in a convincing manner but that he might hurt his opponents in the process.
The Grandmaster loosely chronicles the life of Ip Man (also spelled Yip Man), the man who trained Bruce Lee. It starts in the 1930s, when Ip lived in China, continues through the events that caused him to flee to Hong Kong after the Communist takeover and ends with his death in 1972.
The movie opens with Ip reflecting on martial arts, then cuts to a rainy scene in which he faces a dozen combatants. The water really tested Leung’s mettle. He later said it was the toughest scene to film. For 30 consecutive nights, Leung and the stuntmen were soaked to the teeth. Each time, no one was allowed to change into dry clothes until filming wrapped the next morning.
“Every night by midnight, I’d be shivering cold,” Leung recalled. “I began taking cold medicines and felt myself getting sicker and sicker. When we finished the scene, I was out for five days, taking medicines and living on rice porridge. I thought I had pneumonia — couldn’t stop coughing. It was bronchitis. That was the hardest thing about the filming.
“We wore cloth-soled shoes and fought in water that was over our ankles. Training doesn’t prepare you for fighting in the rain with slippery shoes. It got so cold, but with the fighting, I was perspiring. The fights put me under a lot of pressure. After all, I’m not a kung fu actor, but the film takes kung fu very seriously. I was nervous because I worried about hurting people and not doing the fights well enough.”
Back to the story: In Foshan in 1936, the kung fu community is restless over the retirement of master Gong Yu-tian, leader of the Chinese Martial Arts Association. Hoping to find a worthy successor, the northern master sets up a battle of wits with the best fighter from the south — Ip Man. Most moviegoers failed to grasp the essence behind this fight. I won’t share it here out of respect for Wong Kar-wai, who said he wanted to keep it reserved for martial arts insiders.
The final fight featuring Gong Yu-tian’s daughter will also leave non-martial artists and Western critics wondering what the heck happened. The key moment involves fa jing (explosive energy), chi and kung fu.
Likewise, viewers who rely on the English translations to comprehend all that is happening in the movie won’t grasp the spirit of the Chinese dialogue, which eloquently masks the cryptic codes of martial skill and philosophy. However, those who walk the path, who know how to open their mind so they can experience the martial arts as a way of life, are likely to get The Grandmaster.
Are you up to the challenge?
(Photos Courtesy of The Weinstein Co.)
The Grandmaster: Why You Should See This Ip Man Biopic
Robert W. Young
Fri, 07 Aug 2015 20:52:29 GMT
What if someone pulled you aside one day and told you that it’s not your muscles that determine how quickly and powerfully you can hit, but the quality of your nervous system? What if that same person also told you that it’s what your nervous system is not doing that is the key?
Research has shown that the first sign of a rapid movement may actually be a decrease in muscle activity rather than an increase. This little-known phenomenon is called the “pre-movement silent period,” and it can enable you to strike faster and stronger.
One of the qualities of expert martial artists is the ability to throw a punch or kick without warning. From a ready position, they explode into motion. The attack is so sudden and smooth that it seems to materialize out of thin air.
When novices attack, it’s a different story. Their motion can be seen a mile away — mainly because they perform a large counter-movement, or windup, before the technique. The purpose of this counter-movement is to allow the primary muscles to start activating well before the attack actually begins. When the forward motion is initiated, the muscles are already in a high state of excitation, producing a powerful attack.
The counter-movement is a natural mechanism designed to produce a quick and forceful action. However, that’s a disadvantage in the martial arts because it telegraphs the movement. It takes a fair amount of practice to be able to launch an attack with only forward motion, and it’s even harder to make the same attack a powerful one.
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Fortunately, the human body is a remarkable machine that’s capable of adapting to virtually any conditions that are imposed on it. When you attack without the benefit of a counter-movement, you can compensate by using the pre-movement silent period.
To better understand the pre-movement silent period, it’s useful to examine a punch in a typical sparring session and determine what your muscles are doing. When you face your opponent in a ready stance, your muscles are in a state of mild contraction to fight the effects of gravity. A balance is struck: Too much tension will fatigue you and slow you down, and too little tension will allow your arms to drop.
So there you are with your hands up and ready to attack or defend at a moment’s notice. As you begin, you notice that your opponent has inadvertently let his guard drop. Never one to miss an opportunity, you decide that you’ll punch as hard and as fast as you can. Your brain sends the signal down your spinal cord, through your motor neurons and finally to your individual muscle fibers. However, what happens next may not be what you’d expect.
During the switch from posture to rapid motion, your muscles can actually turn off or stop contracting. The “silence” lasts for only about a tenth of a second, but it causes your muscle fibers to contract all at once, rather than in a graduated fashion. This synchronization is important because it produces a large initial muscle twitch, which facilitates the rapid production of force. The end effect is your fist being catapulted toward the target with great force — and without having been telegraphed.
According to research, the pre-movement silent period doesn’t occur each and every time. Generally, it occurs only during movements that are maximal efforts and that don’t involve very heavy loads. In addition, it has been found to occur more often in athletes who are highly skilled.
There’s evidence that the pre-movement silent period is a learned skill, as people who had been trained to produce it were able to increase its rate of occurrence. More important, it’s been shown that people who are the most successful in learning to produce the pre-movement silent period tend to demonstrate the greatest gains in limb speed.
Currently, the physiological mechanisms behind the appearance of a pre-movement silent period are unclear, and their specific effects on performance are still being investigated. Nevertheless, the next time you practice in the dojo, take a moment — a moment of silence, if you will — and think about what your muscles may or may not be doing.
(Photos by Rick Hustead)
Christopher Hasson is a martial artist and a biomechanics researcher in the Human Performance Laboratory at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.
Learn the Secret of Faster and Stronger Strikes
Robert W. Young
Wed, 12 Aug 2015 23:33:15 GMT
As the quality of the competition and techniques seen in taekwondo continues to improve, the push kick is emerging as one of the most potent weapons used by today’s martial arts athletes.
“It works for anyone,” says Yeon Hwan Park, coach of the 1988 U.S. Olympic team and head coach of the 1991 Pan-American Games team. “If timed properly, the push kick can be a devastating maneuver. It allows a competitor to get maximum power from his kick, enabling him to use his leg reach and strength to his maximum ability. Competitors are discovering this more and more.”
As a result, Park says, practitioners are developing innovative ways to employ this powerful technique.
“The push kick combines thrust with snap,” Yeon Hwan Park says. “If done at the right time, you can combine the force of your opponent’s attack with a great deal of your own body’s power.” That results in a powerful kick, but it must be refined through practice.
To throw a taekwondo push kick, lift the knee of your rear leg to your chest. Slide your supporting leg forward as you do, then shoot out your kicking leg in a piston-like fashion. Try to land your foot directly on your opponent’s chest or face. Ideally, you should strike with your heel, but if distance doesn’t permit, the ball of your foot can suffice.
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Park suggests several drills to develop your technique and timing. One involves squaring off with an opponent in closed cover (chests facing opposite directions). As he attempts an ax kick, you aim for his solar plexus with your push kick. If timed right, your kick will land him on his back.
“If you wait until his ax kick is at its highest point, it’s too late to start a counterstrike,” Yeon Hwan Park says. “As he begins his motion, you must begin yours. Don’t wait, especially in a situation like this when your face is exposed.”
He recommends another drill to illustrate how a push kick can repel an attempted back kick. “Once your opponent turns his back, thrust a push kick into the area just above his waist,” he says. If done properly, the push kick will stop the back kick before he can complete the required turning motion. Park advises students to follow up with a roundhouse kick.
In repelling a back kick, a push kick works especially well when done off the front leg, Yeon Hwan Park says. “You don’t need to thrust it in with any great amount of power. If you keep your leg and foot straight, you can practically lift your foot up and just place it on his waist as he turns into the kick. Since he’s moving into your leg, there will be sufficient force without your having to do much except stay ready to follow up.”
Again, Park emphasizes that you must time the kick so it’s unleashed concurrently with the attacker’s kick. “If you start your kick when he starts his, your foot should be in position to cut off the back kick, then follow up,” he says. “If you’re late with the push kick, you’re going to run into a back kick, which is probably the most powerful technique in taekwondo. Your kick should land at or just above his hip. Once you’ve stopped his momentum, he’s a sitting duck.”
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For the next drill, square off with your partner in open cover (chests facing the same direction). As he unleashes a rear-leg roundhouse, skip in with a forward-leg cut kick, a variation of the push kick that applies basically the same principles but in a sideways motion. Make sure your kicking leg moves first and your supporting leg slides forward immediately afterward.
When he throws the roundhouse, there comes a point when he’s full-bodied. It lasts only a moment — until he turns his back into the kick more fully and incorporates his upper-body power. That, Park says, is precisely what the push kick or cut kick can help you exploit.
“If you cut off his roundhouse with a kick as powerful as a push kick, your opponent is likely to be off-balance,” he says. “As he moves backward [from] the impact, perpetuate his motion by throwing an immediate back kick off your other leg.”
Yeon Hwan Park claims the push kick can wreak havoc on a poor puncher. To illustrate, face your partner in closed cover with your right side back. As he lunges forward and changes sides to effect a lunge punch, thrust out a push kick. Distancing and timing are essential in this drill.
To practice the crucial timing aspect of the push kick, Park suggests squaring off with a partner in closed cover. He throws a back hook kick, which you avoid by sliding backward but remaining within kicking range. Once his leg touches the ground — most people land after spinning 270 degrees, thus partly exposing their upper body — let loose with a rear-leg push kick. Your task becomes easier because his momentum moves him backward. Since you change sides during a push kick, be sure to change your guard, as well. Otherwise, your head could be exposed to attack.
To practice an offensive push kick, face your opponent in open cover. Take one quick step forward and change sides, and as he retreats, he changes sides, as well. Once he moves back, thrust in your rear-leg push kick. This drill will help you get a sense of the kick’s forward motion and a better understanding of timing and distance.
When you practice your push kick, don’t forget the footwork. If you can kick well but are unable to get within reach of your opponent, Park says, your kicks have only aesthetic value. Learning how to step to facilitate your kicks takes time, and learning to combine stepping and kicking can take longer. For this reason, Park advises students to step with their kicks immediately after they develop an understanding of the basics of both skills.
“Try to step faster than your opponent,” Yeon Hwan Park says. This way, you will be able to land your push kick before he settles back into a stance.
“Footwork is very important for all your kicks, but especially for one like the push kick, which you can just throw out of nowhere. For example, many competitors have very fast roundhouse kicks, which they can throw without having to set them up. For the push kick, though, you must create a situation wherein you can move forward safely and not extraordinarily fast.”
The push kick combines speed with power, Park says. “It’s slower than a roundhouse kick but more powerful. It’s less powerful than a side kick but faster. It doesn’t require a great deal of strength, but it does take practice.” In years to come, Park predicts we’ll see even more intricate ways to score with the technique.
(Photos by Rick Hustead)
Jeff Leibowitz is a New York-based free-lance writer and martial artist who has studied taekwondo under Y.H. Park for more than 30 years.
Ultimate Kicking: The Push Kick Can Add Speed and Power to Your Taekwondo Tool Box
Robert W. Young
Fri, 14 Aug 2015 23:44:07 GMT