Sunday, January 31, 2016

Movie Review: Ip Man (2008)

Ip Man Facing the Japanese Fighters
In preparation for the new Ip Man movie, "Ip Man 3," I decided to watch the original "Ip Man" via Amazon Video. It had been a while since I had watched a Hong Kong martial arts film, and this one did not disappoint!

I originally became interested in Hong Kong martial arts movies when I started studying kung ku in 1994. Through a few other students, I vaguely became aware of Jackie Chan's movies. In 1995, when "Rumble in the Bronx" was released in the United States, I think I saw it 5 or 6 times in a few weeks!

Here's what I liked about the movie:

  • Donnie Yen: I had never seen Donnie Yen in a starring role before "Ip Man." I was thoroughly impressed by his acting and athletic abilities. 
  • Cross-style fighting: I really enjoyed watching Chinese styles vs Japanese styles, or at least what appeared to be fight choreographer Sammo Hung's interpretation of Japanese styles.
  • Cinematography: The director made excellent use of color, or sometimes the lack thereof. His confrontation between Ip and 10 Japanese fighters (partially captured in the photo at top) exemplified this striking aspect of the movie.
  • Themes besides fighting: As a father of young children, I enjoyed seeing that even a martial arts master like Ip Man had to balance family life with professional and community responsibilities.
  • Action and pacing: I thought the movie progressed nicely. I didn't get bored watching it. 
  • Price: At $.99 at Amazon, it couldn't have been much cheaper! That's great value for my money.
Here's some areas that could have been better:
  • Historical inaccuracy: It seems that most of the movie is fake. If you read various accounts, what happened in the movie did not occur in real life. Obviously the Japanese invaded China, but the major life events shown in the movie did not seem to happen to Master Ip and his family. That really didn't bother me, however. I did not expect to watch a biography, and if viewers decide that the movie is just a story, then the history isn't as large a factor.
  • Lost opportunities: (Mild spoiler, if you haven't seen the movie.) I would have liked to see the northern kung fu bandits fight in the Japanese tournament. The leader was such a good fighter, and it would have made the movie that much more interesting.
  • It helps to like martial arts movies: "Ip Man" isn't like "Crouching Tiger" or a Hong Kong movie that breaks out of the martial arts mold to appeal to a broad audience. I liked it because I am a fan of the genre, but there's not much there for the average movie goer.
I have tickets to see "Ip Man 3" in the one theater showing it near me, so I will post a review afterwards. Prior to that, though, I hope to watch "Ip Man 2" through Amazon Video. Check the blog later this week for both reviews.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Taking Advantage of Free Martial Arts Videos

When I started studying martial arts in 1991, the Internet did not exist as we know it today. I'm beginning to realize the value of the immense repository of online knowledge, especially in the form of free videos. However, these videos are not universally beneficial. I will share a few brief examples to make my point.

Next month I will probably try sparring at my new Krav Maga school. I have not sparred anyone in 15 years. It occurred to me that there might be videos online with tips for better sparring. I visited YouTube, searched for "sparring tips," and found 10 Sparring Tips for Beginners | GoPro POV Fight. At this point, I had never heard of "fightTIPS," so I did not have a sense of his reputation, abilities, point of view, or other characteristics which could play a role in the quality of the video. However, after watching the video, I noticed that what he said made sense, and that it aligned well with what I had learned when training a long time ago. Furthermore, the comments section tended to reinforce my perceptions. A related video by the same person, 10 Advanced Sparring Tips for MMA, Boxing, & Muay Thai, was also helpful. Even doing a mental exercise, where I imagined that the fighter seen in the GoPro camera as my actual opponent, was helpful. So far, so good!

On a different occasion I was trying some of the Filipino martial arts movements I once practiced. I remembered a double stick pattern that I believed was called a "sinawali." I searched YouTube for "double sinawali" and found many results. I watched the first one and got the sense that the instructor knew his material, but the way he presented it seemed different than what I remembered. Looking through the comments, I found that one of the viewers had noted an aspect of the demonstration that had caught my attention, as shown below:

Comment on Double Sinawali video
Here the comment was respectful, the instructor explained his reasoning, and the person asking the comment responded respectfully again. This was the sort of interaction I was hoping to see, and it helped me better understand the material.

The final example is a "bad news, good news" story. For Krav Maga class this week, I decided to wear boxing wraps. With the cold weather and dry air, my instructor recommended to the class that we wear wraps or MMA gloves. I found my 20-year-old wraps and realized I did not remember how to tie them! YouTube to the rescue? Possibly.

First, the bad news: I searched online and watched one of the videos with the top results. The example didn't look quite right to me. Scanning the comments, I saw they were universally critical, eg., "Totally WRONG wrap technique!" I rejected that video and moved on.

Now, the good news: I returned to the search results and picked another video. This one made more sense to me, and the comments implied that they liked the technique demonstrated. I used this wrapping technique once I got to class and had a good workout.

The bottom line is that there is indeed a ton of very helpful information for martial artists in the form of free online videos. However, viewers should watch with a critical eye where possible, and, better yet, consult with your instructors for guidance. Video comments can sometimes appear as a morass of hate speech and vulgarity, but sometimes they can help differentiate between quality content and content that does more harm than good.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Why Martial Arts?

With one of my Kung Fu school's black belts in 1995
Why martial arts? There is no universal answer; it depends on the individual. My first exposure to martial arts happened in fourth grade, when I was about 10 years old. My friend Paul was a student in a local karate school. He showed our group of friends different techniques, and I was mesmerized.

(This happened early in 1982, prior to "The Karate Kid" movie of 1984, but after the "Kung Fu" series of 1972-1975 and Bruce Lee's "Enter the Dragon" of 1973. I missed those early 1970's milestones.)

The martial arts appealed to me at a young age because of the elements of focus and power, and their exotic nature. Karate was completely foreign to me, but it seemed to be a way for anyone, regardless of size or gender, to develop confidence in one's self.

I didn't join Paul in his studies. My parents enforced a "one after-school program" policy, so I remained a Cub Scout and later graduated to Boy Scouts. When I attended the Air Force Academy, however, I found the karate club and joined in 1991. After graduation in 1994, I started watching the original "Kung Fu" series, rebroadcast on the TNT cable channel. Just before beginning my graduate progam, I located a kung fu school near my residence, and joined that summer. That marked the beginning of several years of serious study and personal development, thanks to that school, its teachers, and students.

I propose that the reasons to study martial arts occupy a spectrum of possibilities. At one end, practitioners emphasize spiritual and personal growth. Near the middle, many promote fitness and health benefits, plus general self defense. At the far end of the spectrum, some appeal to the extremely combative and life-preserving elements. For this group, the martial arts may be a lifestyle or a means of survival, whether as a police or corrections officer, an member of the armed forces or other protective details, a resident of a dangerous community, or a professional fighter.

I am closer to the middle of the spectrum. I'm no longer an Air Force officer. I have no plans to fight professionally or serve in law enforcement, corrections, or personal security, and I have tremendous respect for those who jeopardize their safety to keep others from harm. Thankfully I live in a fairly safe community, and I try to avoid situations that could put myself, my family, or colleagues at risk.

I rejoined the martial arts community because I like to learn new techniques and mindsets. I am fascinated by the variety of styles, and my library includes books on multiple aspects of the martial arts world. I like interacting with other people in a training setting, and I believe I would be a good teacher. (Years ago, I helped teach some classes at a kung fu school, and the experience was rewarding for me and my students.) Finally, I enjoy being part of a global community, facilitated as never before by social media, free video clips, and blogging. There has never been a better time to learn the martial arts!

In my next post I will address "which martial art?" The last paragraph hints at the reasons why there may be no "best martial art," because one's interests are a critical part of answering the question of styles.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Welcome to Rejoining the Tao

My First Gi and White Belt, from 1991
I began studying martial arts as a cadet at the United States Air Force Academy in 1991. During my military career I tried various styles, including Karate, boxing, Judo, street defense, Kung Fu, Tai Chi, Tae Kwon Do, Filipino stick and knife fighting, Wing Tsun, and American Kenpo.

By early 2001 I had a broken wrist and a desire to change direction. I separated from the Air Force in March of that year and later stopped practicing Kenpo.

In late 2002 my wife and I moved to the DC area, and within two years I was looking for a new martial arts school. I never found a good fit, but I also fought my way through three shoulder surgeries and related problems. In 2012 I managed to try a Tai Chi class, which was fun in its own way. I finally recovered my health during 2015.

By early 2016 I decided to take another look at the local martial arts scene, and I was pleased to find and enroll in a Krav Maga school.

During that 15 year gap from 2001 to 2016, a lot changed. Mixed martial arts, reality-based defense, social media, Amazon.com, my own age, and many other factors have altered the landscape. Most of the changes appear positive, but that could be the result of naive optimism at the beginning of a journey. I expect not!

In this blog I plan to explore my new relationship with the martial arts. I am interested in many styles and techniques, but I am also fascinated by history and martial culture. (I'm currently pursuing a PhD in War Studies, in addition to my day job.) I also love books, and I have over 100 covering martial arts and Asian culture.

If these topics appeal to you, feel free to join me on this journey to rejoin the Tao, or "Way," that I left so many years ago.

Sometimes you can go home again. This is the story of how I hope to do that.