The best and the worst of martial arts movies

This week resulted in a curious film-viewing adventure when I happened to watch a few martial arts movies, cutting across genres, and downloaded via bit torrents, while there was a state-sponsored film festival in the city. The public's memory is proverbially short, but I still happen to remember the wicked things that happened in some villages during last year's film festival, and I still retain the aversion and the reasons for not going in to the 'festival' again.

Anyway, back to the films I viewed. Here's a brief review of the best and the worst of them.

Kuro Obi (Black Belt), a 2007 Japanese Karate film starring real-life Karate black belts, is one of the relatively good ones.

Demonstrating some fluid Goju-Ryu and traditional Shotokan techniques without stunt rope tricks, the film is about two students competing to inherit their sensei's black belt. It starts off excellently with a practice session in a secluded dojo where the Jap military (this is in 1930s) comes in to take over the school. The protagonist searches for meaning in his Karate, while the other student goes on to challenge karatekas on behalf of the military, in search of a stronger opponent.The climactic fight in B&W is less of karate though, the 4th Dan hero and the 5th Dan challenger, kick, butt and grapple in the mud like we used to do in junior school.

Chocolate (2008), a Thai film by the Ong-Bak director Prachya Pinkaew, is a story of an autistic girl picking up martial arts skills similar to Taekwondo by watching the practitioners of a Muay Thai school (?!). The plot is thin, and a pretext for displaying martial arts skills.

This film has some spectacular stunts performed by the young girl Yanin "Jeeja" Vismistananda, and obviously, the stuntmen acting as villians' seconds; this also marks the director's only preoccupation to outdo Hollywood special effects by using real-life dangerous stunts that can scarsely be imitated. Towards the end, you actually see a stuntman falling down from the ledge of a three-storied building, and breaking his neck. Adrenalin booster, yes. Martial arts spirit, no. For you're bound to feel sorry for the unnamed stuntman and question the mindlessness of this violence.

I also saw Red Belt (2008), one that I would rate as one of the best martial arts films I've ever seen. It has less to show of martial arts techniques, apart from some good Jiujutsu moves, but it's definitely about martial arts philosophy, a serious film concerning the role of ethics in the life of a martial arts practitioner. You get real things to learn from here, than say, from stoopid MMA films like Never Back Down.

Here in Red Belt is a Brazilian Jiujitsu instructor Mike Terry who nevers goes into tournament fighting for he thinks it weakens the spirit (rightly so). He sees himself framed by big money and comes to know of his best student committing suicide to save his instructor's honour. Then Terry gets caught in the middle of a big MMA prize fight (staged) between a Brazilian jiujitsu champion and a Japanese fighter, as his honour as a practitioner and the question of the survival of his dojo, are both at stake. But he doesn't step into the ring, as you could have expected. The story takes a new turn when he ignores the glare of the cameras and the attention of the know-it-all commentators, and proceeds rather quietly to "end this charade". Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mike Terry is simply awesome; this needs watching even if you think Krav Maga and fashionable MMA butt-grabbing is all about martial arts.

And here comes the worst. But I did laugh a lot. The funky sound track could be one of the solid reasons for you to watch this film, provided you've got the right kind of humour.

Ah, I saw Black Belt Jones (1974), a Blaxploitation action film starring Jim Kelly who's best known for his role in Enter the Dragon and it's shaped by the same director, Robert Clouse.

This movie has incredibly flat characters speaking, walking, dressing, howling, grabbing and shrieking Karate all throughout, and their acting is invariably and incredibly bad. And yes, Kelly uses Karate even while courting. You also get to see Karatekas shooting fists in a mournful way as their teacher's ( who happens to be Scatman Crothers) corpse is lowered into the grave- something so hilarious that it gives you serious stomach cramps.

"Oooooooeah!" goes the hero Jim Kelly making strange grimaces whenever anybody comes near him or when he's just watching his reflection on a polished elevator door. And sometimes he's just fascinated with his white telephone. The final scene with the carwash bubbles is a visual treat; completing the delightful mix of karate, James Bond technicolor movies, girls on trampolines, and lots and lots of butt-kicking. There happens to be a certain display of hostility on the part of 'good guys and gals' karatekas to the male genitalia; the sheer number of kicks to the bonkers and the grabs are, er, for the lack of better words, embarrassing.

Apart from the overdoses of very-badly choreographed karate, this is also one of the funniest comedies ever made. I guess, without being intentional.

Solitude, Boredom, and Awareness

I'm still in a daze. Yesterday night, I finished reading Ursula K Le Guin's The Birthday of the World, and right now, just before I go off to sleep, I want to record a curious moment of recognition from this wonderful piece of work that tells strange stories about known humans in unknown worlds and times. This is from a story titled 'Solitude'.

In the fragmented highly-diffused non-society of the planet of Eleven-Soro on the fringes of the Ekumen, a girl choses to return to her solitude.

She refuses the advanced civilisational and technological knowledge of her mother's civilisation, and returns alone to the silent planet (its stolid stillness founded on the ruins of a highly urbanised technicised civilisation where there were
"(t)he greatest cities ever built on any world, covering two of the continents entirely, with small areas set aside for farming; there had been 120 billion people living in the cities, while the animals and the sea and the air and the dirt died, until the people began dying too."
The girl returns to contemplate solitude in the middle of her people. She lives in a sin qua non of what she discovers as a social formation, where all the adults deliberately chose to live apart, especially the men, all avoiding and living without spoken words. And this is what she records of her own realisations:
"By solitude the soul escapes from doing or suffering magic; it escapes from dullness, from boredom, by being aware. Nothing is boring if you are aware of it. It may be irritating, but it is not boring. If it is pleasant the pleasure will not fail so long as you are aware of it. Being aware is the hardest work the soul can do, I think."

Changing the Head

Changed the blog header. Took three and a half hours in the night. Still very dissatisfied with the results. But let it stay. I'll not be changing this for a long time. Virtual critics will surely find this a reflection of the strange changes that have taken place on the outer side of my cranium in the last week.

The shaven-headed fish blows out a bubble. It's not attracting attention. It is asking for a change. A change in preconceptions. A change in conversation. A change to the solitude that makes up its life, a change in its movements that go in closing concentric circles. But the things inside the bubble world remain more or less the same. It's the perspective that changes. And dear fish, it's only a bubble that floats up to the surface. Did you make the bubble?

At least I will learn this melody before I die

Key points from the essay 'Why Read the Classics' (1981) by Italo Calvino:

1) The classics are the books of which we usually hear people say, "I am rereading . . . " and never "I am reading . . ."

2) We use the words "classics" for books that are treasured by those who have read and loved them; but they are treasured no less by those who have the luck to read them for the first time in the best conditions to enjoy them.

3) The classics are books that exert a peculiar influence, both when they refuse to be eradicated from the mind and when they conceal themselves in the folds of memory, camouflaging themselves as the collective or individual unconscious.

4) Every rereading of a classic is as much a voyage of discovery as the first reading.

5) Every reading of a classic is in fact a rereading.

6) A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.

7) The classics are the books that come down to us bearing the traces of readings previous to ours, and bringing in their wake the traces they themselves have left on the culture or cultures they have passed through (or, more simply, on language and customs).

8) A classic does not necessarily teach us anything we did not know before. In a classic we sometimes discover something we have always known (or thought we knew), but without knowing that this author said it first, or at least is associated with it in a special way. And this, too, is a surprise that gives much pleasure, such as we always gain from the discovery of an origin, a relationship, an affinity.

9) The classics are books which, upon reading, we find even fresher, more unexpected, and more marvelous than we had thought from hearing about them.

10) We use the word "classic" of a book that takes the form of an equivalent to the universe, on a level with the ancient talismans. With this definition we are approaching the idea of the "total book," as Mallarmé conceived of it.

11) Your classic author is the one you cannot feel indifferent to, who helps you to define yourself in relation to him, even in dispute with him.

12) A classic is a book that comes before other classics; but anyone who has read the others first, and then reads this one, instantly recognizes its place in the family tree.

13) A classic is something that tends to relegate the concerns of the moment to the status of background noise, but at the same time this background noise is something we cannot do without.

14) A classic is something that persists as a background noise even when the most incompatible momentary concerns are in control of the situation.

...And if anyone objects that they are not worth all that effort, I will cite Cioran... 'While the hemlock was being prepared, Socrates was learning a melody on the flute. "What use will that be to you?", he was asked. "At least I will learn this melody before I die." '