Fact or fiction: Martial arts in film

Third Dan Research Project

By Jason Boross

Over the years audiences have flocked to theatres in their thousands to watch in awe at the amazing feats performed in martial arts films. From the death defying stunts of Jackie Chan to the seemingly impossible speed and power of Bruce Lee. One question is usually left in the audiences mind at the end of these films: is that even possible? There is no doubt that some martial arts films go beyond the realms of what is physically possible, 'Hero' and 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' come to mind. Those films are clearly in their own genre of fantasy martial arts, but what about the films that appear to portray the fight scenes in a realistic way? Are they realistic at all, or do they also bend the laws of physics to make the films more entertaining? I will be exploring what it takes to be as good a fighter as those shown in certain films and if it is truly possible to match the characters strength, power and agility in the real world.

To simplify this task I have chosen only two films, 'Ip Man' and 'Undisputed 3', and narrowed the focus down to one choreographed fight scene in each. [Both fight scenes can be viewed on Youtube. Search terms you should use are: 'Ip Man vs. 10 black belts' and 'Undisputed 3 quarry guards fight'. Viewer discretion is advised; these scenes are graphic and contain expletives]

Firstly turning to 'Ip Man': this is a film loosely based on the life of Yip Kai-man, the wing chun master that taught Bruce Lee. The film is set in the late 1930's during the Japanese occupation of China. In the scene I am focusing on, Yip is taken prisoner by the Japanese military. After witnessing his friend and colleague, Master Liu, being fatally shot by Lieutenant Sato, Yip Kai-man insists he can fight ten black belts at the same time to avenge his fallen friend and earn ten sacks of rice to feed his family and friends.

The fight lasts for approximately 128 seconds, in which time Yip dispatches every opponent with brutal breaking techniques and repeated strikes to the head. His opponents do not manage to land a single strike on him, not for lack of trying. Towards the end of the fight, four black belts attack Yip simultaneously and yet Yip manages to block and counter every single blow and comes out unscathed. The final opponent, initially too scared to fight back, attempts to lunge forward with a kick, but his predictable movement is countered with little to no effort and he is beaten down with a flurry of punches to the faces, leaving him with the other nine fighters, totally incapacitated.

The ten Japanese black belts that Yip faces would all have had years of intensive training making them a formidable fighting force, especially in greater numbers. Prior to this fight scene, Master Liu attempted to fight three black belts at the same time after defeating one in single combat with ease. He lost his fight against three and was subsequently shot when he tried to leave. Master Liu set a benchmark for how tough the black belts were in greater numbers, allowing the black belts to demonstrate how skilful they were. This makes it all the more shocking when Yip steps into the arena and fends off ten without breaking a sweat.

To understand how Yip was able to take on so many opponents and still come out the victor, it is worth taking a look at his real-life fighting history. [Taking into account that the film is a dramatization of Yip Kai-man's life and that not all accounts in the film are historically true or accurate.] Yip Kai-man was born in 1893 in Foshan, Guangdong province China. From the age of 13 he started to learn wing chun from Chan Wah-shun. At the age of 15 he moved to Hong Kong and continued his kung fu training with Leung Bik. By the age of 24 he returned to Foshan and became a policeman by occupation, not formally setting up a wing chun school until some time in 1949. Plotting in the historically accurate dates and correlating them with the time-line of the film, we can determine that Yip would have been in his early 40's when he fought the ten black belts in the film. Though his age may play a disadvantage, he does have over 30 years of experience behind him; something that plays a vital role in determining the realism of the fight and something I will look into later on.

Next we turn to 'Undisputed 3', a film based on the fictitious Russian protagonist, Yuri Boyka. Boyka is a famed prison fighter with a self-made reputation for being incredibly brutal and equally skilful. In this film, prison fighters from all over the world have been brought together to fight in an underground MMA-style competition, where the winner claims his freedom. The scene I have chosen to focus on is set part way through the competition and takes places in a forced-labour camp outside the prison grounds. Boyka and an American fighter named 'Turbo' are planning to escape because they fear they may not survive the duration of the competition. In their attempt to escape, armed prison guards attack them.

The fight lasts for approximately 75 seconds. Boyka dispatches the guards with a variety of strikes and kicks. Some guards return to the fight several times before being knocked out or left so severely injured that they do not dare to get back up again. The main difference between this fight scene and the one in 'Ip Man' is that the prison guards have little, if any, fighting experience. This is evident from their futile attempts to attack Boyka. Unlike the ten black belts, these prison guards are uncoordinated and lack discipline; their only advantage is that they are armed with batons.

Unlike Yip Kai-man, very little is known about Yuri Boyka because he is a fictional character with a sketchy background story. From what little we know about him, we can deduce that he was imprisoned many years ago into a maximum-security facility. It is unknown to us if his martial arts training began before or after his incarceration; either way he has been completely dedicated to achieving his goal of becoming the most complete fighter in the world for many years. This makes him a fierce and formidable opponent to anyone that faces him.

To better understand if the characters from these films are actually capable of performing such stunts in real life I will now take a brief look at what the actors who play these roles are capable of.

Yip Kai-man is played by Donnie Yen; a martial arts superstar who has practiced and trained since the age of four. His mother taught him wushu and tai chi at an age when most children are still playing with toys and making a mess at the dinner table. In his teenage years Donnie expanded his horizons and took up taekwondo, kickboxing, boxing and even karate. Fuelled by a burning passion to become like his idol, Bruce Lee. In preparation for his role in 'Ip Man' Donnie spent hours training on and off set. At the time of filming, Donnie was 45 years old and has many years of martial arts experience behind him, proving that at his age it is very possible to perform to a high, energetic standard.

Yuri Bokya is played by Scott Adkins; an English actor born in the West Midlands and raised by a loving family that were butchers for generations. At the age of 10 Scott accompanied his older brother and father to a judo club where he first realised his passion for martial arts. As the years went by Scott trained harder and eventually branched out into other styles such as taekwondo and kickboxing, realising early on that his martial arts idols learnt more than one style to become the best.

Comparing what we know about the characters from the films and the actors who play them, we can already determine that these fight scenes may be more realistic than first thought. The amount of time and effort the actors have put into enhancing their athleticism is not far off what their protagonist counterparts have put in to become the champion fighters they are portrayed to be in the films.

To appreciate if the characters from these two films, and most martial arts films in general, are capable of executing these feats of strength and skill it is worth taking a look at what it takes to become a professional fighter. In Malcolm Gladwell's best selling book, 'Outliers: The Story of Success' he talks about the 10,000-hour rule. Simply put, to become an expert or to reach mastery level status in a chosen field, in this case fighting, one should invest 10,000 hours or ten years of intense training. Most professional athletes and fighters, specifically those we see performing in competitions such as UFC, WBA and WTF have spent their entire lives training, and mastering their techniques to near perfection.

Malcolm Gladwell's book doesn't just look at experts, it focuses on the 'outliers', the best of the best, the athletes and professionals who are known for being the greatest and are identified just by their name. Tiger for golf, Williams for tennis and Ali for boxing; they are the titans that stand head and shoulders above the rest of the competition, changing the sport and setting a new benchmark for greatness.

Taking Muhammad Ali as a prime example of a fighter who is internationally recognised as being one of the greatest. He started boxing at the age of 12 and won a gold medal at the Olympics in 1960. At the age of 22 he became the heavyweight champion of the world. In 1974 he beat George Foreman to regain the heavyweight championship title and in 1978 he beat Leon Spinks in a rematch to regain the heavyweight title for the third time. He accomplished something that no one else could at the time. He demonstrated to the world that anything was possible if you strived to be the greatest.

Applying what we know about professional athletes and what it takes to become one, we can see that it's not so farfetched to believe that Yip and Boyka's feats of unparalleled skill aren't all that unrealistic. It's apparent that both Yip and Boyka have trained for well in excess of 10,000 hours and have already mastered their art. But before concluding on the realism of these fight scenes I'll be taking a quick look into the science of fighting and what happens to our heroes, both physically and mentally.

When confronted with danger or put under an immense amount of stress the human body undergoes a dramatic transformation to protect the host. These neurological and hormonal changes are commonly referred to as the 'fight-or-flight' response.

“To produce the 'fight-or-flight' response, the hypothalamus activates two systems: the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal-cortical system.” Over thirty different hormones are released into the bloodstream, namely adrenaline and endorphins. The reaction that takes place affects everyone in different ways, but in general terms everyone's mental and physical state is altered to some degree or another.

Mentally, these changes make it very difficult to concentrate on complex tasks, the brain no longer focuses on small tasks and all processing power is directed towards the bigger picture to determine where the threat is coming from.

Physically, much more goes on. For instance our senses are sharpened; pupils dilate and absorb more light making it easier to see, even in the dark and hairs stand on end making us more sensitive to our surroundings. The heart rate will increase dramatically, pumping more blood around the body to feed the major muscle groups, this works in combination with the smooth muscle relaxing, allowing more oxygen into the lungs through the nostrils and throat, ensuring that the blood is well oxygenated and the muscles can perform at optimum capacity. Veins in the skin constrict and more blood is sent to these major muscle groups. This is usually noticeable because the skin will turn pale. Furthermore, fat from fatty cells and glucose from the liver metabolise for instant energy. This in turn causes muscles to tense up due to the increased glucose and adrenaline levels. Conclusively, blood vessels leading to the kidneys and digestive system constrict effectively shutting down the non-essential systems.

The simple outcome of the 'fight-or-flight' response is that we become faster, strong and our pain threshold is dramatically increased. It's at this point that most people would be ready to react to the threat they are facing. Unfortunately, not everyone is capable of throwing a strong right hook and ending a fight before it begins, some of the common reactions experienced by people in high-stress situations are to freeze up or shield themselves from harm; the reason for this is, as mentioned above, is because we lose the ability to maintain a complex thought process. Not only that, but one of the side effects of the hormone dump is to lose control of fine motor skills, making it far harder to pin-point where your attack is going to land. Some amateur fighters shake, while others feel nauseous, ultimately rendering their attacks futile because they cannot target soft tissue areas with an unsteady hand and tunnel vision.

The truth of the matter is if you're not trained to react while under the effects of an adrenaline dump, you may not fight as effectively as you might have hoped to. To make matters worse for many fighters, the faster your heart beats the more control you lose. At 180 BPM and above, even trained martial artists lose their rational thought process and while their gross motor functions are not severely affected, their ability to choose the correct defensive manoeuvre is, thus making them vulnerable to an onslaught of attacks; especially when faced with multiple attackers. It is thoroughly important that martial artists do not over-complicate their defensive manoeuvres for fear that they may literally forget how to defend themselves in the heat of the moment.

But our protagonists aren't average citizens, nor are they amateur fighters. As we've already established they are the best of the best. So how do professional fighters train themselves to react so quickly under pressure?

One way most martial artists cope under this type of pressure is through an involuntary response to repetition, called muscle memory. Simply put, the more someone practices the same movements over and over, the quicker the muscles respond when a stimulus is activated. To give an example, in karate one of the first things a new student learns to do is block a punch. At first the student may struggle because they must be consciously aware of the movement as they perform it. After a few days or weeks the response to a punch, the stimulus, becomes more instinctive. But even at this stage the student may need to think about how to block the punch. After months or even years a well-trained student of karate will subconsciously block a punch by pure instinct with no thought process required.

It is only when this level of skill is reached that a fighter can then hope to improve their reaction times through repetitive training of the required skill. But in order to train your body to react as if it were in a fight, the training drills must encompass some form of fear or surprise to keep the fighter on their toes. Only through meticulous and dedicated training can a fighter hope to accomplish the feats seen by our two heroes in these films.

Going back to the two films and focusing on each of the protagonists, we can now ask ourselves, are they realistic? Firstly turning to 'Ip Man': We know that Yip Kai-man is in peak physical condition as far as a trained fighter is concerned. His thirty years of experience has granted him the ability to react at lightning fast speeds because as a master of his art he would have improved his reaction times through repetitive training of the same defences and counters. These speeds would have been heightened during the fight due the adrenaline dump he would have been experiencing. It is evident from the fight sequence that Yip is feeling the full affect of the 'fight-or-flight' response; his eyes are locked on his targets and that concentration is not broken for a single second. His focus is solely on the 10 attackers he is about to face.

Given the fact that this fight takes place in what can only be described as a dojo, Yip is at a disadvantage being surrounded on all sides in a confined space, but he uses other attackers as shields to slow down the pace of the fight, giving him crucial time to react to the onslaught of attacks. Yip does his best to dispatch each attacker with as few techniques as possible so as not to exhaust himself. Though his fine motor skills could well be severely hampered in this fight, we simply cannot tell because he uses gross motor techniques, such as simple grabs, breaking techniques and punches to larger target areas.

If we take a closer look at the 10 black belts, we can also see the affects of the 'fight-or-flight' response on them. As Yip carves his way though their numbers, the last few that are left standing become hesitant and do not immediately attack. The last fighter left standing hesitates for so long that the fight comes to a complete standstill for a few seconds, allowing Yip to compose himself and finish the fight. Taking into account that the entire fight lasts for just over two minutes, which is far shorter than any professional fighter would have to last in a competitive fight, we can conclude that this fight is actually quite realistic.

Lastly we turn to 'Undisputed 3': The breakdown is very similar to the fight described above. Boyka eats, sleeps and breaths martial arts because his ultimate conquest is to win the competition and claim his title as the best fighter that ever lived. One conclusion we can draw from this, is that he must be faster than everyone else. He knows that he won't become number one if his opponent is even fractionally better than him. His speed, power and agility would have to be second to none if he is to achieve his goal. Unlike Yip Kai-man, Boyka is fighting undisciplined prison guards who don't know the first thing about throwing an effective strike, let alone blocking one. Matched up against a heavyweight fighter, the guards didn't stand much of a chance, even if they were armed with batons.

Boyka has two added advantages over Yip in his fight. The first is that it takes place in an open space, the bottom of a quarry to be exact. It's the middle of the day and the lighting is what should be expected when there are no clouds and blue skies. Boyka can see which direction the guards are coming from and prepare himself, both mentally and physically, before they reach him. The second advantage is that Boyka is not fighting alone. As briefly mentioned at the start, he is attempting to escape with his ally 'Turbo', who is also a fighter in this tournament. Even though Turbo is quite badly injured at the time, he provides the perfect distraction, allowing Boyka time to thin their numbers, focusing his energy on just a few guards at a time.

As for these guards that go toe to toe with Boyka, they are met with what can only be described as a six-foot-something Russian heavyweight. His fighting style is what can be expected from someone who knows they are capable of overpowering their opponent. Each attack from the guards is blocked without complication or complexity, and then countered with full brute force. The added power and agility that comes from the adrenaline dump is being used to its full potential, rendering each opponent useless after only one or two strikes. This fight scene lasts for just over a minute and in this time nothing is held back. All in all, it is safe to conclude that this scene is also very realistic.

To conclude, Yip Kai-man and Yuri Boyka aren't just good fighters, they are the best fighters. They are the outliers that have set a new benchmark in martial arts and redefined what it means to be the best. They train the hardest and they defeat the most formidable opponents because they are the pinnacles of fighting genius. All those that stood in their way didn't train as hard, nor were they as naturally gifted.

Audiences look on in awe at the characters in these films and question if it's possible to fight with such finesse and deadly accuracy. They question what they see because they do not consider it possible to attain that level of skill. Yet there is proof that fighters like Yip and Boyka exist in real life: the ones who have dedicated their entire lives to perfecting every movement. To those that have not reached mastery, it's not because it isn't achievable, it's because we haven't trained long enough or hard enough to see ourselves become the heroes in these films. With enough time and dedication, it is very possible to be as good, if not better, than the fighters we see on-screen.