What can I say? I like action movies. Sue me. Specifically, I’m a huge fan of martial arts films. Even more specifically, I like to zero in on Chinese and Hong Kong movies of the ’70s and ’80s, and Japanese samurai films of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60’s (not that there isn’t some really interesting cinema coming out of Asia today, but that’s another post). Saturday afternoons as a kid, I’d try to catch “Kung Fu Theatre” on one of the local UHF channels, whenever I wasn’t being nagged to play outside. The action was great of course, but it was my hunger for justice that really drew me in. They all had the same basic plot: powerful Bully attacks young protagonist’s town/family/domo. Protagonist is brought to ruin. Protagonist trains, with the help of an Elder. Protagonist defeats Bully, and restores justice to his world. The movies provided the satisfying ending that real life could not. A friend, from the generation before mine, once told me that Westerns served the same purpose for him as a kid.
It’s natural for a father to want to share something he loves with his child. The problem crops up when dad’s passion might be best described as a guilty pleasure. What further complicated matters was The Knucklehead’s mom signing him up for Tae Kwon Do at the age of 6.
That in itself was no problem at all. Knuck’s mom found him a great place that the boy made his home for the next 8 years or so. If you have any experience with martial arts dojos in this country, you know how family-friendly they are, and this place was one of the best I’d seen. The owner/Master had a beautiful gift with children, and classes, though challenging, were usually filled with music and laughter. Students were part of a family, training together, and accomplishments in life outside the dojo were celebrated within. More than just lip service was paid to resolving or escaping threatening situations without violence. And as a sport, you could ask for little more. As students moved through the ranks they faced multiple long- and short-term goals, and no one escaped being challenged in some way, whether it was in strength, flexibility, endurance, or balance. Perfect for a growing body in learning to control the gangly, ever-changing vessel young souls are poured into.
And looking back, it was the only sport The Knucklehead undertook where he routinely trained alongside girls, older and younger kids, and even adults. Think, for a moment, what that says to a child about athletes coming in all shapes and sizes.
Yes, it’s training in fighting. Though the emphasis is on self defense, it must be admitted that martial arts training can be used offensively, and sometimes is. If we are not careful with moral instruction, we are enabling bullies. But is that not the case even without Tae Kwon Do or Karate? No, I wasn’t worried about The Knucklehead turning into a bully. I could keep an eye on that, even if his TKD Master didn’t (and he did). But I did want my child to have the ability to defend himself. I didn’t want him to squander his childhood in fear. I spent my childhood running from physical fights because I felt I had no choice. That’s not choosing peace, that’s just cowardice. I wanted Knucks to be able to choose peace.
Now, when your game is baseball, football, or one of the other majors, all you have to do is turn on the television to see your sport played at its highest level. You don’t have to imagine how that play you’re working on is supposed to look; just turn on ESPN, and sooner or later you’ll see a great catch, hit, or layup. Not so with Tae Kwon Do. Unless an American gets a gold medal in it, you’re unlikely to find coverage even during the Olympics. And, no, MMA and UFC don’t count. There’s a world of difference between sparring for points and sparring for brain and joint damage. That’s a whole different beast.
You’re left with the movies. If you want to see Tae Kwon Do, Karate, Kung Fu, or Jeet Kune Do at their highest levels, you’re going to the movies. And there’s no one better to start with than Jackie Chan.
Forget the Jackie Chan of Rush Hour. Forget the Jackie Chan/Owen Wilson buddy flicks. You need to go back to 1980’s Hong Kong flicks to see why he’s the beloved international star he is today.
The young Jackie Chan was a rebel. The Hong Kong film industry at the time was still awash in the fame Bruce Lee had brought them. Producers were hungry to develop the next Bruce Lee, and some thought they’d found him in Jackie Chan. They wanted to promote Jackie as the next no-nonsense lethal fighting machine. But Chan’s heart was in physical comedy. He loved the American silent film comedies he’d seen as a child, and from time to time in his Hong Kong work you’ll find sight gags he lifted straight from Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton (including the falling house façade Chan recreated in Project A). Chan respected Lee, but he knew he couldn’t be Lee. Jackie, to remain true to himself, filled his movies with heart and physical comedy.
The Knucklehead’s introduction to movie martial arts was a scene from Project A 2. In that movie, Jackie plays a 19th-century sailor who’s assigned to take over the corrupt Hong Kong police force. Undercover, Chan’s character (Dragon Ma) allows himself to be arrested and taken to police headquarters, where they don’t know his true identity. Thinking they’ve arrested just another street punk, several cops decide their going to beat him up. Now, Dragon doesn’t want to hurt these guys. Corrupt or not, they’re still cops, and he needs to be able to work with them later. But he doesn’t want to get his butt kicked, either. What follows is a glorious, hilarious fight sequence, where Dragon uses all of his fighting skills, as well as any prop within reach, to keep his attackers at bay, without really hurting any of them. It’s martial arts, and it’s broad physical comedy. It’s vintage, classic, Jackie Chan.
Still, I was worried about showing a fight scene to a six-year-old. I was worried that he’d try to repeat some of this at school. I was worried that he’d confuse the fiction of a movie fight with the reality of an actual one. The last thing I wanted to hear is that he’d hurt himself or another kid trying to duplicate what he’d seen. I wasn’t sure how to get all this across to a tender knucklehead, so this is what I said:
“I’m worried about showing you this. I’m worried that you might try some of this with your friends, especially since what happens in the movie isn’t real. So if I find out that you or another kid try to do this yourselves without supervision, then I’ll know I made a mistake, and that you weren’t ready for this, and we won’t watch Kung Fu movies again until you’re older.”
He agreed. He loved it, and we started introducing more Jackie Chan scenes, later graduating to whole films. One of the bonuses you get with a Jackie Chan movie, by the way, is the stunt reel you get with the closing credits. You’ll see several of the stunts in the film, but they’re the outtakes, in which Chan screws up, and even gets injured. In some cases you see him carried off the set on a stretcher. The idea, of course, is to for Jackie Chan to show that he really does (or did) do all his stunts, and how dedicated he is to his craft and his fans by enduring all this suffering. But the benefit to parents and their knuckleheads is that you get a clear idea of what will happen if you try this stuff in real life. Whether it’s meant that way or not, it’s responsible filmmaking.
Knucks managed to survive without turning into a monster, and got a peek at the end result of all this training he was doing. Over the years, he graduated to Bruce Lee, Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Michelle Yeoh, Tony Jaa, Jason Statham, and others, all brilliant athletes. The level of athleticism on display in their best work is at least the equal of any running back, forward, or striker that ever played their respective sports. Michelle Yeoh, for example started her career as a dancer in the Royal Academy of Ballet, and at Jackie Chan’s urging (or so the story goes) took to Kung Fu like a duck to water. As we progressed through the movies, inevitably we began moving into R-rated territory, and there was only so much I could do to filter out the language and violence, even in just skipping to the fight scenes. At this point he was in his early teens, and I was worried about graphic language. I was worried that he might think I was approving the language as well as the fight choreography, and that he’d start cursing like a sailor at school. I wasn’t sure about how to address this with an 11-year-old, so I said this:
“I’m worried that you might think I think it’s OK for you to swear. I’m worried I’ll hear from your teachers that you’re cursing at school. I’m letting some of this through because the filmmakers knew that real people talked like this, and wanted to make the film seem real. If you’re not able to see the difference, and you start losing control of your language, then I’ll know I made a mistake, and we won’t see these movies again for a while.”
(We were always kind of big on reason in our family.)
And so, as The Knucklehead grew up, we began to bond over martial arts flicks of all kinds. Particularly with his training, we were able to really appreciate the difference between the athletes and the pretenders. We learned from the 80’s Hong Kong directors when a filmmaker knew he could trust the talent of his performer by filming scenes in long takes, pulling the camera back so the audience could see what the actor was doing with his entire body. We learned to recognize this same technique with any kind of athletic performance, even in films like West Side Story and Dirty Dancing. We learned that when a director or film editor over-cut an action sequence, it meant she either didn’t know what she was doing, or didn’t trust the ability of her performers. We had fun. I had shared a “guilty pleasure” with my boy, and we had both ethically survived.
As a post-script, The Knucklehead eventually earned his black belt, and it was a great day for us both. I was proud because black belts aren’t handed out to kids for good attendance. They must be earned, and they’re hard to get. Knucks had to work hard and risk failure to get his. That’s actually rare for a children these days, and it’s something he’ll always have with him. But that’s another post….