Chinese martial arts cinema is legendary amongst afficionados of combat. The rich range of movies produced by the Shaw Brothers’ studio and its Hong Kong contemporaries from the 50’s to the 80’s stands as one of the most fascinating libraries of combative entertainment in history; the physical skill and acrobatic prowess of the performers therein is likewise a matter of legend.
Flash Point with Donnie Yen
Classic figures of popular martial arts were produced by the Hong Kong movie business: Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, Chow Yun Fat, Sammo Hung, and Jet Li were made famous internationally primarily due to their starring roles in Hong Kong Gung Fu and generic action movies.
However, Chinese martial arts cinema- like Chinese martial arts themselves- have always been stylized affairs. Some would argue… *too* stylized.
For instance, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was a tour-de-force of visual art and dance… but it was as far from an accurate depiction of combat (and therefore of martial arts), as one can get. Most of the wire-fu stylized Chinese cinema before or since that landmark film have been as surreal or more surreal. This is not to devalue these movies, instead this is a matter of defining them accurately. The Wushu dancing seen in these movies is not “martial” in any meaningful sense of the word. It is an impressionist pantomime, as close to fighting as morris dancing is. An art form to be sure, but not an accurate representation of anything martial.
The interesting thing is that virtually no movie (from China or otherwise) has depicted combat accurately. Jackie Chan’s wildly entertaining action movies containing fantastically hyper-kinetic kickboxing and gung fu are- despite the superficial “Fightyness” of the content- as far from the reality of fighting as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was. Even Bruce Lee, a pioneer of reality-based training in martial arts, produced wildly fantastical choreography in his seminal movies. Why? Because real fights are messy affairs; they can be either blindingly fast and one-sided or long, tedious, drawn out slugfests, and in the latter case they can often be rather boringly inconclusive. Most unsuitable for a visual entertainment product like a two hour movie, in other words.
There are exceptions, of course. Most often serious dramas, like The Debt Collector starring Billy Connolly and Ken stott. This film contains two or three of the most realistic (and necessarily disturbing) scenes of unarmed or lightly armed violence ever depicted on film, in my opinion. Well worth a look for both dramatic weight and a healthy dose of martial reality guaranteed to bring one crashing down to earth.
But what happens when a highly skilled martial artist, actor and “martial” performer attempts to take cutting edge no-holds-barred techniques which are undoubtedly and verifiably employable in real combative situations, and use them to craft something suitable to entertain a movie-going audience hungry for fast-paced action, visual variety, and of course, dramatic resolution?
Nature has provided us with an answer to this question by performing an experiment for us. The experiment is a movie called Flash Point, and the scientist of combat performing the experiment is a veritable master named Donnie Yen.
Donnie Yen is one of the most famous men in Asia, but is still comparitively unknown in the US and Europe. The son of one of the most revered female Chinese Martial Artists of all time, he has carved out an incredibly lucrative and successful career as an action movie leading man in Hong Kong. The majority of his movies have followed the standard Gung Fu movie playbook to the letter, but recently, having succeeded to the level at which he has greater editorial control over his own products, he has produced several notable and innovative movies. The first was arguably Sha Po Lang, a collaberation with the legendary Sammo Hung, in which Yen first explored the use of Mixed Martial Arts techniques and stylistic rhythms in a Gung Fu movie format. Arm-bars and more practical kickboxing took the place of the traditional stylized Gung Fu techniques, for his character.
This was primarily due to the fact that Donnie Yen, unlike the majority of his contemporaries, is both an athlete and a fighter as well as a performer. He is a true scholar in the field of combat, and he trains in all the various arts that seem most practical to him, including boxing, amateur wrestling and submission grappling. Because Yen is passionate about the true martial arts of combat, he wished to bring these arts to a wider audience. Being a practical man and a businessman, the fact that MMA is growing in popularity as a sport in Asia (as well as the rest of the world) must also have factored into Yen’s stylistic decision to some degree.
In my opinion however, Sha Po Lang was a half-formed beast at best. There was still a great deal of deference to the old Gung Fu movie tropes in evidence in the plotting and choreography for both Yen and his opponents, and while it was no doubt a necessary step in the evolution of Yen’s choreography, it could not be called truly new and innovative as a product.
Yen’s next film was titled “Flash Point” (in English.)
Donnie Yen performing one of his signature kicks in the climactic scenes of Flash Point (used without permission)
This film has a rudimentary though perfectly servicable plot and a rogues gallery of ludicrously nefarious and gurning villains… both standard Hong Kong action ingredients. However, what it also has is: Donnie Yen’s implacable athleticism, and a set of fight-scenes, painstakingly choreographed, which do the seemingly impossible: They integrate submission grappling, wrestling, Judo, boxing, Muay Thai and Gung Fu into a seamless and slick physical poetry, which will captivate any true connosseur of the game, and/or the movie genre.
Yen’s choreography has never been more innovative; his physical skills never better demonstrated. He seems barely human at times, as he flawlessly executes techniques from at least seven different styles of martial arts with the commitment, technical proficiency and speed of a true master.
As the end-credits roll, scenes from the training and preparation Yen and his team of stunt performers and actors underwent is shown alongside the cast and crew list. Anyone who is familiar with MMA training will recognise the proficiency of the participants in these scenes, and will note Yen’s skill in particular. Not only this, his acrobatic legerdemain is on display, as he also performs many more traditional flashy moves for the camera.
Donnie Yen is a man who can not only do it all, he can present it all to the audience in an accessible form. Flash Point is the proof.