The martial arts genre is a pillar of the film industry. We have seen the way of the empty hand in film, in all its forms. From kung fu and wing chun to karate and pencak silat. Let’s explore how martial arts have been represented in movies.

Directors represent martial arts in film in one of two ways: gritty and realistic, or fanciful and stylised. On the absolute extreme ends of the spectrum, we have ‘The Raid’ and ‘Kung Fu Hustle’.

The former is brutal and real, the latter is hyper-stylised. When we say that the martial arts in a film are stylised, we are talking about fight scenes that defy the laws of physics. The kung fu movies that show their characters running up walls and floating when they jump, suspended on wires.

An example of the best martial arts film to feature to include this style of combat is ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’. The stylised martial arts in the film are used for a purpose. It is not just a gimmick to create cool action scenes, it is designed to illustrate the beauty of martial arts; China and its culture.

‘Kung Fu Hustle’ takes this style of combat and exaggerates it to the most extreme degree. The physics of that cartoonish world are completely flexible. Characters appear to have superpowers. This is because the movie is a love letter to the genre.

To pay homage to the genre, its tropes are emphasised. Certain aspects are turned on their head though. The Axe Gang are the antithesis of martial arts. Most movies in the genre even attribute honourable qualities to their villains. The bad guys only fight and kill other martial artists. The Axe Gang however, kill and extort the innocent, the vulnerable.

On the other side of the coin we have ‘Unleashed’ and ‘The Raid’. Both feature highly realistic and savage fight scenes. Every kick, punch and elbow is designed to injure or incapacitate. This makes for a truly visceral experience.

Martial arts also has a strong influence over action movies outside of the genre. For example, director John Woo is known for shooting somewhat stylised action. Woo is especially fond of the ‘bullet time’ technique. 

Woo took over directing duties for the second Mission Impossible movie, which dramatically changed the style compared to its predecessor. The action became very theatrical, seeing Tom Cruise perform impossible triple backflips over motorcycles.

In all of the best martial arts movies, the action works in tandem with the storytelling. In ‘Crouching Tiger’, each character’s movement and fighting style expresses who they are.

Li Mu Bai moves with a grace and balance that reflects his spirit. This is because he is a monk that has reached enlightenment. His body is as balanced as his soul.

In Unleashed, Danny fights with ferocity and the intent to injure during the first act. However, he becomes civilised during the course of the story. As a result, he pulls his punches in the third act when defending himself.

Jackie Chan’s movies are usually action comedies. This brings a slapstick element to his choreography. His characters escape the villains in absurd ways and there is no cost to the violence. Nobody in his action-comedy movies ever get injured or killed.
This contrasts the on-screen violence of ‘The Raid’. The brutality of the combat is designed to show the harsh realities of that crime-ridden world, as well as the job of the Indonesian police.

The uninitiated may believe the martial arts genre to be full of big dumb action movies. However, it is actually a very nuanced side of cinema.