While they might not be quite so popular with Western audiences in this day and age, martial arts films have a secure place in pop culture history, whether we’re talking about Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee, The Karate Kid or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
As the genre’s name suggests, these movies are founded upon some form or forms of martial arts, but that doesn’t mean everything depicted within them is entirely true to life. Sorry kids, karate doesn’t make you into some kind of indestructible superhero. Let’s look at five myths about martial arts that these movies promote.
1. Winners escape a fight undamaged
If the hero wins a fight, he wins — end of story. After dispensing with dozens of faceless baddies, a typical martial arts protagonist can proceed without suffering any consequences. In fact, even the winners of most fights will suffer some soreness and other adverse effects — karate master or not.
Take for example, the fight bite. A fight bite is a word for the red, blistered, and swollen knuckles fighters develop on their hands from punching an opponent’s face, which cuts the skin on their hands and causes staph infections. When was the last time you saw Bruce Lee applying antibiotic ointment to one of his unsightly fight bites?
2. A single karate chop can be lethal
We’ve all seen this one. A martial arts master in a movie can carefully dispense of an opponent with one perfectly executed karate chop. The Austin Powers franchise even made a point of parodying the trope, with Austin occasionally dispensing of a guard or villain with an exaggerated chop and shouting “judo chop!” That gives some clue to how ridiculous this trope is. A karate chop to the neck can be quite effective, but even with the perfect form, a karate chop is rarely lethal in any way, shape, or form.
3. The death touch
Here’s a myth that isn’t limited to film and television. Though Star Trek‘s Dr. Spock is probably the most famous practitioner of this mythical technique with his “Vulcan death pinch,” there are many real-life characters who claim to have mastered the Dim Mak, or death touch. This technique allows a person to knock out or kill someone with little effort by targeting a specific point or points on the body. Some even claim that Bruce Lee died of a “death touch” — killed for revealing the secrets of Kung Fu to westerners. “That’s bull,” says martial arts expert Bill Wallace.
4. Trained martial artists always win street fights
Most martial arts films take place in their own world, where most everyone who fights abides by dojo rules, but that isn’t always clear in some contexts. These films and many western interpretations of them would lead you to believe that a black belt means one can win a fight, no matter the context. While martial arts training certainly won’t hurt one’s chances, street fights are their own animal entirely, so a master in the dojo might easily lose a fight with an untrained thug who happens to have some kind of height advantage.
We’ve all indulged in the fantasy that we might dispense of an enormous bully by simply using our discipline and some martial arts training, but in most contexts, this fantasy is just that — a fantasy. Kick-Ass, a movie about a normal kid who tries to become a superhero, has a particularly funny depiction of how real-life street fights tend to play out. Watch it above.
5. A trained master can easily take on a horde of attackers
Man, isn’t it awesome when our well-trained hero comes across a mob of would-be killers and henchmen on his or her way to the final battle, only to effortlessly dispose of them all as they try in vain to attack? Tarantino fans might recall the thrilling sequence in Kill Bill: Volume 1 wherein the Bride destroys dozens of Lucy Liu’s goons after they surround her. Movies like this one do a good job of making this phenomenon seem semi-realistic using meticulous choreography, but real-life fights don’t follow any sort of choreography.
This means even an astute martial arts master can’t perfectly anticipate an opponent’s coming attacks, let alone hundreds of them. It’s difficult enough for a normal person, even with martial arts training, to outfight even three others on the street. However farfetched this cliche might be, that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy scenes like the one above for the pure escapist fantasies they are.
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