As the votes are counted ahead of Oscar night next Sunday, Cory Meacham examines the martial arts reality behind the spectacular fight - and flight - scenes in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. (1129 words)


Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has won critical acclaim, with particular admiration for its spectacular special effects - including the remarkable fight scenes which sometimes seem more a novel form of aerial combat.

Characters take to the air like birds with barely a hop. For the actors, of course, just a bit of movie magic was needed to get them airborne. Wires flew them, which were then digitally erased in the editing process. In purely special effects terms however, this film is rather pedestrian.

But have any martial arts adepts every really been able to soar like that, or perform any of the other apparent miracles of combat on display?

'Strictly entertainment!' proclaims Richard Isaacson, Program Director for Gravitational Physics at the US National Science Foundation. 'There is simply no possibility of these [actions] being real.'

Mark Cheng, an internationally recognized authority on martial arts who speaks and writes widely on the subject, says certain things, such as being able to paralyze a person by manipulating certain acupuncture points, are entirely possible.

Referring to several scenes in the film where the characters both paralyze and heal one another with nothing more than the touch of their bare hands, Cheng says he himself has experienced such paralysis at the hands of a master. 'He grabbed my arm just above the elbow and squeezed his thumb into a particular point,' he says. 'While his grasp was in place, I was unable to inhale and I started to gasp for air although nothing came into my lungs. As soon as he released his grip, I could breathe normally. But when he squeezed again, the same asphyxiation began again. Had I not experienced it with my own body, I'd have never believed it.'

But while a portion of what appears incredible in the film is evidently possible, when it comes to the flying, even some martial arts experts scoff.

'The flying was pure fantasy,' says Harvey Kurland, an exercise physiologist with 30 years of martial-arts training, although he concedes that some superhuman skills that might be developed through esoteric disciplines. 'There may be some subtle energy practices, such as ch'i healing, that still need to be investigated.'

Even Cheng acknowledges 'a healthy dose of exaggeration' in the flying sequences while warning against underestimating the leaping skills of the master practitioners.

'There are Korean monks who can jump from a third-story ledge and land on their feet without injury and just go on their merry way,' he says. 'I've seen Master Taejoon Lee [of the Korean school of martial arts known as Hwa Rang Do] run towards someone and nail them with a flying jump kick and then kick two more people before his feet touch the ground again. To someone who's never seen that before, it looks like flight. Is that some kind of weird mysticism or proper progressive bio-mechanical conditioning?'

But leaping is not flying and the film most certainly portrays people leaving the ground in seeming defiance of gravity, not merely jumping great distances. Asian martial art traditions include a history of skills that involve manipulating gravity in such a way as to render the practitioner buoyant if not outright weightless. Control of the internal force known as ch'i is central to this practice and filmed experiments involving such forces have led to some curious results.

'An interesting demonstration was done by some transcendental-meditation students who were "levitating",' says Kurland. 'It appeared more like a "bounding" in the lotus position, but an experienced gymnast could not replicate the feat. Nevertheless, what was shown was a skill, called fajin, that can be learned. It was not magic.'

That final distinction is a vital one. The characters portrayed in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon have devoted every aspect of their lives physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually to their art. The audience is not intended to think that everyone can do these things. The film makes it clear that the skills demonstrated are so important and powerful they have been kept secret from all but the most disciplined and worthy of initiates.

'Almost nobody these days has the kind of mental or spiritual discipline required to focus the kind of effort and time commitment necessary to achieve such skills,' says Cheng. 'But if you could put yourself in a place where such distractions did not exist and such training was available, then you could definitely take yourself and your body to levels that were previously unthinkable.'

(according to Kurland) Gymnasts perform spectacular moves that only single-minded, almost superhuman dedication can achieve and the most devoted of practitioners duplicate. Tibetan monks have been filmed using mentally generated body heat to steam-dry wet sheets lain across their backs while they sit meditating in the snow.

Cats and other animals can jump many times their body height without batting a whisker. Is it unreasonable to think that a person with the skill of a gymnast and the devotion of a monk might achieve the dexterity of a cat?

'We've all seen the basketball player Michael Jordan do his thing,' Cheng observes. 'Now, imagine if a guy like Jordan had martial arts training on top of that!'

Isaacson remains unimpressed. 'The laws of gravitation haven't changed in the 300 years since they were first spelled out by Isaac Newton and the 85 since they were extended by Albert Einstein,' he says, shrugging when confronted with Jordan's 'hang-time' and the fact that martial arts have been practiced for thousands of years (making Newton and Einstein relative newcomers).

Even Kurland says: 'If you believe that Chinese kungfu masters can jump on to roofs, then why doesn't China have them enter the Olympics in the high jump and show the world?'

Many Asians would simply shake their heads at such a question, noting the sacred and spiritual nature of the martial arts, stressed in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. (Kurland asks is it spiritual to kill one another with swords? See "Martial Arts Are Not Ennobling" at article.)

'Westerners and even many Easterners are locked into a particular form of logic, a particular level of thinking,' offers Cheng. 'Most people are not at a level of evolution where they have a strong enough psychological foundation to really be able to open their minds to think at higher levels. This is perhaps the most important point.'

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Cory Meacham is an American-based freelance journalist and the author of How the Tiger Lost Its Stripes: An Exploration into the Endangerment of a Species (published in the US by Harcourt Brace & Company, 1997).