Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Bladed Hand (Jay Ignacio, Cinemanila 2012)

Rizal Park is packed with people every day. Several groups wield canes for their arnis training. Towering over them is the bronze statue of Lapu Lapu, a master in eskrima. Further across the park is  the monument of Jose Rizal, a fencing aficionado. Although there is no concrete evidence of his having been trained in eskrima, Rizal was portrayed in the film Rizal sa Dapitan as having taught arnis/eskrima to local kids.

With an illustrious history and heroic practitioners behind it, arnis was declared as national martial art and sport of the Philippines in 2010. That event pushed various Filipino Martial Arts (FMA) groups to set aside differences and work together on a common goal: popularization of arnis/eskrima/kali.

The documentary film The Bladed Hand shows the growing clout of respected arnis/kali experts around the world. They help foreign police groups with their self defense training. They choreograph jaw-dropping action sequences for film productions.

Clips from the Jason Bourne film series showcase the efficiency of kali as a form of self defense. If only I’ve been exposed to these types of footage early in my life, then I would have enjoyed my arnis lessons in high school. Back then, I thought arnis is useful only with sticks. Boy, was I wrong. A mere ballpen in the hand of a kali expert is more than a writing implement. It becomes a deadly weapon. That scenario gives new meaning to the saying ‘the pen is mightier than the sword.’

With or without a weapon at hand, a kali expert uses blinding speed and coordinated movements to thwart enemies during close combat. In the documentary, politician Juan Miguel Zubiri shared his secret in winning an arnis competition. He narrated that he practiced learning one movement until it became second nature to him. He repeated it with every new movement. It is akin to the training regimen of Ralph Macchio’s character in the Karate Kid. Zubiri was responsible for the passage of the arnis bill into law.

There had been a crucial change in the world of arnis since 2009. In that year, a documentary titled Eskrimadors by Kerwin Go dealt with in-fighting among the numerous FMA groups. Nowadays, the focus is on standardization of techniques and forms and the creation of a unified system of rules. Those are major challenges to the popularization of arnis as a sport.

The task is doubly hard as other close combat sports such as taekwondo and wrestling, both of which risk losing their Olympic status, try to improve their own popularity. Another issue for arnis is the need for competitors to wear protective gear which hinders some movements, thus taking away the potent, enchanting mix of breathtaking speed and dangerous blows.

Still, arnis as an art is a wonder to behold. With the dazzling sequence of attacking and parrying movements and side-steps, it is akin to a dance. It is tinikling, self-defense, komedya, and cha-cha rolled into one. Now, that is what I call a beautiful, lethal concoction of mixed arts.

The Bladed Hand, just like its subject Filipino Martial Arts, is a work in progress. At the time of its screening at Cinemanila 2012, director Jay Ignacio came across more footages of interest. But, as it is, the work screened at the Market Market cinema is striking enough to lure more people to the world of arnis. So, who wants to take up arnis/eskrima and join the company of Matt Damon, Professor Felipe Jocano, Dan Inosanto, and the legendary Bruce Lee?

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