The dynamic movements of the Filipino martial arts (FMA) offer great potential for theatrical and cinematic purposes.

The late FMA scholar Pedro Reyes wrote of how the FMA were introduced as a component of entertainment, he said, “Next the Spanish friars introduced the komedya [stage play] and asked the arnisadores to choreograph the mock battles. Arnis masters responded by creating a new style or branch of arnis, exhibition or theatrical arnis. Present day masters who coach cinematic actors are heirs to this branch.”(Rapid Journal Vol. 4 No. 1).

It is interesting to note that Reyes’ statement that the Spaniards commissioned the arnis masters of old to choreograph the fight scenes of the komedya contradicts the long-standing premise that the Filipinos of yore hid their practice in the guise of dances or public performances after the Spanish government banned the FMA.

In another article (Classifying Arnis, Rapid Vol. 5 No. 2), Reyes described the characteristic of this unique branch of FMA, he wrote, “If he is showing off, he is doing “arnis entablado,” or exhibition arnis (“entablado” is a Spanish word for “stage”). Because he has to project to an audience that may be some way off, he exaggerates his movements, engages in acrobatics and favors spectacular techniques.”

The introduction of cinema in the Philippines by the coming of the Americans at the turn of the 20th century resulted in a steady decline of the popularity of stage plays like the komedya, moro-moro and sarsuela. Today, these traditional art forms are still seen during fiestas in the provinces and are being revived by government agencies like the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA).

While the komedya, moro-moro and sarsuela were commonly identified with Luzon and the Visayas, the Filipino Muslims of Mindanao have grafted martial arts in their performing arts too. In 2007, I did a news coverage of an art exhibition of former Moro rebels wherein one painting caught my attention.

The piece depicted the traditional Tausug dance called “Pangalay.” The movements of Pangalay, a posted note explained, also come in handy as a form of self-defense for Tausug women. When used for combative purposes, the movements of the Pangalay are called Langka Budjang, which has a martial connotation.

Dan Inosanto in Bruce Lee’s last film “Game of Death”

Dan Inosanto is the undisputed pioneer of using the FMA in stunt works in the movies. His demonstration of the FMA in Bruce Lee’s last film “The Game of Death” gave tremendous boost to the popularity of the FMA worldwide. Inosanto and his student Jeff Imada (a top Hollywood stuntman and stunt choreographer) were responsible in showcasing to the world the cinematic potential of the Filipino balisong knife. Inosanto taught actor Ron Maxx how to use the balisong in the Jackie Chan film “The big Brawl”in 1980.

He used the balisong in his appearance in the movie “Sharkey’s Machine” starring Burt Reynolds in 1981. Imada on the other hand, demonstrated the balisong and the collapsible steel baton in the 1986 movie “Big Trouble in Little China.

Through the efforts of Inosanto and Imada, the balisong was later dubbed “The nunchaku of the 80s.” In his book “Absorb What is Useful,” Inosanto wrote this insight on fight choreography, “The most difficult part about choreographing a fight scene is the compromise between what is practical and what is theatrical – without getting too hokey. You want to show realism, but it might not be theatrical enough.”

Inspired by the inclusion of the FMA in Lee’s “Game of Death,” a number of Filipino movies featured arnis-escrima during the 1970s and 1980s. The most prominent of these were the ones starring the late Modern Arnis exponent Roland Dantes.

Dantes holds the distinction of starring in the first full-length movie about arnis dubbed “Arnis: The Sticks Of Death,” which was released in 1984. Besides his expertise in arnis, Dantes was also a world-class champion bodybuilder who won the title of Mr. Philippines five times from 1969 to 1980. He also placed in international contests like the Mr. World and Mr. Universe.

In 1986, another full-length movie on arnis-escrima was released in the Philippines titled “Kamagong,” starring Juan Carlos Bonnin and Lito Lapid (now a senator). The most recent local film on the FMA was “Arnis: The Lost Art,” released in 2004 and starring Ronnie Ricketts and Bruce Ricketts.

The former is the brother while the latter is the son of renowned martial arts master Christopher Ricketts of the Bakbakan Group. Christopher Ricketts was also a senior student of the late Antonio “Tatang” Ilustrisimo.

Hollywood continues to notice the cinematic potential of the FMA. Among the most notable movies of recent years that featured the FMA are: “Out for Justice” starring Steven Seagal in 1991; “The Hunted” starring Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio del Toro in 2003; and “The Bourne Supremacy” starring Matt Damon in 2004.

“Out for Justice” contains a dynamic fight scene where Seagal and Inosanto engage in a sinawali [double sticks] fight using pool cues. “The Hunted” meanwhile showcases the splendid knife fighting choreography of Thomas Kier and Rafael Kayanan, both senior instructors of Sayoc Kali.

Kayanan, a professional illustrator and concept designer for comic books prepared a meticulous storyboard of the film’s knife fight sequences. The FMA’s use of found objects as impromptu weaponry was displayed in “The Bourne Supremacy.”

By the enthusiastic response of moviegoers around the world, it is evident that more films are bound to feature the unique flavor of FMA choreography. At the time of this writing, it was reported that the old tandem of Inosanto and Imada choreographed exciting fight scenes for the new Denzel Washington movie “The Book of Eli.”