The origins of Filipino martial arts date back centuries, long before the Spanish arrived in the Philippines in 1521. Today, there are said to be almost as many Filipino fighting styles as there are islands in the Philippines. The art of Filipino fighting is primarily weapon-based, noted for its practitioners' ability to turn ordinary household items into lethal weapons and using open-handed combat when weapons are not available. Filipino martial arts developed as a result of continuous encounters with invaders and local conflicts throughout the history of the Philippines, evolving to prioritise and allocate the use of common resources in the midst of ever-changing circumstances. Today, the most popular Filipino martial art style is called Arnis, also known as Kali or Eskrima. It has been incorporated into the Philippine national school curriculum as part of students' physical education, whilst also forming part of Philippine military and police mandatory training.
Despite their importance and growing popularity within their country of origin, Filipino martial arts have so far failed to make a significant global impact. Compared to other martial arts, very few know that Filipino martial arts exist. Even those within the martial arts world are largely unaware of them, perhaps because of lack of branding, ineffective marketing, or the splintered nature of the arts. In media and entertainment, martial arts such as Karate, Taekwondo, Krav Maga, Judo, Kung Fu, Brazilian Jujitsu, and Muay Thai have overshadowed Filipino martial arts for many years. Although Filipino martial arts do appear in some films produced outside of Asia, such as The Book of Eli, The Hunted, and the Blade franchise, it is rare for viewers to identify the type of fighting style on display. Naturally, Filipino martial arts feature more prominently in Asian films. In the effort to increase the popularity of Filipino martial arts amongst cinema fans, here are 7 Asian films in which they appear.
1. Bonifacio: Ang Unang Pangulo
The true story of Andres Bonifacio, the Katipunan revolutionary who rose as a leader in the fight against the Philippines' Spanish oppressors. Bonifacio was well known for his fighting prowess, particularly in his preference to fight with an itak (a cutting tool of Filipino origin similar to a machete) in one hand and a revolver in the other. The Spanish colonised and controlled the Philippines for over 300 years, and the atrocities Bonifacio and his counterparts were forced to witness growing up inspired them to pick up their weapons and rebel against injustice. Although fellow revolutionary Jose Riyaz implores Bonifacio to take a peaceful approach in freeing his countrymen from the clutches of the Spanish, Bonifacio is adamant that combat is the only way to escape their struggle once and for all.
The fight scenes in Bonifacio: Ang Unang Pangulo are choreographed by veteran stunt performer Sonny Sison, a specialist in Filipino martial arts who is often credited for helping reinvigorate the action genre in the Philippines. Arnis is featured in many fight scenes involving the use of blades and other similar weapons.
Cha Tae-sik is a former special agent who now operates a pawnshop. Quiet and lonely, his only real friend is a young girl named So-mi, daughter of Hyo-jeong, a drug-addicted nightclub dancer, both of whom live on the floor below his. When Hyo-jeong steals a load of heroin, hides it in a camera bag, and pawns it to Tae-sik for safekeeping, he is unwittingly roped into a world of crime and corruption. Chinese kingpin Oh Myng-gyu discovers the missing product and tasks his henchmen to retrieve it, abducting So-mi and her mother in the process. After Hyo-jeong is brutally murdered, Tae-sik realises that he must relive his past and confront his repressed trauma if he is to save So-mi from her captors, who turn out to be organ harvesters.
The Man from Nowhere takes a quality-over-quantity approach to its action. Although there aren't too many fight scenes, they certainly deliver when they do take place. Arnis is once again on display here, with guns being ditched for knives and hand-to-hand combat. The fight scenes are brutal and realistic, which many fans will certainly appreciate. Tae-sik often chooses to incorporate Filipino trapping techniques and uses his opponents as human shields, a nod to effective street fighting manoeuvres.
3. Sticks of Death
One of the earliest films about Arnis, Sticks of Death follows the story of a vengeful young man named Johnny, played by master Filipino martial artist Roland Dantes. Johnny, who had a been a ruling drug lord before he was shot by one of his rivals, moves in with his grandfather for safety while he recovers. While there, he learns the art of the "sticks of death"; using sticks as weapons in the hopes that he can avenge himself. However, as time goes by Johnny learns that stick fighting has sharpened his mind and has allowed him to use his newly acquired skills for the benefit of others, rather than his own person vengeance. He instead decides to pursue a career as a police officer. Although Johnny moves forward in a positive path, he struggles to balance his desire for revenge with the need to do what is right.
Fight scenes in Sticks of Death are masterfully choreographed, though viewers are not spared from the occasional wackiness and wild displays, as is expected any time Roland Dantes is involved. Throughout the film, we are given demos of stick versus stick, stick versus dagger, stick versus itak, and short stick versus knife.
Rookie anti-narcotics special operative Nina Manigan is driven to take down Manila's drug cartels after surviving the brutal slaughter of her entire squad during a drug raid that was compromised by corrupt police officers. Her ambition is seemingly thwarted when a mission in one of Manila's most dangerous slums goes south and angry civilians now turn on her squad. Caught between the grips of drug cartels and bloodthirsty citizens, Nina and her new squad must fight their way to safety, one street at time.
Taking influence from Indonesian film The Raid, BuyBust gives its viewers action at its most visceral. Fighting off zombie-like waves of attackers, squatters’ areas in Metro Manila make a perfect deteriorated, urban setting for Filipino martial arts to be on full display. Lead actress Anne Curtis trained Pekiti-Tirsia Kali in the run-up to the film, performing the majority of Nina's stunts herself.
In an alternative world much like our own, fearsome vampiric creature called "aswangs" (evil spirits from Filipino folklore) terrorise the lands. Gabriella Chen, an aswang hunter seeks to kill the aswang-human hybrid that slayed her family. She teams up with a team of demon hunters who call themselves the Slayers, and a hybrid named Bolo who injects himself with aswang blood to increase his strength. Although their hunt seems to be faring well, this unlikely team does not realise that they are all pawns in a twisted plan to rid the world of its best demon hunters.
Director Vince Soberano, a martial artist himself, promoted the film as a means of increasing the popularity of Filipino martial arts. Indeed, a large majority of the film's cast comprised of practitioners of Filipino martial arts. With it's merging of fantasy and martial arts, Blood Hunters: Rise of the Hybrids is a definite must-watch.
In Mabolo, the Philippines, an Arnis match between Lorenzo and Emilio results in the death of Emilio and the loss of a sacred pair of Arnis sticks. Emilio's younger brother, Ariel, swears that he will avenge Emilio's death and seeks the help of Manuel, a retired fighter, and Master Sutero to train him in the art of Arnis. The film features the use of titular sticks made from highly sought-after kamagong hardwood. In this coming-of-age drama, two contrasting characters emerge: a young boy discovering the uphill challenge of perfecting his skill, and the young boy's idol who rediscovers what it takes to be hero again.
This landmark Filipino martial arts film has reached near-legendary status in Philippine cinema for making the nation aware of one of its cultural treasures, the art of Arnis. The film is based on a weekly comic series created by famed Filipino writer Carlo J. Caparas. Kamagong was also adapted into an anime film in 2019.
Maria, a cartel assassin, deliberately betrays her employers by compromising her mission and failing to complete it. After getting wind of her betrayal, the cartel orders her imminent execution. Unbeknown to them, Maria chooses to fake her own death and recreate her life, starting her own family and living a life free of violence. However, her past eventually catches up to her when the cartel discovers that she is still alive. With her family now torn apart, Maria rekindles with her dark past and seeks out revenge on those who have tarnished her new life.
Another film whose fight scenes have been choreographed by Sonny Sison, Maria is Filipino martial arts at its absolute best. With its use of bladed weapons and close-quarters open-handed combat, the film champions the same claustrophobic feeling present in BuyBust. Fight scenes are artistic and violent, captured by slow-moving overhead cameras and voyeuristic static sequences.
Bonus: For Y'ur Height Only
In this Filipino cult classic, 3-foot-tall secret operative, martial artist, expert marksman, and skilful romancer Agent 00 must foil the plans of Mr. Giant, who intends to use the kidnapped Dr. Van Kohler's N-bomb to hold the world hostage. Agent 00 struggles in a race against time to free Dr. Van Kohler from the clutches of Mr. Giant and save the world from the disastrous future that awaits it.
For Y'ur Height Only is a cultural phenomenon in the Philippines. It became a worldwide sensation and lead actor Weng Weng emerged as the Philippines' first international star. The film features plenty of Arnis, mixed in with wacky fight scenes that make For Y'ur Eyes Only such a memorable viewing.