You’ve probably never heard of kali, but chances are good you’ve seen it, especially if you like action movies. The martial art has been featured in a growing number of such films, perhaps most notably in the wildly successful Jason Bourne franchise. In one memorable example of kali from the first installment of that series, actor Matt Damon uses a ballpoint pen to defend himself against an assassin’s knife. In the second installment, he ups the degree of difficulty by relying on a rolled up magazine for protection against a similar attack, and in the third, he dispatches a razor-wielding bad guy with a hand towel.
Given this oddball arsenal, you might wonder if kali was invented by a particularly violent Walmart employee with too much spare time. That impression could be reinforced if you catch this summer’s kali-infused releases “Spy” or “American Ultra”; in the former, Melissa McCarthy brandishes a frying pan during a kitchen fight scene, while in the latter, Jesse Eisenberg neutralizes a pair of CIA operatives with the help of a spoon. Despite the way this martial art transforms basic household items into instruments of death, however, it has far nobler origins than the aisles of a discount retailer.
Kali traces back centuries, possibly emerging from India, then migrating eastward through Malaysia and Indonesia, and eventually establishing itself in the precolonial Philippines. It actually represents one of three primary fighting styles intertwined within what are more broadly known as the Filipino Martial Arts, or FMA. Each style correlates to a geographic region of the country, with kali found in the south, arnis in the north, and eskrima in the middle, but they all incorporate edged weaponry to some extent and appear similar in form.
The reliance on blades makes kali and its siblings a natural fit for inclusion within a wide range of cinematic adventures, and FMA’s increasing exposure on the big screen could potentially give it the eminence enjoyed by, say, kung fu. However, greater visibility may not necessarily turn moviegoers into recruits in the same way that Hollywood has boosted participation in other Asian martial arts.
“Sometimes weaponry scares people,” explained kali practitioner Nate Chin about why his martial art remains relatively niche. “It’s also still so small. There are only so many instructors. You’ll go to a city where no one teaches it. It wasn’t commercialized in the same way karate, kung fu, and taekwondo were, where you belt up really fast, you are sold a curriculum of instruction, and you’re given a business model — they call them McDojos, like a franchise.”
FMA’s growth may have been further inhibited by its fragmented landscape, with divisions running not just between the three primary styles, but also within each individual style. Over the course of the martial art’s evolution, an assortment of masters known as tuhons have established distinct schools that promote contrasting approaches or philosophies. As Chin noted, “There can be opposing organizations built on the same ideas. They feel that something’s different in the way they convey it. In the U.S. alone there are around a dozen tuhons, and they all teach differently, and some of them disagree with each other. They have factions for sure.”
In terms of his own affiliation, Chin subscribes to a sub-style of kali called Pekiti-Tirsia. As a guro, or instructor, he leads small group training sessions a few times a week in the San Francisco Bay Area. One recent early evening on the campus of UC Berkeley, he took a quartet of trainees through maneuvers with arm’s length bamboo sticks. The session began with solo form maneuvers involving two sticks and a lot of twirling (kali seems a bad choice for sufferers of carpal tunnel syndrome). Trainees then dropped one stick and paired off for direct combat maneuvers.
The basic lead-in to these maneuvers started with opponents facing each other and repeatedly smacking their sticks together with overhand swings, alternating the arc from right to left, then left to right, repeatedly painting the letter “x” in the air to the rhythmic crack of bamboo on bamboo. After a half dozen strikes or so, one person would initiate an offensive maneuver with a flick of the wrist or twist of the arm, setting up a swift assault that — because it was only practice, of course — pulled up just short of delivering what would have been a painful blow to a vulnerable area.
Chin gradually escalated the complexity of the maneuvers, culminating in an anatomically creative number where, in several fluid yet distinct steps, the aggressor somehow snaked the bamboo stick across the opponent’s back and inside both elbows, establishing a double chicken wing and folding the poor victim forward at the waist. With the opponent bent over, arms secured behind him, and teetering precariously, Chin told the trainees that the next move could either be to “drag his face into the ground” or “knee him in the face.” A third unspoken option that came to mind was administering a devastating wedgie.
After the sky had darkened and the session had wound down, Chin spoke frankly about the brutality of kali. “It’s less than a ‘fair fight’ type of system. You constantly flank your opponent, you constantly counter his attacks with attacks. Instead of a defensive movement to an attack — blocking and punching — I attack his attack. It’s very destructive,” he acknowledged. “A lot of the attacks are not just to hurt him and make him stop because it hurts, but to physically debilitate him.”
As rough and tumble as kali can be, Chin made the case for its more cerebral side. “What I think is great about the Filipino Martial Arts and Pekiti-Tirsia in general is it’s so stimulating on an academic level, because you can teach it in so many different methods, you can break it down into so many different principles and concepts,” he asserted.
“It’s like chess,” he continued. “There are so many different positions, and you can analyze every one of them, and appreciate particular movements, particular combinations of movements… Seeing all the potentiality and being able to navigate that safely is very rewarding.”
A few minutes later, Chin and his trainees dispersed into the night. Any nefarious villains lurking in the shadows would have been wise to keep their distance. No one wants to meet their demise on the business end of a spoon.
To connect with Nate Chin’s kali training group, visit http://facebook.com/ptelitewest.
Alec MacDonald is a writer and editor who lives in Oakland, California. Alec is a 2015 Dat Winning fellow.