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Continuing the Star Wars legacy of dramatic fight scenes and ceaseless dedication to self-improvement in the face of overwhelming challenges, Rouge One: A Star Wars Story featured martial arts in critical roles. The movie’s protagonist Jyn Erso (played by Felicity Jones) engaged in a number of fights that emulate the Chinese martial arts practice known as wushu.

Although Rouge One is the most recent Star Wars film to feature martial arts, it isn’t the first and likely won’t be the last due to the complex combat sequences that fans have come to love and expect.

Star Wars Universe X Wushu

Star Wars Universe

Wushu, traditionally interchangeable with kung fu, refers to the modern competitive practice of Chinese martial arts, which includes several styles that involve weapons. Developed in China after 1949, wushu was an effort to standardize the practice of traditional Chinese martial arts, and literally translates to “martial arts;” (武 “Wu” = military or martial, 术 “Shu” = art). Through the International Wushu Federation (IWUF), wushu has become an international sport with world championships every two years. One of the most famous practitioners of wushu is none other than Jet Li.

When most people consider the action in the Star Wars films, they envision the lightsaber duels that were inspired by Japanese, rather than Chinese, sword fighting techniques. Inspired by the films of Akira Kurosawa, George Lucas based many aspects of the films on the Japanese martial art of kendo. Originating in early 18th Century Japan, samurai began training with bamboo swords, which eventually inspired the shape of the lightsaber. Describing kendo in a 2015 documentary, the original Star Wars protagonist Mark Hamill stated, “It’s honor, it’s balance, it’s justice; kendo is everything that Jedi are.”

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In an interview with New York Times, Felicity Jones said of her character, “She has this short stick, and then she grabs onto it and she just hits. I can feel it now; I absolutely love doing it. I have to be careful not to do it on my friends or on my boyfriend or on my family.” She also demonstrated her martial arts skills on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon during her guest spot on the show this past November. Although Jones just started learning wushu for her role, fellow Star Wars actor Donnie Yen is a champion of multiple world wushu tournaments.

Star Wars Universe

Spending his adolescence in Boston after a Hong Kong childhood, Yen considered becoming a professional musician, but chose martial arts instead. He eventually found a mentor in legendary action film choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, who saw Yen’s potential to be another Jackie Chan. Yuen eventually paired Yen in a memorable battle with Jet Li in Once Upon a Time in China II. Even as one of the world’s most well-known action stars in the world, Yen was humbled after being asked to make hands-and-feet imprints in cement in Hollywood.

Responding to the occasion, Yen said, “It’s only recently that Asian actors have been recognized for their artistic contributions. Jackie Chan was the first Asian actor so honored, in 1997. So this is a great honor. It’s been a long time coming for Asian actors.”

Wushu was Critical in Star Wars Universe

Star Wars Universe

Wushu was also critical for another heroine in the Star Wars universe. Last year, for The Force Awakens, Daisy Ridley (who plays the protagonist Rey) trained with Liang Yang, who she described as a “wushu fricking master.” Yang was responsible for coordinating stunts on the film and has worked on other projects including Skyfall and Game of Thrones, both of which won the award of Outstanding Action Performance by a Stunt Ensemble in a Motion Picture at the 19th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards in 2013. The Star Wars universe would not be as historic without the martial artists turned stunt actors that step in during the most dramatic scenes.

Daisy Ridley, although being trained in wushu to prepare for the intensity of her role, was fortunate to have Chloe Bruce perform as a stunt double for some of the trickier battle sequences. Bruce is a 4th degree black belt, has won hundreds of martial arts championships across UK and Europe, and is most famous for her world record breaking high kicks. Bruce’s accomplishments demonstrate that martial arts are for everyone, no matter their gender, age, or background.

Looking further back in the history of Star Wars, wushu actually made its debut in the 1999 film Phantom Menace. Ray Park, the actor behind the fearsome face paint of Darth Maul, fell in love with martial arts movies as a kid; saying, “I loved Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Donnie Yen. And I really owe a lot to Jet Li as well.” Li’s quickness with weapons influenced Park to develop his skills with weaponry. Despite Darth Maul’s prowess with the double-sided lightsaber, Park said that the “Bo staff is one of the hardest weapons to practice.”

Star Wars Universe
Star Wars Universe

Felicity Jones believes that wushu was the right choice for her fight scenes in Star Wars because the filmmakers didn’t want her to be “balletic and majestic.” Having a background as a fashion star and acting in non-action films, like The Theory of Everything, Jones’s movements were not ideally suited for her character. With the short, sharp, and low movements of wushu, the scenes come across as authentic and gritty, lending to the background of the character Jyn Erso, the criminal turned rebel leader who plots to steal the Empire’s Death Star plans.

Rouge One: A Star Wars Story is the first of three anthology films to be produced between the canonical episodes that fans are familiar with. Later this year, Episode VIII will be the next movie to build on the success of George Lucas’s 1977 classic. With the world-wide success of the original trilogy and fanfare from the most recent films, we can continue to expect more news from the Star Wars universe. Additionally, Chinese martial arts, like wushu, will continue to play a critical role in the films, introducing people to the full contact sport that has inspired countless actors and fans.

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