Interview with Sifu Kisu

In the realm of martial arts, some practitioners take their learning to the highest level and found their own system of combat, but how many of us can say that we’ve created a fictional art of fighting? How about four of them? Perhaps the only man in the entire world who can boast such a claim is Sifu Kisu of the Harmonious Fist Chinese Athletic Association, who designed the four Bending Arts seen in the popular Nickelodeon animated series “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and its sequel, “The Legend of Korra”.

A thirty-six year student of Northern Shaolin Kung Fu who can trace his martial lineage to the art’s most famed practitioner, Iron Palm master Ku Yu Cheung, Sifu Kisu began as a stunt performer on low budget martial arts films and popular children’s programs like “Power Rangers” and “Beetleborgs”. As the 21st century dawned, he would help make the “Avatar” franchise into one of the most popular and acclaimed animated series of all time.

Today, Sifu Kisu sits down with us to share his stories of the many legends of martial arts he’s had the privilege to meet and train with, his decades’ long practice of Northern Shaolin which he continues to teach today, and his involvement with “Avatar” – I also get to confess the story of how I first became the devoted follower of the series that I am today.

Brad – Hi there, Sifu. Good to finally talk and thank you so much for taking part in this interview! How are you doing today?

Kisu – Hi, Brad. I’m doing great!

Fantastic! Have you taken a look at our site?

Yes, and I must commend you, it’s beautifully done, very professional, and the interviews are all written in a good, approachable light. I really enjoyed your interview with Hwang Jang-lee, the King of Kicks. He’s one of my heroes!

Thank you Sifu. Great! Well, let’s kick off with some basics, like from where you originated and your height and weight?

I was born in Rabat, Morocco, and I’m 6’3” (1.90 m) and weigh 15st 3lb (97.5kg).

Always with a sword by his side

Always with a sword by his side

So, how did you first become involved in martial arts? What different arts have you studied?

I was about seven or eight years’ old. My uncles had been exposed to Judo and Karate while coming back and forth from Vietnam, and they started me out in Karate with Robert Larnell in St. Louis. Later on, I took up Taekwondo. I would practice 1000 kicks a day when I was a teenager! I also got to practice with some of the top masters in TKD, and I even got the chance to train with the founder of TKD, Choi Hong Hi. My Sabonim was from General Choi’s first class of students. He was friends with President Park Chung-hee, and we used to go to South Korea and work out with him and his bodyguards. I first started in Northern Shaolin with Master Kenneth Hui in 1979 right when I left the U.S. Air Force, and I’ve been with him ever since. I was literally just coming from a TKD class with Simon Rhee when we first met!

Wow, those are some amazing experiences! So, who would you credit as some of your inspirational figures in martial arts? A top five perhaps?

Oh, man! Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, Jet Li, Hwang Jang-lee, Yuen Biao, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Woo-Ping, I love all those guys, I’d love to work with them, I actually met Kareem Abdul-Jabbar once, and I ended up talking with him about Bruce Lee for about two hours! Talking of Woo-Ping,  he’s one of my big heroes. Something he had that a lot of people didn’t was that he was a master of the Chinese Opera, which, done well gives the illusion of a real fight. He really shined and got to show what he was capable of when Tsui Hark brought him into the “Once Upon A Time in China” movies with Jet Li.

Yes, a lot of legends there! So, how did you first become involved in the film industry?

Well, I’ve always been active in martial arts in terms of not just the form but in applying it. I actually used to do bodyguard work for Mario Kassar, and fight in underground fights. It was $1,000 a fight in a cage or a garage or empty swimming pool, and after a cage match I was involved in, a few of the spectators told me they were making a movie about underground fighting, and we ended up doing a movie called “Shootfighter: Fight to the Death”. Later on, I became involved with the Saban shows like “Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers” where I got to meet Isaac Florentine, and he was a lot of fun to work with! I was also a part of “VR Troopers”, “Masked Rider” and “Beetleborgs” where I played the character Vexor. A lot of us were kind of the stunt ensemble for Saban Entertainment, and I’d also established a few schools while I was doing that.

I watched a lot of those shows as a kid! Moving back a little bit, one of the first movies you were in was “Ring of Fire”, alongside such well known martial artists as Don “The Dragon” Wilson, Gary Daniels, and Eric Lee. What was the experience of making the film with them like?

Eric is actually a friend of mine and my teacher, and he actually trained with my teacher’s teacher. He was the stunt coordinator on that film, and he had gotten me into doing a lot of movies like “Ring of Fire” and several other movies with Don “The Dragon” Wilson, also “Sworn to Justice” with Cynthia Rothrock, and then “Dragon Fire” which I ended up starring in. Gary’s a really cool guy, a really decent human being and a really strong martial artist. There was one time while we were making the film that a fight almost broke out, and I forget what he said exactly, but Gary came up and just said the most calming thing ever! Don’s also a really down to earth guy, too. I actually worked with Don on quite a few films – there’s a lot of things that I did stunts on for a day or so that I’m not credited for. I made a living for quite a few years as a utility stunt person on quite a few shows.

Hanging out on the Great Wall of China

Hanging out on the Great Wall of China

Yes, Gary’s a really classy guy! What was the experience of “Sworn to Justice” with Cynthia Rothrock like?

That was an interesting movie to make. Shannon Lee was actually a part of it, too. She’s a real sweetheart, and we got to talk about her father a lot while making the film. Cynthia actually kicked me off the hood of a car during the big fight scene in the garage. She hit me pretty hard! She’s got a good spirit and she’s a solid martial artist.

Well, now let’s move into your involvement with “Avatar”.  To give a little history of how I was first drawn to the series myself, I was actually pretty indifferent to it as recently as last year! However, I had friends who were really into it who were telling me “Dude, you gotta check out ‘Avatar!”, but I never really had any kind of serious interest in it until June of 2014. I remember seeing the boxed sets of the whole series on DVD shelves in Best Buy one day, and that just kind of jogged my memory about having friends that were big fans of the series, so I decided to investigate Book One, and by the second or third episode, I was giving myself the biggest mental kick in the butt I’ve probably ever given myself! I could talk for hours on all the different ways the series really captivated me and everything it does so incredibly well, but a lot of it would fall under “I’ve never seen anything like this!” The series does so many things that I’ve always wanted to see done with martial arts, and I think a lot of things I didn’t know I wanted to see done with martial arts, especially in animated form. I think twenty or thirty years from now, the world is going to look at “Avatar” with the same kind of reverence as “Star Wars” or “Lord of the Rings”, and I think everyone involved with the series should be extremely proud of what they’ve created!

Thank you. I’ve heard a lot of stories like that from “Avatar” fans. I actually took my teacher to the premiere where they showed the first three episodes. He’s very stoic, but he had tears in his eyes after seeing the first three episodes. He was expecting it to something completely different, and he was warning me, “They always do it wrong!”, but I told him, “Sifu, we’re onto something different this time!”

It most certainly was something different! How did you first become involved with the series?

I was teaching Northern Shaolin in my backyard, and Bryan Konietzko was one of my students. He had actually asked me about being a part of the show two years previously; he and Michael Dante DiMartino had been trying to get it off the ground for a while. It’s a long, hard process to get a TV show made. You have to get someone who believes in your idea, and you have to get someone who’s going to pony up the money to get it done. Once they got Nickelodeon to green light the series, I was brought in as the martial arts consultant, and I was with them off and on for about twelve years.

Sounds like a lot of effort went into getting the series started, but it was definitely worth the wait! So, describe the process of designing the martial arts of “Avatar” and integrating it into the show. Was it done by motion capture or in another way?

No, we never did motion capture once. It was a very organic process between Bryan Konietzko and myself; the scripts would be sent to me and I would think in terms of what we were going to do. We had three sessions when we designed the martial arts in the series. In the first session, we would pitch ideas about what the script was asking for and how we’d execute it. Then, I’d come up with some movements, and they would take the tape of it and run off with that and come back with some ideas. Then, we’d map out some specifics of what moves we were going to do the next time, then we’d come back in the next session and film those moves from the various camera angles that were required by the teleplay and the storyboards. We would also pay homage to certain martial arts films in some of the choreography, but there was never anything copied; every movement came out of my teacher’s curriculum, either from forms or some of the applications.

Yes, I remember the chase scene in the episode “The Waterbending Scroll” looked like it was modeled on the street chase in “Ong Bak”.

Yes, exactly. It was a true organic process and something that’s never been done before -developing movements from the requirements of the script. Actually, when we did the “Creating a Legend” interstitials where I demonstrate all the different styles connected to each element, I was just coming off of crutches!

Really? Well, you’d never know that!

Yes, I’d taken a fall and I had a partial tear of my achilles-gastrocnemius junction and my meniscus, and I’d been on crutches two weeks before we filmed those.

Well, speaking of the different Bending Arts, one of the most interesting aspects of “Avatar” is that the character Toph Beifong uses Southern Praying Mantis, while most Earthbenders use Hung Gar. How did Southern Praying Mantis end up as the basis for Toph’s Earthbending?

Well, Bryan Konietzko met a lot of kung fu teachers through me, and one of them was Sifu Manuel Rodriguez, who’s a close friend of mine. Bryan was really impressed when he first saw Manny move, and Manny’s a big guy, and when they came up with the Toph character, we wanted to do something a little different. We’d already used some Mantis in some of the episodes, some Xing Yi, and we had even blended Fire and Waterbending at one point.

We’d really played around with the engineering and physics of bending each element and manifesting it correctly for the camera, and the originator of Southern Praying Mantis was a blind woman. It’s related to White Eyebrow Bak Mei and Southern Dragon, and it uses a touch and hit approach, which is how the Praying Mantis catches its prey in nature. Bryan was really impressed with Manny and thought that Southern Praying Mantis really fit what he wanted to do with Toph, so we brought him on board, and we got some amazing results, such as the way Toph would use her fingers to make rocks spike out of the ground. A lot of Toph’s stuff was really classical.

Well, Toph’s a blind girl, so that was a certainly a fitting choice for her.

Definitely. As a child, I had a really active imagination, and when they starting telling me about the different forms of bending, I fell right into the fantasy of it. It was the most stupendous thing to watch it unfold from the storyboards to the test animations. In the pencil tests, what they would do was a lot of rough drafts of how a certain element would look from a certain perspective, and I got a chance to work with some of the most talented people in the business, like Dave Filoni and Justin Ridge, who went on to be directors for “Star Wars: The Clone Wars”, and Giancarlo Volpe, who went on to do “Green Lantern”. Seeing all of that come to life was the big fun of “Avatar” for me. Actually, it’s very interesting to watch “The Clone Wars” because I saw a lot of my stuff through all four seasons of the show. You don’t usually see the Jedi doing a lot of stance work, but there were a few episodes that Justin directed that show the Jedi using stance work.

That’s amazing! Hopefully, we’ll see some stance work put to use in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”, especially with some of the cast of “The Raid” movies being a part of it, and with Donnie Yen being in the next one. Well, dovetailing from that, what would be some of your personal favorite episodes in the “Avatar” franchise?

Oh, that’s a really difficult one. There are a lot of episodes that are my favorites for different reasons. “The Guru” where Aang trains to control the Avatar state would be one. “Sozin’s Comet”, the four-part finale of “Avatar” would definitely be another. I actually got to see it on a big theater screen at Paramount, it was awesome! The finale was great because it was the first time we had Aang use all four elements at once, and that was a real challenge because I had to do all of those movements in a sequence. It really engaged my imagination and made me feel like a little kid.

Those are definitely standout episodes, and that had to be amazing seeing “Sozin’s Comet” on a theater screen. Well, we have to ask this next question of anyone who was a part of “Avatar”, which is, if you could be master of just one element, which would it be?

[Makes flaming motion with his hand] Fire!

[Laughs] That’s what I thought, with it being based on Northern Shaolin! Speaking of which, could you describe a bit of what Northern Shaolin training consists of for people who might be unfamiliar with it?

Well, Northern Shaolin originated right in the advent of when modern weapons like guns where coming around, and it’s really designed to kill. In Northern Shaolin, you have what are called the twenty-four elements, which are “Four Hits, Eight Methods, Twelve Skills”. The Four Hits are made up of “Punch, Kick, Grab, and Throw”, while the Eight Skills are the external skills of Hand, Eye, Body, and Leg, and the internal skills of Breath, Posture, Skill, and Kung Fu – the internal concept of Kung Fu, which translates to “Skill over time through hard work”, that is.

Then, the Twelve Methods are made up a series of standards that dictate the dynamic of Northern Shaolin, such as “Move the fist as fast as the meteor flies”, “Stand up like a Mountain”, and “Sink like an anchor falling to the bottom of the sea”. Northern Shaolin in its modern form was passed on by the great Iron Palm Master Ku Yu Cheung. That particular lineage is very narrow, and my teacher is actually fourth generation from him. My group that grew from that is Harmonious Fist, which was our effort towards making it effective in the real world. A lot of Northern Shaolin teachers won’t teach the application of it because getting hit by Northern Shaolin is like being run over by a car, and they’re afraid you’re going to end up making the news by using it on somebody!

My teacher gave an interview where he was asked about the training and various stages of development in Northern Shaolin, and he said the following:

The training in Northern Shaolin follows the process of natural bodily development. It is also why I felt that the Northern Shaolin style was the best system for training kids and young people. The first stage in Northern Shaolin training emphasizes the development of the joints of the individual. This stage, whether it be exercise routines or fighting forms, demands that the movements are wide, long, and circular, executed with fluidity rather than strength. The purpose is to widen the range of mobility of all the joints including the neck, shoulders, waist, hips, wrist, ankle, etc. At this stage, the movements and techniques have very little actual combat application. These movements are graceful and very pleasing to watch. It’s a great exercise for young kids for their growth. One thing to point out, though – most Northern Shaolin practitioners stop at that stage. In conjunction with the opening of the joints comes certain muscular stretching exercises. At this stage, stretches should be only medium in order to support the joint development. Intense stretching at an early age is not good for a young person. The second stage is mobility training. The focus should be exercises to develop muscular strength and endurance, light repetitions of weight training, push-ups, breathing exercises, particularly with heavy weapons, and training on long forms.

My teacher also felt that punching bags were an important part of training, but one shouldn’t over-rely on them because it would create what he calls a “False sense of enemy”. The third stage is called Self-Awareness Training. In Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”, he emphasized that one has to know one’s self and their enemy, and developing an awareness of both is what the third stage is about.

Sifu Kisu perfects his swordsmanship

Sifu Kisu perfects his swordsmanship

The fourth stage is combat applications, i.e. sparring, and knowing when and how to interact with your opponent. You also learn a series of two-person empty hand forms, and what’s called the “Eighteen Hands”, which is the Eighteen categories of techniques, and those techniques are what tie the entire system together. Sifu Wing Lam actually did a video series on the ten Northern Shaolin forms and the Eighteen Hands.

Sounds immense, a real crash course on the deadly art of Northern Shaolin! Well, moving onto martial arts films now, who do you most admire in the martial arts movies?  You’ve already mentioned a few like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Hwang Jang-Lee, Yuen Biao, and Sammo Hung. Give us your brief views on Donnie Yen, Mark Dacascos, Scott Adkins, and Tony Jaa for example.

Donnie Yen is awesome, I’ve really enjoyed his work like “Iron Monkey” and the “Ip Man” movies. I’m eager to see him in the “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 2”. I like Mark, as well. I’m actually friends with his dad! Unfortunately, I’ve not actually seen a lot Scott Adkins’ movies.

Well, Scott’s work is pretty amazing! On that topic, what are Sifu Kisu’s top 10 kung-fu movies?

Oh Jeepers! Let’s see:

I also love a lot of Jackie’s movies, like “Rumble in the Bronx”, “Wheels on Meals”, and “Supercop”. I like that he’s a badass, but he makes himself an approachable badass. I also really liked “Ong Bak 3” with Tony Jaa and “Chocolate” with Jeeja Yanin”, those were probably the most recent ones that really impressed me!

Sifu Kisu with Avatar co-creator Bryan Konietzko

Sifu Kisu with Avatar co-creator Bryan Konietzko

Excellent choices. Well, let’s move onto training now. What is a typical workout for you?   Is it mostly martial arts and flexibility training, do you train with weights? 

I’m getting older, but I still push myself. My workouts these days have changed. I used to do six to eight hour workouts doing Northern Shaolin forms, but today, I do a lot of Bagua. It has eight different palm changes, and each one functions as both an energetic workout and a solution for a martial arts problem. Doing all eight back to back is really intense. I actually fell really ill a few years ago and my doctor told me that my Bagua practice was what had kept me from dying! That’s the true power of martial arts at work there, awakening the life force or chi!

What’s your favorite exercise and what specific or special training techniques do you really find brings out the best in you?

I practice the 18 Hands and the 64 Leg Attacks a lot. Those really enable you to end a fight as peacefully as possible. That’s something I focus on quite a bit, but I’m also teaching it to a lot of people, too. I have a student in Jordan right now who’s a Green Beret, and another student who’s a Delta who just came back from Iraq, and a few Marines, as well. Several of my students are cops and world class military people, and that’s really flattering that these guys are trained killers coming to me! All of these are people whose lives I’ve touched in a way that they’re more than they were before, and affecting their lives and watching them grow from the experience has meant a lot more to me than fame or fortune. One of my students used have back problems, but she doesn’t anymore because of her Bagua training. To get feedback like that is priceless.

Definitely is. Speaking of pain, what’s the most daring stunt you’ve ever done?

I did a base jump into this hole in Mexico as part of a movie that I don’t think was ever actually released. That was probably the craziest thing I ever did. Speaking of daring, one of my students, Thomas Tapp, ran the course naked on “American Ninja Warrior”!

[Laughs]Well, on that note, what was your most serious injury and how did you work around it?

I’ve broken fingers, my collar bone, femurs, etc doing stunts, but I think the Achilles tear that I mentioned earlier was my worst, and probably the scariest. I couldn’t stand up, and it put me on crutches for two months. I see all these kids tricking now and I just think, “Man, you’ve only got so many of those moves in you before something gives.” The true essence of martial arts is you develop the chi to sustain yourself when you get old.

That’s such a brilliant insight. So what do you like to do to recover from a particularly strenuous period of physical activity?  What do you recommend for those leading an especially physical and demanding lifestyle?

The first thing is that just as hard as you workout, you’ve got to rest. There are a lot of guys that just push it and push it every day, and recovery is just as important as a good workout. I’m really fond of heat. If I’ve messed up my back or my hip, a really nice wrap with a compress and some ginger or a heating pad, it really gets the tissues dilated and the blood flowing. If you’ve been injured, you’ve got to get the blood flowing, because when the blood stagnates, that’s when lactic acid builds up and that’s when you’re in pain.

Great advice, I’ll be sure to remember that.  So, what are a couple of your favourite pieces of gym/exercise or training equipment that you absolutely love using and would recommend to others?

These days, I like the assisted pull up and dip machine. That really helped me with some bad pain in my arms about a year ago. I used to really push myself till I couldn’t go anymore when I was younger, but these days, I’m more interested in having a good workout and still being able to get out of bed the next morning. But if you want to be the next action star, you have to train like Jet Li, like Jackie Chan, like Donnie Yen, all of them pushed beyond their capacity.

Well, that leads right into my next question which is, what advice would you give to martial artists who aspire to use their skills in film and television?

I would definitely say know the right people and stay in with the right people.

I've found the new Avatar!

I’ve found the new Avatar!

That’s a useful tip!  So, what’s one geeky thing that people don’t really know about you?

[Laughs] I play “Clash of Clans”. I’m actually a real nerd in terms of what level my wizards are and how strong my giants are. That’s probably my biggest goofy geek thing. Other than that, I’m always stoic and very serious! [both laugh]

Well, let’s ask, if you could be a superhero, who would you be and what superpower would you most like to possess?

I think I’d want to be Superman. Who wouldn’t want to be Superman? I’d also want to be Batman just because he’s rich! [laughs]

What are some of your hobbies and favorite non-martial arts movies?

I’m a big fan of Japanese anime, like the “Ghost in the Shell” series, “Knights of Sidonia”, and “Gundam”. As far as movies, I’m open to anything. I loved “The Incredibles” and “Up” and a lot of the Pixar films.

Nice!  Well, as we sadly wrap up here, what special message would you like to share with Kung-fu Kingdom readers and your fans around the world?

I just want to extend my thanks for including me in the halls of the great people that KFK has interviewed. What you’re doing is beautiful, and I’m proud to be featured on the site.

Well, we’re very grateful to have you be a part of it. Thank you so much, it’s been a real pleasure talking with you Sifu.

Thank you very much for the opportunity!



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Brad Curran

From the earliest days of childhood, Brad Curran was utterly fascinated by martial arts, his passion only growing stronger after spending time living in the melting pot of Asian cultures that is Hawaii. His early exposure developed into a lifelong passion and fascination with all forms of martial arts and tremendous passion for action and martial arts films. He would go on to take a number of different martial arts forms, including Shaolin Ch'uan fa, Taekwondo, Shotokan Karate and remains a devoted student, avid and eager to continue his martial arts studies. Brad is also an aspiring writer and deeply desires to share his love for martial arts and martial arts movies with the world!

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