Marko Zaror in Fist Of The Condor

Interview: Marko Zaror on Fist of the Condor

Marko Zaror deserves acclaim as an inspirational success story in the world of martial arts cinema. Essentially building the modern martial arts film community in his native Chile from the ground up, he is among the current crop of top-tier action stars active today, which includes the likes of Scott Adkins, Iko Uwais, and Junichi Okada. Along with gaining prominence alongside a cast of genuine action movie legends in John Wick 4, he has returned to his indie action roots with longtime collaborator Ernesto Diaz Espinoza for their latest film, Fist of the Condor.

A love letter to classic Kung Fu films and traditional Westerns, Fist of the Condor unfolds into a unique martial arts experience with equal parts serenity and savagery, paying respects to the past while boldly carving its own path toward the future of action cinema. The key to this fresh take on classic genre tropes is how the nation of Chile is so deeply woven into the film’s fabric. The scenic vistas, narrative backdrop, and some joke references all feel distinct. Still, the masterstroke that genuinely embodies and evolves the Spirit of Martial Arts is how with Fist of the Condor, Zaror has essentially created a brand new martial art form derived from the rich tapestry of influences in his homeland.

At one of the theatrical premiere screenings in New York City this past week, Zaror talked about these influences during the Q&A session. One of the more surprising details about the film came regarding co-star Gina Aguad as “Mujer Cóndor/The Condor Woman,” an homage to the silver-haired Sifus of classic kung-fu films who put their students through intense training regiments on their path to martial mastery. Zaror revealed that Aguad, famous in her own right for being the first woman in Chile ever to obtain a black belt in Karate, is his real-life mother. Her role fulfilled a promise, thanks to an exceptional mother who deferred her dreams of movie stardom to raise a family, making this spiritual homage to the cinematic past a deeply personal expression of gratitude towards a family legacy.

Other details that spoke to the rich martial diversity of Chile came with co-star Eyal Meyer as the lethal antagonist “Kalari.” Eyal talked at length about his many years practicing the Indian art of Kalaripayattu or Kalari. I learned of Kalari during my years of academic study, reading about an ancient battlefield martial art that is said to have directly influenced the origins of Chinese Kung Fu. However, I had never seen it practiced in any extensive context, so it was a truly breathtaking experience to see Kalari showcased on film for the world to see via magnificent fight sequences. I spoke with Marko Zaror about these and other unique aspects of the film, and it was truly awe-inspiring to hear his story and see how his raw talent and determination have brought him to the level he is at today. 

VyceVictus: Fist of the Condor is this excellent mix of classic gunslinging Westerns and traditional Kung-Fu films, but it’s also uniquely Chilean. There’s this history, culture and texture to it. At the same time, the martial arts displayed in the film represent that unique blend, as you have a mix of very distinct forms here. For those unfamiliar, could you talk about your main martial arts background, and from there, tell us about the forms you learned or incorporated to make this film?

Marko Zaror: Well, it has been a long journey. As a martial artist, I trained in different styles. I was a big fan of Bruce Lee, who was a big inspiration in my life, so I was always searching for different styles. Of course, I wanted to do Kung-Fu, but then I did karate. I did Taekwondo, I’ve done boxing, I’ve done acrobatics, and a little bit of wrestling. After years of training, I started experimenting with movement and mixing movements. When we decided to do the Fist of the Condor, I wanted to communicate…express myself freely as a martial artist through these stories. So I gave all my notes to the director, Ernesto Diaz, to put my philosophy, my nutrition, and my training in this movie. For example, you hear the dialogue that we have about nutrition and see the way I train with elastic bands. Throughout my journey, I studied a lot of high-performance athletes to be able to overcome the limits of the human body.

For the movie, there was a big challenge because, as you said, this is an homage to old-school martial art films. We know the very traditional styles, Kung-Fu and animal forms, very established, right? And we are these Latino guys from South America making a classic martial arts movie that hasn’t had a story like this! So, I needed to create my kind of style, mixing my whole journey as a martial artist that incorporates animal flow yet is different from animal Kung-Fu styles. And, of course, we brought the condor because it’s our national bird; it’s on our flag in Chile. So when you see the open hands, it’s not the same open hands like in Kung Fu; it’s more about animal movement and mobility.

Another example of this is the Wing Chun dummy; it’s not the same as the traditional dummy. Why? I got inspired to play with it as a reference for the fans, but I needed to adapt to our Latino culture and my journey as a martial artist. So, instead of a post in the middle with the two sticks—because Wing Chung uses very short blocks—I incorporate an open design in the centre. I can attack like in boxing and block like in MMA. I can block in the centre, attack, then can block a strike as if I’m fighting with a boxer, you see? I built a new kind of wooden dummy to incorporate into the Fist of the Condor as a style.

VV: It’s a really interesting point about the performance athlete piece of it all. As they say, what’s old is new again. In the film, you’re doing bear crawls. That’s an old-school training method that kind of fell by the wayside, but now it’s popular again because people understand the importance of mobility training. Getting back into the diversity of forms some more, Most fans may be familiar with the various Kung-Fu Styles, but they may not know the various Korean styles. One of your co-stars here is Hapkido practitioner Man Soo Yoon, who you’ve worked with before in Kiltro, and he practices a very distinct style. How did you meet him, and how were you able to incorporate some of his styles into this new “Condor Style”?

MZ: How did I meet with Master Yoon? Well, he’s a real master of martial arts in Chile that happens to be a very skilled actor; he’s a natural! We used him in Kiltro, and we were like, “Wow!” When we started Fist of the Condor, we had a character like him in mind, a real martial artist teaching this very specific style. We wanted to show a bit of him fighting and moving, and it’s beautiful because it’s real; he’s a real master. For me, it’s very important as a martial artist and as a martial arts fan that when we watch these movies, we want to see the real. We’re not going to buy the actor who doesn’t know what he’s doing. So when I get a cast, I want to bring as many martial artists as I can in the hopes that they can also act and bring the character to life. You have to be very specific in how you cast a movie like this.

And I was lucky because not only did we get Master Yoon, but we had Eyal Meyer as well, who is also a real martial artist and a good actor. He does soap operas in Chile, but he is also a practitioner of Kalaripayattu or Kalari. It’s an amazing style; I didn’t even know about Kalari before this. And so the next challenge was how to adapt that style into the movie and make it look cool for the fight scenes, mixing it up with all the animal mobility that I do for the Fist of the Condor style and making it work in the movie so that it looks legit. Remember, today is different because people are very educated on fighting due to things like the UFC; people know what an arm lock is, and they know what is effective and what is not effective. The same goes for the movie audience; they already know. They can feel it and go, “Oh, that’s not gonna work; that technique is fake.” That’s the other part of the challenge, making sure that everything feels lethal.

VV: Yeah, that definitely comes across! So, you touched a bit upon what it’s like in your homeland, and I wanted to get some insight into the film & media scene. I think lots of us, at least here in the U.S., don’t think of Chile or even South America/Latin America in general as having a martial arts scene. As you’ve discussed, the talent is definitely there, and I feel like you are an ambassador of sorts in that regard. How has the action scene in Chile evolved over time from when you started to where it is now?

MZ: Well, it didn’t exist! Like, I was just this crazy martial artist that happened to be obsessed and never gave up, and I ended up having an acting career and being able to express myself as a martial artist on the big screen, and that’s crazy. After doubling for The Rock [Dwayne Johnson] in The Rundown, which is kind of how I started, I went back to Chile to start creating my own movies. That’s when I did Kiltro, my first movie. And that was the weirdest thing; everyone was like, “A martial arts movie from Chile, what?” But then they enjoyed it, and they say, “Hey, this is a real martial artist.” So I started getting this following, and I got invited to the Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, so people started getting to know me. Then we did Mirage Man, a martial arts superhero movie. So little by little, we grew.

I started from scratch in Chile; I needed to hold auditions, where a lot of martial artists showed up, and then I needed to train them in on-screen combat after what I learned with Andy Cheng while working on The Rundown. So now you have martial artists, and you need to teach them the basics of screen fighting. Then we developed this team of people to start doing these movies in Chile and then trying to go to festivals, and little by little…that’s how I got them from Scott Adkins to do Undisputed III. He was like, “Who’s this Chilean guy that is kind of big? I wanna do a fight-fighting scene with him!” That was a big opportunity for me. And then, little by little, I started getting more recognition with the American audience and American films. That’s how things escalated to now, being in the biggest movie in the world, number one. I cannot even believe it.

VV: Yes! Congratulations on not only Fist of the Condor this year but, of course, John Wick 4! It’s a great showcase for you, being there with such high-level talent; it’s an amazing achievement. I’ve talked to a few other martial arts actors in the past, and they say that as they make movies over time, their craft develops. They develop an eye for the camera and movement, Chad Stahelski being a perfect example. Now that you’ve made this movie about a new martial arts style, do you think that the art of making movies has directly influenced your personal martial art? You know, real practitioners spend decades perfecting their forms….

MZ: I totally see where you’re going and, and, yes. For example, before, I was more focused on real fighting, right? Real self-defence is one thing, but when you’re doing screen fighting, you have other types of challenges, so you want to be able to explore mobility in a different way. In a story that’s a little more fantastic, you can spin, and you can jump, and you can explode in a different way. In the street, you wouldn’t be safe with that; you want just to go, “Boom, pow!” So when my movie career started picking up, of course, my training started evolving. It was more about my own limitations and trying to understand and explore mobility more than just fighting because there was a moment when I was going to be a professional fighter. I was training to fight in the UFC, and I was excited; that was my goal. But then I got the call from Robert Rodriguez to make Machete Kills, and it was like, you know what, I think I’m gonna have to follow the path of movies. Still martial arts, but in movies, it changed the way that I was training. It changed everything.

Fist of the Condor is available to stream on Hi-Yah TV.