Karate and Trauma: How BLOODSPORT Helps Me Cope

In 1988, the most important film in my life was produced by the infamous Canon Group. I was only two when Bloodsport was released onto the silver screen and it wouldn’t be until the summer of 1990 that I’d watch it for the first time. I know you’re thinking this is some weird form of satire, but I assure it isn’t. Bloodsport is the first movie I can recall after spending eight months of my being held against my will by my father and his mistress.  

Bloodsport is a terrible movie if were being honest. Its script was written poorly, the dialogue is cheesy and stunted. The actors who portrayed fighters weren’t actors but instead just somewhat attractive dudes who could take simple instructions. More importantly, the plot is completely overdone; charismatic and handsome dude must make his dead master proud and defeat the cruel bad guy that’s blocking his path to immortality. Regardless, none of that matters to me.

On October 12th, 1989, my father abducted me at the age of four. At first, we moved from one shit-hole motel to another as we crisscrossed all over northern California and coastal Oregon. Eventually, he met a woman in Crescent City, California. She was almost twenty years his junior and had three kids of her own. Within a few weeks of their meeting, we were all living under one roof in her home.

I never knew movies could be a source of happiness at this time. My only experience with them while I was being held captive was through listening to my father, his mistress, and her children watch movies as a family while I sat locked in a bedroom by myself. Disney movies were the hardest; it always seemed like he enjoyed the power he held over me as he’d turn the volume up so loud that the characters voices would boom through the thin walls and it felt like I was inside the movie. 

In 1990, my mother found me after spending thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours searching. At the time she was working as much as possible just to keep our heads above water. Within a few days of my return I started tagging along with her to my uncle Mike’s video shop where she’d work most nights and weekends.

Video 51 felt like it had every movie in existence. The shop wasn’t big but every inch of wall space was packed with movies. In the middle of the shop were the new releases. That was my favorite section of the store. When Mike got new movies in, he got life-sized cardboard stand-ups that would be used to help drive more rentals; Dick Tracy, Total Recall, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were just a few of the ones I can remember.  

I know I watched other movies before Bloodsport, having spent so much time in that video shop, but for the life of me, I’ve never been able to recall what they were. Everything about the box cover art was awesome. The Crimson lettering sprawled across the top of it felt like someone had forgotten it so they just hastily painted on the letters at the last moment and it turned out amazing. By the way, let’s just say it now: what kid is going to think to themselves “Bloodsport, nah that sounds boring.”  

I’m sure that’s why my uncle handed it to me in the first place. What better way to get a kid’s mind off what he’d just endured for the last eight months than to hand him a movie that’s nothing but fighting and beating the shit out of the bad guy? Throw in the fact that fighting scenes are thrilling and they make you root for someone (even though you have no fucking clue who any of them are outside of van Damme’s character). 

I don’t want to get too deep with it, but I think the movie resonated with me so fiercely because I wished I could have been like J.C.V.D.’s character. He was strong physically, but more importantly mentally. He’d won that tournament before he even stepped foot on the mat and well before he avenged his friend Ray Jackson’s beating at the hands of Chong Li. I’m not at all saying the need to make your dead master happy and prove you’re the best in the world is the same as moving on from your childhood trauma. But I do believe, from my own experience, when children are abused, they try to find faults in themselves and figure out how they could have changed one little thing that would have made the abuse stop or, in a best case scenario, never happen in the first place. 

His character was everything I wished I could have been when it mattered the most. The first time I watched the movie I was riddled with a sense of guilt that I couldn’t be like him. But I couldn’t stop watching it. Some weekends I’d watch it two or three times and re-watch the final fight scene between Dux and Chong Li over and over so I could re-enact van Damme’s victory. I’d put on black shorts like he wore on the video cover and then pretend I was Jean-Claude van Damme and Bolo Yeung’s character was my father and after a back and forth fight I’d triumph over him.

I’m thirty-three now and I realize it sounds corny to have such an emotional attachment to a movie like Bloodsport. But since the outbreak of Covid-19 I’ve spent more time contemplating my mortality and my childhood than I’d like to admit. Maybe it’s because this disease is just so ruthless and leaves so many dead or having to deal with irreparable damage both physical and financially. It could be that two of my extended family members contracted it and one of them has now died as a result of it. It could just be that I’m too caught up in worrying because that’s the type of person I am. I don’t really know.

I’ve watched Bloodsport a few times since Minnesota enacted a stay-at-home order and its given me some reprieve, even if it’s just for ninety minutes. I watched it the other night before I wrote this and yes, at first, I thought of my father and my childhood dreams of kicking the shit out of him. But that stopped quickly and by the time the credits rolled all I could think of was how much I still cherish those moments of my mom and I sitting in that video shop and how she’d shown me the unconditional love I was so desperately yearning for. 

So, if you’re trying to find some sunlight in the darkness our country is suffering under maybe you should go through some of your favorites and try to ease your mind. Even if it’s for just a few hours. Maybe it will bring you back to your childhood, or a moment in your life you cherish. But please, for your own sake, make sure it’s something better than Bloodsport.

Brandon Hall
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