Calgary·Filipino Bureau

When Jason Bourne fought a villain with only a pen, he used Filipino martial arts taught by these Albertans

You've probably seen Filipino martial arts on the big screen without even knowing it as Jason Bourne fights a bad guy armed only with a pen in The Bourne Identity, in the James Bond film Quantum of Solace, in Captain America and elsewhere. Well, these grandmasters are keeping the Filipino martial arts alive in Alberta.

Norman Suanico and Gilbert LaFantaisie train new students in Filipino martial arts

How Filipino martial arts is being kept alive in Alberta

2 years ago
Duration 3:26
Remember that crazy pen fighting scene from the Bourne Identity? Well, that's Filipino martial arts. CBC's Paul Karchut caught up with some experts right here in Alberta who are training new students.

Karate, kung fu, ninjutsu, taekwondo: there is no shortage of martial arts on display in modern action films, usually associated with Japan or China.

But there are other forms from other countries — ones you've probably seen on the big screen and just didn't realize it.

They have their own methods, their own history and their own practitioners right here in Alberta. One of those is the Filipino martial arts.

History of Filipino martial arts

There are dozens of different styles of Filipino martial arts that have been developed over centuries on the roughly 2,000 inhabited islands that make up the country.

"The art was developed through wars between tribes," says Norman Suanico.

  • Watch some demonstrations in the video above. All of the sparring video was taken before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Suanico, who was born in the Philippines but now calls Red Deer home, is a grandmaster of the Kali Ilustrisimo style. He's one of three grandmasters in Alberta. 

"Originally, it was secretive," said Suanico.

He says the different styles continued to evolve after the Spanish arrived in the Philippines and the colonial period began in the 1500s, incorporating techniques from other martial arts along the way.

The Kali Ilustrisimo technique Suanico teaches involves blade fighting.

Suanico says this particular martial art hasn't gained the acclaim of some others, because of its historical grassroots instruction methods.

"It was not commercialized. It was not taught in a gym," said Suanico, "If you want to learn it, you go to the master and you have a private lesson."

Grandmaster Norman Suanico is a Kali Ilustrisimo grandmaster practising in Alberta. (Paul Karchut)

That's what happened to Gilbert LaFantaisie.

Not a member of the Filipino community himself, LaFantaisie was a practitioner of karate. He discovered Filipino martial arts when a grandmaster showed up to his karate studio and showed him some of the techniques.

Gilbert LaFantaisie is a grandmaster in the Filipino martial art, Rutano Estokada Kali , teaching students from his Black Dragon Martial Arts studio in Red Deer, Alta. (Paul Karchut)

"What the heck did you just do? Cause I want to learn this!" LaFantaisie recalls saying. 

He has since gone on to become a grandmaster in Rutano Estokada Kali himself, teaching Filipino martial arts out of his studio, Black Dragon Martial Arts in Red Deer.

'The way of the blade'

"Our striking, our grappling, our footwork — everything comes from the blade," said LaFantaisie.

A quiver of swords, daggers and wooden sticks fill an entire wall at his gym, each with their own unique purpose.

Grandmaster Gil LaFantaisie examines his quiver of blades on the wall of Black Dragon Martial Arts in Red Deer. (Paul Karchut)

Now that Filipino martial arts have become more recreational, sparring fighters typically use wooden sticks and batons. But LaFantaisie says things can still get bloody.

"We train with no wraps, no protective gear. We want to make sure we condition our body."

Using a short, dull, practice dagger, Suanico makes a series of quick motions. 

"With a knife, our first target is the nearest target: the hand or the wrist. We call that defanging the snake, by cutting his weapon hand."

It's these deliberate, decisive movements that make Filipino martial arts a popular choice for Hollywood choreographers. 

Filipino martial arts in film

  • Watch the video below to see Filipino martial arts in movies.

The Jason Bourne films, Captain America and the James Bond film Quantum of Solace are just a few examples of movies that have incorporated traditional Filipino martial arts techniques.

LaFantaisie references one intense fight scene in The Bourne Identity in which Matt Damon's character fights, armed with only a pen.

"The way he was trapping and attacking with the pen, it was just the stabbing. Short and make it simple. Make it count."

Filipino martial arts were actually incorporated in film decades ago, when Bruce Lee started introducing some of the moves into his films. Despite that, and more recent examples of Kali in film, LaFantaisie says it has remained lesser known than, say, karate.

"Cobra Kai came out so people are more like, "Oh, let's try karate again." I mean, in my day, I think it was in the '80s when the ninja movies came out, everybody wanted to do ninjutsu. Everybody was a ninja."

LaFantaisie thinks interest in Filipino martial arts is growing.

"It's not as big as karate. I'm hoping one day it will be, but it's growing."

One of the growth areas is within the Filipino community itself.

On the wall of Black Dragon Martial arts is an image of Bruce Lee, who introduced some Filipino martial arts moves into his films. (Paul Karchut)

"I was surprised at the beginning when I started doing this because I thought, 'God, all the Filipinos would be doing this, right?'" said LaFantaisie.

"But now they're starting to notice how really important it is."

Suanico says of a martial art that was traditionally kept secret that it will grow if it is advertised more.


Paul Karchut

CBC Calgary

Paul is the host of Daybreak Alberta, heard across the province every weekend. He's been with CBC since 2005, twelve years of which were spent as the director of the Calgary Eyeopener. You've also heard his national car column, Karchut on Cars, on morning shows across the country for years. Join Paul weekend mornings across Alberta from 6-9.