I finally got around to seeing Kill Bill and Kill Bill Vol 2. Unlike the professional reviewers, I preferred the style and feel of Volume 1 over the character development of Volume 2. However, I thought the Pai Mei character introduced in volume 2 was pretty cool, and that got me thinking about martial arts masters depicted in popular film (I am not going to cover movies that would be listed in the martial arts or kung fu genres since most people have never seen them).
Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid is probably the most famous martial arts master in popular film. Who doesn't know wax-on, wax-off? In fact, it was even referenced once in my martial arts class. I was supposed to do a reverse knife-hand middle block. "Huh?", I asked. "Wax-on, Wax off." "Right, got it." I think most people would like to have his style of instruction. He teaches you what you need to know, but sometimes hides exactly why you are doing a specific drill or strengthening technique, adding a little mystique to the experience.
It's probably been two decades since I've seen The Karate Kid, but I do remember the jerk instructor, John Kreese, who coached the kids who were beating up on Daniel. He was teaching his kids to use martial arts aggressively, and was a strict disciplinarian. I think the movie may have hinted that he had a problem with Asians due to experiences in Vietnam (?). Obviously an instructor you would want to avoid, and this negative portrayal of a karate master is the reason Chuck Norris turned down the role in the movie.
Joe Somebody was a pretty bad movie, but I thought the portrayal by James Belushi as Chuck Scarett as an out-of-shape, beer guzzling, washed-out ex-martial arts actor was pretty funny. While he may look like someone you rather drink beer and go bowling with, he still had the martial arts skills to kick your butt, and he makes you learn by shaming you into learning (you think if that fat slob can do it, you certainly can). Interesting technique.
Pai Mei was the instructor of Kill Bill Part 2, but this character shows up as the heavy in quite a few Kung Fu movies (as does the actor who plays him, Gordon Liu). Pai Mei, which means "White Eyebrows", is roughly based on a semi-historical kung fu figure. His teaching technique in Kill Bill is cruel discipline, although it appears he has a soft spot in the end for The Bride by teaching her - and only her...I'm not going to give it away for those who haven't seen it. While learning from him might not be enjoyable, you know you are working with one of the best in the world, so probably a good choice.
Does Yoda belong on this list? You bet he does. The character as developed is really a martial arts master - he teaches his disciples discipline, hard work and compassion, as well as techniques to annihilate their enemies. He could have been in dozens of martial arts films, except he teaches that Force stuff as well. Of course his main martial arts technique is saber fighting. Who you rather learn saber fighting from, Yoda or Pai Mei? Tough one. Almost as hard as the question of which one would you rather have: a Hattori Hanzo katana or a light saber?