Martial arts flair made in Chicago

By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
August 26, 2001

Crouching tiger, not-so-hidden Madonna.

That’s the vibe Madonna wanted for the “Sky Fits Heaven” number of her Drowned World Tour. Never mind she had never taken a kung fu, tae kwon do or karate class.

She’s Madonna.

That’s all martial arts champion/actor/choreographer Ho-Sung Pak needed to hear when asked to come up with a routine for her that emulated the graceful, but powerful style displayed in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

“A friend of mine was teaching her some moves, but she wanted to learn wu shu, which is a little more extreme than kung fu,” says Pak, co-owner of the West Loop martial arts studio Pow! “I heard she had fired two or three instructors before him so I knew she wanted something specific. Luckily, wu shu is my speciality.”

Pak worked for a month with Madonna and her team of eight dancers, creating moves that were sophisticated enough to wow the audience, but manageable enough for the novices to execute.

“Even though she’s not a martial artist, Madonna went all out and trained as hard as someone preparing for a competition,” says Pak, 33. “She did things a thousand times. It’s easy to see why she’s so successful. She’s a very driven, success-oriented person.”

Working with superstars doesn’t faze Pak. He co-starred opposite Jackie Chan in “The Legend of Drunken Master.” He found himself the object of [predominantly] child adulation when he starred as one of the fighting amphibians in “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II.”

The youngest son of Korean immigrants, Pak graduated from Sullivan High School, then earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering and a master’s in business from the University of Illinois.

Business gave way to entertainment when fight choreographer Pat Johnson asked him to audition for the part of Raphael in “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II.”

“I love choreographing some of my own fight scenes and working with other actors and [martial artists],” Pak says. “With Madonna and her dancers, I was working with the cream of the crop at what they do, but they’re not martial artists. That restricts you as a choreographer, but it also challenges you to come up with something that will be fun for them and the audience.

“I had to remind myself not to make things too strenuous because Madonna can’t be out of breath when she needs to sing.”

Pak jokes that Madonna’s husband Guy Ritchie, could sub for a dancer in a pinch. The British filmmaker has studied karate for 12 years and is, according to Pak, phenomenal at it.

“He’s more than capable of teaching her if she wants to continue,” says Pak. “Actually, [her daughter] Lourdes came in and did a couple of kicks, too. She was goofing around and having a good time watching her mom work. I think it’s in the genes.”

No word yet on whether baby Rocco is doing roundhouse kicks. But we’re not betting against it.

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