RUNNING TIME:126 mins
REVIEWED BY:Dr Lenera, Offiial HCF critic
China is plunged into strife and turmoil as feuding warlords battle it out and try to conquer as much land as they possibly can. One of the most powerful is the arrogant Hao Jie, who after a victorious battle, breaks into the Shaolin Temple in pursuit of the leader he has just defeated. Against the laws of the Temple, he kills his opponent, but this seems to mark the turning point in his life. He plans the murder of his sworn brother, but is instead betrayed by his right hand man Cao Man, leading to the death of his daughter, the loss of his wife, and him going on the run. Where should he seek refuge but the Shaolin Temple he dishonoured weeks before……….
The legendary Chinese Shaolin Temple has been the inspiration for countless martial arts movies, especially during the genre’s Golden Age of the 70s. Supposedly built in 477 AD, it was the place where the art of Kung Fu, which according to most sources was started by the Buddhist monk Bodhidharma, supposedly originated and also where it was perfected to its highest level. It was destroyed and rebuilt several times, the most famous time being in either 1647, 1674 or 1732, depending on what source you read, where the rulers, who at that time were members of the Qing dynasty, destroyed the temple for supposed anti-Qing activities. This particular episode inspired a great amount of Chinese literature and eventually movies, the best known being probably 1982’s Shaolin Temple, which introduced a certain Jet Li to the world. Twenty nine years later, we have this semi- remake, which has the same background events but spins a somewhat different plot from them. If you buy or just watch Shaolin expecting a non-stop fight fest, you will probably be disappointed. Yes, there is fighting, but it serves the story rather than then the opposite, which is what you would probably expect more. Instead, we have quite a powerful and moving story of redemption with a great amount of Buddhist philosophy present, though that probably makes it sound esoteric and it isn’t really. Think The Last Samurai with Kung Fu and you get the idea.
The early scenes to a really good job of setting the scene and bravely introduce the film’s main protagonist as a really dislikeable, even murderous, sort, with star Andy Lau, who doesn’t usually play this sort of character, really good at transmitting Jie’s inner torment, which seems to be boiling under the surface and finally makes itself known when it is possibly too late. Eventually we get some Kung Fu, taking in a vicious palace battle and a thrilling carriage chase and fight, though after this the film slows down again to detail Jie’s gradual redemption. The Buddhist elements are brought to the fore, especially the idea of “you reap what you sow”, but I think anyone can understand the idea of someone who has been bad, has been punished for it, and wants to make a new life for himself as someone decent. There is one beautiful scene of Jie practising Kung fu alongside a small boy, showing not only the extreme grace and elegance of the art but the pain that Jie is channelling. For those who just want lots of brawling, you will be rewarded with a final quarter of non-stop battling, though the tone is downbeat and one of sadness, with the unhappy outcome to events inevitable.
The fights themselves are excitingly choreographed by veteran Corey Yuen though are perhaps a little short and employ fairly fast cutting in the way that many action films do in the West. This is not overdone to the point of not being able to see what is going on, but I would have liked to see some more actual Shaolin techniques employed. I could have also done with the final showdown between Jie and Man to be longer, but then Lau has always been an actor first and a martial artists second. I sound overly critical of the action in the film and it will still satisfy a great many people, and the action isn’t the most important thing in this particular movie anyway. Many of the best scenes have no chop socky at all, including a really powerful bit where Jie is about to commit murder and his wife quietly realises what he is doing, a scene achieved without the histrionics you might expect. The look on his wife as he realises the depths her husband is willing to sink to is all you need to see. Shaolin is undoubtably quite a downbeat film, so it’s down to Jackie Chan[who wears a cap because he didn’t want to shave his hair] to bring some humour and levity to the table, playing a variation on the ‘man who supposedly cannot fight’ he has done several times before, and of course does eventually get an action scene where he employs what he knows from cooking into defeating his opponents. It’s not a long or especially complex scene, but it’s great to see that the old magic is there.
The erratic Benny Chan, who directed three earlier Chan movies amongst others, really shows his skill here with excellent pacing of scenes and good use of colour palattes, some of it natural, some not, to enhance the varying moods of the film and Jie’s journey, though I do wonder if some footage has been cut out? The film is paced well but the story isn’t at times. Star Andy Lau, who has been called the Chinese Tom Cruise and certainly seems to have some of his inability to age despite having not long reached 50, has been a mainstay of Hong Kong cinema for twenty nine years now. Perhaps cursed a bit by his good looks to the point that he hasn’t been given enough respect, at least in the West, for his acting, he really gets his teeth into one of his most complex roles. Nicholas Tse is a frighteningly evil villain – perhaps his role seems to be the most conventional, but even he is given shades of light towards the end. Shaolin may be a bit downbeat and even grim – it doesn’t dwell on the gory details but certainly doesn’t shy away from them either – but it’s not a depressing film, because, as it finishes, it seems to leave us with the thought that everyone has some trace of good in them and can change. It convincingly shows us a country in turmoil and depicts actual historical events convincingly, but also gives us a tale of enlightenment, and whether one is a Buddhist or not, the basic concept is, I think, something that anyone can at least partially understand.