Most folks are familiar with the real-story about the destruction of Shaolin Temple and many movies such as the 1976 classic by Chang Cheh and the same titled Jet Li 1982 film have used fiction to portray its story. I mean, I am pretty sure that a real accurate depiction of its destruction would be epic but there lies the problem of losing a lot of action entertainment values if one made such a film. Until then, director Benny Chan (Invisible Target) tries his hand in doing a film about its destruction under the moniker “Shaolin” (2011). Honestly, I wasn’t too excited since I wasn’t too impressed with Benny Chan’s past movies but hey, I am a sucker for cool kung fu fight scenes and there is plenty of action to be had in its 143+ minute runtime choreographed by Corey Yuen (Kiss of the Dragon), Yuen Tak (Hero) and Li Chung-chi (Rumble in the Bronx). Action junkies will want to see “Shaolin”.
1900’s in China and General Hou (Andy Lau) is a warlord whose lust for power and land have proven to be his downfall. After a failed coup goes horribly wrong, Hou is left alone and demoralized when his second in command, Tsao (Nicholas Tse) have turned the tables on him, which left his own daughter dying in his arms. Though he once offended the people of Shaolin Temple, Hou is given sanctuary under its roof and learns to adopt the teachings of Buddhism and Dharma. Atoning for his past sins, Hou becomes a monk and with his companions, (including real-life martial artists Wu Jing and Xing Yu) and an aging cook (Jackie Chan) wants to tread on a peaceful life. But the anger and evil he had implanted with Tsao is about to catch up to him and what happens is a battle that pits Chinese against their fellow Chinese….
Benny Chan would be the last director I would want to direct an epic with the workings of this story. I mean, he isn’t the best choice to deliver the drama and the themes of “Shaolin”, I always thought that his deliveries on drama have always been overwrought and canned, they always end being clumsy and silly; but I was surprised that he made it work. Benny Chan allows the formulaic plot and the impressive production values to simply drive the film’s entertainment momentum, and it also helps when you have seasoned actors and actresses who can carry the film’s burden. It also helps when Corey Yuen delivers a lot of jaw-dropping martial arts choreography delivered by Wu Jing (SPL) and Xing Yu (who uses his real Shaolin name Shi Yanneng in the credits), while these two do over-act at times, they are still cool as Shaolin monks.
The film touches on some of the political arena during this time, when warlords are hungry for territory and the foreign powers are also hungry for something else. The script by Alan Yuen, Cheung Chii-Kwong and company applies the teachings of Shaolin to be applied to this period and so there is a lot of philosophy around it. I liked the way the film gave me some of the basic principles of Buddhist enlightenment and of karma, and while some scenes did have the potential to become a little too melodramatic, Benny Chan manages to find a footing in placing more focus on the action sequences. I mean the action in the film are sometimes wire-assisted, but they are executed properly to match the film’s mood and tone. The fights are shot with almost no CGI enhancement, in full perspective view so the moves can be in full view which makes them look more intense and natural.
Andy Lau makes for a good lead, as his charisma and portrayal carry the film’s more emotional scenes. Benny Chan may hardly have any skill in delivering drama, but Lau definitely can. I have to admit the depths of his character feels uneven, but Lau manages his portrayal of a guilt-ridden monk just within his skills and range. Fan Bing-Bing is also a surprise as she plays Hou’s wife; she proves that she is more than good looks as with “Lost in Beijing” and she succeeds as the wife with a lot of spunk. The film also has its share of feel-good sequences, as the direction delivers a fight scene to express a little more fun; I mean, it was a risky move to incorporate ‘kung fu kids’ in engaging some soldiers as it may present a shift in tone, but assisted with the genius of Jackie Chan who plays an aging martial artist- temple cook, Benny Chan makes it work. Jackie’s role as Uncle Wudao is playful and amusing, and it creates a balance amid the film’s somewhat grim premise. It is just such a fun scene as we see Jackie doing what he does best, complete with props doing his usual mix of action and comedy makes for a nostalgic appeal.
However, despite the film‘s merits, “Shaolin” is hampered a little by Benny Chan’s uneven direction. I know the film has loads of talent, but some scenes were a little stretched out. Thankfully, the actors were capable enough to hide its weaknesses, and I mean, the action in the film is just so much fun to watch. Maybe I am reading too much into it, but the strong action points, production values and the excellent cinematography had the promise of a truly epic martial arts film, but Benny Chan, (despite the fact that this may be one of his best movies to date) just makes it a little short. There are indeed a lot of weaknesses in the script with the characterization really wanting; the discriminating viewer would easily spot its plot mistakes and the canned drama. But hey, I would recommend the film for the martial arts movie fan and a must-see for kung fu enthusiasts; as it had enough charm and dynamics to express the spirit of martial arts and the essence of the teachings of “Shaolin”. There is a lot to like in this film, just do not expect “Bodyguards and Assassins”, "Red Cliff" or “The Warlords” as in historical references but instead expect something within the range-sensibilities of Ip Man and indeed something a lot better than “Ip Man 2” or "Legend of the Fist: Return of Chen Zhen".
"Understanding to Let Go, is Knowing How to Confront All...."
SHAOLIN It is no secret that I am a huge Martial arts fan, from being an actual practitioner all the way to movies and such. Now any martial arts fan out there knows of Shaolin I am sure, from the actual history to the films in which this place and its people are portrayed. This is another in a list of films dedicated to the destruction of one of the temples. There have been many before this and I am sure there are more to come. Most people know … more
In the end I would say that this film is an epic but falls just a little short of classic status in my opinion. But who knows time may be a good thing for this film as it is already good. I may change my mind years from now and in fact you may disagree and label it classic now. It all depends on the person I guess. What I will say now is I really do like this film and think it is very good, and may be Benny Chan's best.
Big names, good performances but predictable plot. It's worth the time if you're watching it on dvd. Otherwise, depending on how much you're a fan of Jackie Chan, Andy Lau, Nicholas Tse &/or Fan Bingbing. Personally, I hardly pay to go to the theater anymore as far as Chinese movies are concerned! P.S. I've been to the real Shaolin temple. The one in the movie is nothing like it at all!