Fight Nerd Cinema: “Shaolin” Movie Review

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The roots of Chinese martial arts began in the Shaolin Temples, where Bodhidharma created the tomes and practices of the earliest form of Gung Fu. Centuries later, the style thrives on in new and different ways, adapting to the times, and eventually taking center-stage in film. Where would martial arts films be without this discovery? Non-existent, that’s where.

So, today, we take a look at a Chinese martial arts film from early 2011 called “Shaolin.” Starring Andy Lau, Nicholas Tse, Wu Jing, and Jackie Chan, the film has a pretty great cast, but is it worth watching? Let’s take a look and find out!

Spoiler-free Synopsis:

Taking place during the Warlord Era of China from 1916 to 1928, when the country was divided among military cliques, Hou Jie (played by Andy Lau) defeats a rival general with the help of his second in command, Cao Man (played by Nicholas Tse), seizes control of Dengfeng. Huo Long flees to Shaolin Temple to hide, but Hou Jie kills him inside and mocks the monks inside, defiling their place of worship before he leaves.

With the help of Cao Man, Hou Jie sets a trap for another general, Ho Song, in a restaurant, under the guise of agreeing to his daughter’s engagement to Song’s son. At the restaurant, Hou Jie learns that Cao Man has betrayed both of them, and picks them both off with his own troops. Hou Jie manages to escape together with his daughter, who is severely injured when a carriage knocked her down while she is fleeing, and made worse when they fall off a cliff.

In desperation, Hou Jie brings his daughter to the Shaolin temple he desecrated at the start of the film, begging the monks to save her life, but it is too late and she dies of her injuries. Hou Jie’s wife blames him for the death of their daughter and leaves him. Hou Jie attacks the monks in anger but is quickly subdued, leading him to wander around aimlessly until collapsing in a pit. While wallowing in his self-pity, Wudao, the Shaolin cook monk (played by Jackie Chan), discovers him, and eventually Hou Jie realizes the errors he made in life and tries to turn his life around by becoming a Shaolin Monk, while his former protege continues to wreak havoc in the country – and that is where this spoiler-free synopsis ends.

Hit the jump for the rest of the review of “Shaolin!”

The Inside Scoop:

“Shaolin” is an updated remake of a Jet Li film from 1982, “The Shaolin Temple,” which I have not seen yet. From what I have read, the stories have some similiarities, but this version from 2011 has really upped the stakes in terms of acting, action, and budget.

Directed and produced by Benny Chan, no stranger to the Hong Kong cinema scene, filming for the movie began way back in 2009 at an actual Shaolin monastery. In order to avoid damaging the real temple, the producers built their own “Shaolin Temple” in Zhejiang province that cost 10 million yuan, equivalent to $1.4 million USD.

The Breakdown:

The first thing you need to be aware of is that this is a long movie, clocking in at two hours and eleven minutes long. Even with that length, the complex story is very well-paced and everything moves along nicely. Being a period piece threatens viewers with having to learn history about the era the film takes place in, but “Shaolin” has a story that is easy to walk into, as well as become involved in.

Beneath the initial story, there is a struggle going on between the modernization and foreign-occupation of China battling against the traditional culture and nationalism of China. This is often represented in the fight scenes, where guns and cannons will go against swords or bare hands.

Andy Lau does a wonderful job as Hou Jie, undergoing a great character arc and transformation as the film progresses. His wife, played by Bingbing Fan, does not do too much, but when she does appear, she is just as good. While being credited in big letters on the DVD, Jackie Chan does not appear too much in the film and is a supporting role rather than a lead. Nicholas Tse, on the other hand, hams it up a bit too much, perhaps relishing his villainous role more than he should. It doesn’t help matters that when he turns heel, he grows a Van Dyke beard and styles his hair like today’s youth (which makes perfect sense for a turn-of-the-century period piece).

The color scheme of the movie feels very faded and dull, and never brightens up. Compare it to how green “The Matrix” was, but not nearly as dominant. Rather, the film is just very grey and drab, making the efforts of both sides of the film seem meaningless since it never changes.

“Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting” — the action scenes:

The first fight of the film comes in extremely early in the film, and sets a great pace of what to expect as the movie progresses. Much of the action sequences in the film resemble the traditional Kung Fu fights from the films of the 60’s and 70’s, but the major idea that separates these sequences from their predecessors is the personality in them. Each character has their own nuances that tell you about who they are as they fight, and each person battles and acts accordingly to that. Too many Kung Fu movies focus on the action of the fight rather than the story of the fight, and “Shaolin” does little things to make you like or dislike the combatants as each sequence rolls on.

Andy Lau holds his own through the film with some breathtaking stunts, as do a select group of Shaolin monks. Most of the monks blend into the scenery, while a few do stand out. The fight scene with one monk taking on Cao Man’s personal bodyguard at the end is an excellent fight scene, which is so exceptional that it is close to overshadowing the final showdown with the protagonist and antagonist.

While Jackie Chan is in the film, he plays a cook and insists he does not know how to fight. Thankfully, near the end of the film, he finally lets his inner beast loose and produces a very entertaining fight scene. Only Jackie Chan could use a giant soup ladle and wok as weapons, and make it both an intense and humorous sequence.

There is one action scene after the first act of the movie that, while very good, felt out of place and may have hurt the emotion of the scene. I won’t ruin the movie by saying which seen, but it drags a very heart-wrenching scene down with a fight scene that just comes out of the blue.

The fights are few and far between as the film progresses, but all roads lead to the huge climax which will satisfy any viewer. It’s truly a clash of tradition vs modernism, with so much emotion behind it matched by the fast-paced visuals. No shaky-cam, just good fast cuts that show the action and let the fighters fight, letting the viewer become more involved with the drama behind it.

Final Verdict:

“Shaolin” is easily a four-star film for me, up there with “Ip Man” in terms of quality. Like “Ip Man 2,” there is a story about nationalism in the film, but it is way more subtle than Donnie Yen’s sequel. With stirring visuals and solid acting from the entire ensemble, the viewer becomes more attached to the characters and the intensity and purpose that come out of the fight scenes. Buddhist messages are prevalent themes in the story, but there is no need to worry about missing any plot points if you are not familiar with it, since ultimately, “Shaolin” is a story of redemption and atoning for your past mistakes.

“Shaolin” is a must-see film and definitely worth checking out. You can pick up “Shaolin” on DVD from Amazon for around $16, although I would recommend you go for the combination Blu-Ray and DVD pack if you decide to pick this up. The story is immersive, and the action scenes are intense and intimate, and have serious weight to them. This movie will not disappoint, so check it out as soon as you can.

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