SHAOLIN proves once again that the path to enlightenment is strewn with Kiiii-yaaaaahhhh!!! It also demonstrates that karma is a mother, ain't that so, General Hou Jie? SHAOLIN, the latest in a long line of period martial arts films, probably won't be quite the critic's darling that CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON was, but it should turn plenty of heads. It's epic enough. And aren't you yet convinced that Andy Lau is a hell of a charismatic actor? His character arc makes for a pretty compelling watch.
Set in the early 20th century, shortly after the collapse of imperial reign, China's young republic is threatened by warring warlords eager to carve out their own territories. One such is the prideful, ruthless General Hou Jie (Andy Lau) who had just conquered the town of Dengfeng, in Henan. But uneasy drapes the mantle of power, and when one plays the game of thrones, expect the unexpected. Hou Jie, concerned with an ally's true intentions, plots to destroy him, except that he himself is double-crossed. Barely escaping with his life, Hou Jie seeks the sanctuary of the Shaolin temple, which is sort of cheeky, since this is the very same temple he had ridiculed days before. But when one plummets from such lofty heights, one must simply lump it. Hou Jie reflects on the evil he has committed and vows to attain a monk's serenity, never mind that, days before, he had picked up the temple's sign and sneeringly scrawled "is no big deal" after its declaration: "The Birthplace of Martial Arts."
This isn't a Jackie Chan vehicle. Jackie does have a part, except that, now in his mid-fifties, it may be that his action lead days are on the wane. SHAOLIN is a serious drama more so than it is an action film, and Jackie provides the much-needed levity. To quote the seldomly quotable Steven Seagal, Jackie in this film is "just a cook." But his Shaolin temple cook plays a pivotal role in Hou Jie's transition from cruel warlord to tranquil monk.
SHAOLIN is loosely based on 1982's THE SHAOLIN TEMPLE, the classic what debuted some teenager named Jet Li. Except that Andy Lau isn't an accomplished wushu master like Jet Li. But he IS an accomplished actor, and director Benny Chan plays to his strengths. SHAOLIN is character- and story-driven and the fighty fights that crop up spool naturally off story development. That's not to say that the action sequences aren't spectacular, because they very much are jaw-dropping stuff, gravity-defying stuff. Two highlights are the Shaolin children springing into action and Jackie Chan's one fighting showcase which makes inventive use of cooking utensils. There is also a harrowing nighttime carriage chase by the cliffside that is brilliantly executed and damn intense.
Awesomely, the real-life, more than 1500 years old Shaolin Temple gave this film its blessing. And with the film crew having erected a full-sized temple replica, the weight of revered history is palpable. The story lends gravity and sense of place, and you believe these monks on camera, and their belief in their principles and their righteousness. Even though SHAOLIN focuses predominantly on the deposed General, it blocks out screen time for the supporting actors. I really liked the two headstrong young monks who agonize over the monastery's dwindling supplies - because Shaolin had been taking in starving refugees - and they resort to covert Robin Hood tactics. I wish that this sub-plot had gone on longer. But these benevolent outlaws don't escape the observant eye of the Senior Brother, another character I enjoyed. I will say that the gorgeous Fan Bingbing, who plays Hou Jie's wife, is criminally underused.
Meditations on Shaolin philosophies such as turning the other cheek and the futility of violence - and the selfless grace to help a fellow man for no reason other than to help him - color the narrative, and even when the film's second half dissolves into a series of brutal action set pieces, the theme of redemption courses thru to the end. Buddha gets praised a lot, which is fine.
The nits are ripe, just right for picking: There's a nationalistic streak. Maybe someday, China will make a martial arts film without portraying foreign white devils as utter tools. But that's not today, and not in this movie. And listening to these treasure-hunting Brits spout off the same old tired dialogue may draw snickers. One of the harder selling points is the film's contention that Hou Jei, in such a brief span of time, could rise to a prominent leadership role within the temple hierachy. Of course, I'm assuming that not much time had elapsed. The film doesn't really make this clear. Still, you cannot fault Andy Lau's skillful performance. He's so convincing as the cruel General that at some point I expected him to sacrifice his own family on the altar of self-interest, and yet he's equally credible when he converts to Shaolin and sheds his old self. His young daughter goes a long ways in humanizing him with one simple laughing scribble: "Daddy likes to fight." It takes Hou Jie one step closer to attaining Zen. But it's a bloody, roundabout way.