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FilmSlashTV: ‘Shaolin’ delivers the goods
REVIEW BY BURL BURLINGAME / email@example.com
The Shaolin Temple is pretty much China’s edition of Sherwood Forest, a real place that nonetheless looms large in national mythology. There, Buddhist monks devoted to pacifism still managed to kick butt because of their martial arts prowess, or so the legend goes.
Jet Li’s breakthrough film, “The Shaolin Temple” in 1982, introduced the concept to Western audiences, and the film is near the heart of Hong Kong’s chop-socky studios, because it was the first to be filmed in mainland China, and actually at the location of the original Shaolin Temple in gorgeous Henan Province.
But that was then. Benny Chan’s “Shaolin” is a rollicking remake of the original film, bigger and grander and more epic and more exciting in all the ways that matter, including the requisite, smirking propaganda injection — China is “Chinese” first of all, which means, in this context, that internecine fighting is to be discouraged and distrust of foreigners maximized. One of the delights of the new film is that the evil British are portrayed by Chinese actors wearing blue contact lenses and outrageously fake beards. It’s like kindergarten entitlement-programming wrought on a national scale.
It takes place in the crazy warlord period of the 1920s, with the five-colored star of Sun Yat Sen prominent. The currency of trade boils down to relics, guns and rice. General Hou Chieh is a particularly nasty piece of work, backstabbing and backshooting and backbiting his way to the top. He’s played by the extraordinary Andy Lau. His younger brother Tsao (Nicholas Tse) is even prettier and meaner. Soon, Hou’s excesses, ramped up by his paranoia and greed, backfire, and he loses everything. Even his family is largely destroyed (Mrs. Hou is played by lovely Bingbing Fan, and I’m sorry, but I giggled as I typed her name. Typical foreign devil, me.)
Wounded, on the run, bummed out and self-pitying, Hou is taken in by the Shaolin monks, even though he screwed them over pretty well in the opening scenes of the film. Hou falls under their pacifist spell, and emerges a better person, one devoted to helping others instead of enriching himself. A communist monk, kinda.
Brother Tsao and the bearded foreign devils show back up, and there’s a thunderous showdown, which is pretty much the entire point of a martial-arts film. We don’t see them for enlightenment. We see them to be amazed by the martial choreography, and “Shaolin” delivers that in spades, and with a cherry on top. It’s everything an action blockbuster out of Hollywood should have been this summer and wasn’t. The battle scenes are nothing short of astounding, and shot mostly practical, with not that much wire work. (There’s a long note in the credits claiming no animals were hurt, thanks to many shots of horses flying bum-over-breadbasket when they charge into tripwires.)
Oh, and Jackie Chan shows up in an amusing cameo as a monk cook who claims he doesn’t know any martial arts. It’s amusing because it’s Jackie Chan saying that.
This is not a subtle film, and certainly not a great one, but it’s made with bubbling brio and it’s spectacular to look at. It’s action filmmaking of the highest order, with just enough sugary dollops of Buddhist philosophy so that it feels deeper than it is.
There are no absolute analogues for martial-arts stars like Andy Lau in Hollywood, except maybe for the great dancers who could also act, like Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. Lau is a great actor, a great athlete, and look, he’s also writing and singing the sappy theme song during the end credits. Wow!
Burl Burlingame is a features reporter at the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter.