DVD | Blu-Ray
Produced and Directed by Benny Chan
Starring Andy Lau, Nicholas Tse, Jackie Chan, Wu Jing, Fan Bingbing, Xiaoliuna, Hung Yan-yan
Emperor Motion Pictures
Originally Released: January 19, 2011
Shaolin is an epic tale, made by Chinese and Hong Kong filmmakers – directed by Benny Chan – emphasizing both the peaceful path and jaw-dropping martial defense skills of the legendary Shaolin Monks. Featuring a supporting role from Jackie Chan, the film is a captivating ride from beginning to its conclusion – laced with numerous lessons and morals to make even the hardened of us reflect our own inner ethics.
One of the greatest aspects of Netflix Streaming is the instant accessibility users have to films made outside of the United States. I have had the pleasure of watching a wide range of films from around the world there, and while I understand some people have an aversion to subtitles, once you get past that hurdle, you open up a whole new world of experiences.
I do not think I’ve seen many Chinese films before – however I have seen Red Cliff and found that highly enjoyable and mesmerizing. But whereas Red Cliff is a smorgasbord of colorful visuals and grand camera work, Shaolin (by motif and intent) is darker and dreary in appearance with camera work suited to the perspectives and inner emotions of the characters.
The movie opens with magnificent footage, crisply defined yet unforgettable and sobering. The mud and the blood, coupled with the horseback riding soldiers firing weapons reminded me of some films set during the European conflict in World War I. These opening sequences totally set the mood for the movie – a sobering lesson that also delivers high stakes action, and emotional impacts that never happen in U.S. action flicks.
Essentially a retelling of The Shaolin Temple (Jet Li’s film debut from 1982), the story focuses on Hou Jie (Andy Lau) that necessarily follows the classic hero’s journey, but a journey that is just as intense within spiritually as it is projected onscreen.
Hou Jie is a warlord, capturing territory during the Early Republican era of China. He has much wisdom, but is a very military man – with much greed for riches, desire for power, and a lust for violence and warfare. He is betrayed by his deputy, Cao Man (Nicholas Tse) (repeatedly referred to as his brother, though it’s never revealed whether the term is used signifying a sibling connection, or whether the term is used out of respect) who aims to oust and kill Hou Jie, taking command of the warlord powers, and setting up deals with foreign military weapons dealers for the most advanced machine guns of the era.
In the turmoil of the coup, Hou Jie’s daughter (Xiaoliuna) dies from injuries sustained during the confrontations. He rushes the girl to the Shaolin Temple for healing, but it is too late. His wife, Yan Xi (Fan Bingbing), blames Hou Jie for the death – citing it as payment for his sins with his lust for warfare.
Stunned, grieving, and secluded, Hou Jie stays with the temple and vows to become a monk. Cao Man and his soldiers eventually find him at the temple, beginning an extended conflict involving the detaining of refugees (who had been seeking protection from the war and their homelessness at the temple). Hou Jie, now dedicated to his path as a monk, must face his former deputy without giving into past desires for revenge; and the Shaolin Monks find themselves pushed into going on the offensive to rescue the innocents they swore to protect.
Andy Lau delivers a commanding performance in Shaolin, leading the audience along an extremely convincing path from warlord to monk. In the early stages of the movie, his demeanor during scenes showing the strategic forward-thinking of the warlords (motivated by greed) is captivating. As he journeys through the story, the emotions are compelling – you smile during the exultant moments; and reel in terror and shock during his life-changing personal losses as well as the other fearful or sad moments.
Jackie Chan plays a humorous supporting role in the film, as Wudao – who turns out to be the Shaolin Monk that is the “shoddiest” at the martial arts, but excels in his love and duty towards cooking and serving the other monks and the refugees. His role also has some lessons involved – particular in moments during his interactions with both Andy Lau, and the Abbot played by Yu Hai. Though his role may be seen as some light hearted comic relief, it is based firmly within morality and development, as evidenced during his eventual fight scene using ‘cooking techniques’.
All of the Shaolin Monks put on some spectacular martial arts work during the fight sequences; occasionally bordering on the concept of impossibility – but wonderful to watch. It is, however, Hung Yan-yan, that delivers a breathtaking fighting performance in the movie. He acts as the right-hand man of Cao Man, defeating and fighting the monks with little remorse. He is intimidating and impressive.
Speaking of the fight scenes and the action – the one word that comes to mind is “awesome,” in the very true sense of the word. There are more than a few “holy shit” moments during this amazing choreography, specifically designed not just to “wow” or look badass – but to serve both the story and the personality of the characters as well.
These moments, including the chase sequence, put American blockbusters to shame.
The sets and lighting for Shaolin are likewise magnificent; staying consistent with the dreary atmosphere at the beginning of the film, and serve it well. The camera work is inventive for the story – without falling into the vast visual sweeps familiar in many Asian epics, the cinematography zones in on the characters. The trailing and pulling back of the camera are used when the moments are perfect. What it boils down to is that this film is not only a brilliant action drama – it is art in the true sense of the word.
I have very little to criticize about Shaolin – and yet the portrayal of the Western military dudes is often shown on screen with contempt… These English and American soldiers have their own invested interests in China and are often shown as such, without interest to the shades of grey. Understandably, our history shows us that Western military powers DID do some nasty manipulations during war time and peace time; so I can hardly criticize this perception too much. Consider it more of an observation made in minor annoyance, rather than a criticism.
While Shaolin offers hypnotizing action sequences, wonderful visuals, and a solid story, the basis of the film doesn’t lay in the perception of “good versus evil”, or even redemption for that matter – though both those concepts do figure prominently on the surface of the content. No, in actual fact, the movie has a much deeper meaning and implication at its core: Shaolin is about the symbolic battle within each of us – the joy of peace and simplicity in life versus the desires we corrupt ourselves with greed…
Or, to put it succinctly: selflessness versus selfishness…
Overall Rating: 4½ out of 5