Tuesday, December 31, 2013


I'm definitely going to gush in this post, because there is no way I can overstate how fantastic Shaolin is! That's all I need to write, but I will go on nevertheless.

Shaolin is incandescent with the spirit of the martial arts, and it's no surprise the Shaolin temple itself endorsed the movie. It must be said that the fights are not ends-in-themselves scenes that you get from most great martial arts movies. There's nothing like Jet Li schooling a crowd of martial artists in Fist of Legend or anything like Tony Jaa wrecking dozens of thugs on the way up a massive staircase in The Protector. The fight scenes in Shaolin are satisfying for sure, but they are also  completely integrated into the plot. This is a good thing, and it elevates the film into the stratosphere, but it is something to keep in mind if you like your martial arts films to heavily emphasize fights. That said, I can't imagine anyone into martial arts movies being dissatisfied with Shaolin because the martial arts and - what the movie terms Martial Zen - are so central to the plot.

Aside from that tiny non-caveat, Shaolin has everything you could possibly ask for in a martial arts movie: rousing battle scenes, amazing fights, martial arts philosophy, Zen monks, a spiritual journey for the hero, a believable villain, great characters, a fantastic cast, genuinely touching drama, and terrific comic relief. At just over two hours, I loved Shaolin so much that I wish there was a version that works in the deleted scenes so I could enjoy the additional depth they provide in future viewings. Of course, as good as the deleted scenes are, I can understand why the director cut them. Strictly speaking, there are not necessary. Further, for a wide audience, pumping the length of this movie towards three hours would likely be too much. I found Shaolin so rich in plot, character, and action that I would eat up the extra material! Director's Cut please!

I'm not even sure where to begin in discussing this phenomenal movie. It must be said that the plot is not original. Andy Lau plays evil warlord Hou Jie, whose ambition overtakes him and causes the destruction of everything he has and most of the people around him. Brought to utter despair, Jie becomes a Zen monk and rebuilds himself through Martial Zen amid the monks of Shaolin temple. We've certainly seen this kind of story before (e.g., Fearless). However, the path Shaolin takes through the trope makes it as engrossing as if it's the first time we're seeing it. For example, since Jie defiled the Shaolin temple just before his fall, most of the monks are not thrilled that he has claimed sanctuary with them and Jie has to prove himself. Also, fate washes up wave after wave of bad karma for Jie to wade through, and it's not long before he has to face the music for his past offenses despite the fact that he has changed. (Again, the deleted scenes deepen Jie's transformation from warlord to monk in some wonderful ways).

All this plot works up to a massive battle scene at the end. Despite the huge scope of this final battle, every detail resonates powerfully because we have so much back story on all the characters. Even secondary and tertiary characters are filled out (often in the deleted scenes) so as to be like flesh and blood people, an example of the amazing writing and characterization woven into the action and fights. This movie would definitely reward multiple viewings.

Andy Lau in Shaolin
As for the performances, I just can't say enough about Andy Lau as General Hou Jie. He commands all the different facets of his character - cruel warlord, doting father, shattered man, earnest monk, and contrite hero - equally well. The evolution and (I think it's fair to say) enlightenment of his character is totally believable and presented in a seamless fashion. Lau also does a great job communicating his character's state of mind, even when he has little or no dialogue. I especially found the scene where he lies at the bottom of the pit and stares at the stars asking "Why?" to be emotionally affecting and right on the money from a 'Martial Zen' point of view. His character's transformation in this movie is one of the most complex performances I've ever seen in a martial arts movie, largely because it can stand on its own as a true dramatic performance.

But the rest of the cast is also strong. Of course, Jackie Chan is a highlight. As Wudao, the eccentric cook, Chan provides comic relief without ever going over the top. His character also has its own subtle transformation, although a lot is left open. This is, of course, a sign of good writing and a movie that doesn't look down on its audience. We don't need every little thing spelled out for us. Elsewhere, Nicholas Tse delivers a wicked villain whose learned his lessons too well at Jie's knee. It would have been easy to overdo this character, but Tse is able to go right up to the edge without losing control. Martial artists Wu Jing and Yu Xing (the latter a Shaolin monk in real life!), and actor Shao-Qun Yu play senior monks in the temple. Each is given a fully-defined character and - in the deleted scenes - subplots to help us get to know them. Xing is especially sympathetic as the fiery Jing Kong who reaches enlightenment when an unexpected refugee arrives at the temple. Great stuff! And this is only about half of the characters that get small but critical screen time without at all detracting from the flow of the main story.

While the martial arts content satisfied me, as I said if you really must have fights that are totally upfront and center, then Shaolin might not be as obvious a 'thumbs-up' movie for you. On the other hand, the amount of material relating to martial arts and Zen philosophy that is sensitively and believably worked into this script (without being preachy), for me, would make up for any possible deficiencies in the number and length of fight scenes. It should also be noted that Shaolin relies on a good number of large battles and, as usual, these scenes tend to displace the hand-to-hand fighting most desirable in martial arts movies. However, on the plus side, every fight and battle is driven by the character's paths. When characters die, triumph, or meet their fate, there is always a resonance for the viewer because these people are so clearly drawn for us. The final battle is totally satisfying and a worthy capstone to the complex story and excellent action that has occurred up to that point.

I've just watched Shaolin, so I hate to be too laudatory. However, I really believe Shaolin will ultimately end-up as one of my favorite martial arts movies of all time. Like Fearless, this is a beautiful-looking movie that celebrates the martial arts spirit, has strong fights, and yet also goes above and beyond by delivering affecting characters in a well-acted and powerful story.

Definitely a must see!

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