The film begins by touching on the history of the Shaolin Temple, showing footage of it in present day (1982). Taking particular notice of the floor, pointing out where the floor dips dramatically from Shaolin practicing hard in the same spot every day, we are then lead into a story which is a legend painted on the wall of the same room.
The story begins with one of the Generals of the Tang Emperor, as he decides to make himself the Emperor of the East Capital. A ruthless ruler he comes down hard on his slaves. This leads to a fight between one slave and the General’s men. The slave is being beaten but putting up a good fight. He gets his son, Chieh Yuan (played by Jet Li) to run. Beaten Chieh runs and eventually collapses once he reaches a Shaolin Temple.
With his father dead, Chieh vows to seek revenge but he must first heal from his substantial injuries. He decides to become a monk and very quickly learns some of the Kung fu being taught.
Chieh then ventures out to take revenge, but doesn’t quite succeed. After a few problems he is told to leave, and never become a monk. But the General’s men approach the Shaolin with bad intentions. So he must help the Shaolin fight off the invading men.
Jet Li is right up there, one of the biggest names in the martial arts movie industry. This first film is definitely somewhat of a stake in the sand for him as it has a quality story backed up with some good action. We’re introduced to Jet Li’s character as a young by who first learns to fight, but then develops his character afterward. Foolishly he tries to use his skills for his own personal benefit, but his desire to remain among the Shaolin puts him on the path toward becoming a more mature young man.
What we do see though, is a more human side to the Shaolin. When in most movies Shaolin are portrayed as being almost perfect in their nature, we see the monks making mistakes, wanting to go against their vows on occasions (wanting to eat dog meat) and some even not willing to help Chieh upon his arrival despite the fact that helping others is a core value of Buddhism.
This film was an effort to help a struggling Shaoloin Temple back in 1980. By bringing a great story to the big screen they hoped to market Shaolin somewhat and revive it’s dwindling membership. Thanks to the quality of the film, it seems to have worked!
The Martial Arts & Action
It’s not bad, pretty fast and well paced with most fights taking place toward the end of the film.
The fights really show some fancy moves and high flying kicks that make up a good acrobatic performance. We get to see a young Jet Li’s first onscreen performance and he does it well, along with the rest of the cast.
Also interesting is Jet Li performing some of the kung fu movements whilst training at Shaolin. We see him performing some formal movements with speed and precision mixing in some weapon work including some cool stuff with the three-section staff.
There’s a great deal of authenticity in this movie. The movements look sharp, the fights are fast and performed very well. For Jet Li fans, you must see his first performance! It may not be his very best, but it’s entertaining and very interesting nonetheless! I recommend it.
On DVD –
Region 1 (US & Canada)
Shaolin Temple 
Region 2 (UK, Europe, etc)
Shaolin Temple [DVD]
Region 4 (Australia, New Zealand, etc)
Shaolin Temple [DVD]