You’ve got a top line of martial artists playing roles in a film that has a decent level of action, depth and personal character development. While I’ve read many reviews calling this movie ‘ok’, I believe it’s definitely underrated!
The movie is set in Dengfeng, Henan during a warring period of China’s history. At the beginning of the film an army of soldiers find themselves fighting Shaolin monks for helping their enemies with their ill health after battle. Cao Man (played by Nicholas Tse) goes on to fight a handful monks before drawing his pistol and threatening to shoot them. At this point the warlord Hou Jie (Andy Lau) steps in and stops Cao Man from shooting the the monks, and finds his rival being cared for by the Shaolin.
The rival (and head of the opposing army) Hou Long, concedes and offers Hou Jie his treasure map (no he’s not a pirate – no eye patches here), as long as he spares his life. So Hou Jie takes Hou’s treasure map and then shoots him dead regardless.
When he returns home with his second in command Cao Man, the two have a few minor disagreements and we see a very angry nature behind Hou Jie, as he yells and walks all over everyone around him, except his sworn brother Song Hu.
Song tells Hou he should arrange for his daughter to marry his son, and the two meet to have dinner. In fear of Song wanting what he has, Hou arranges for Cao Man to get him and his men to kill Song. What Hou doesn’t realize is that Cao Man actually arranges to kill both men and take control over everything Hou has. In Song’s last moments after being shot by Hou, he saves Hou’s life.
Hou escapes and find his daughter, only to see her run over by a horse and cart. He rescues her and runs from Cao Man’s men, nearly getting his daughter killed in the process. In desperation he goes back to the Shaolin Temple the next day and begs for the Monks to save his daughter.
His wife, who was also saved by the Shaolin, happens to be there too, but Hou’s daughter dies and he goes into a rage – only being calmed when his wife informs him that his aggressive warring nature is responsible for his daughters death. The two split, and after much thought and depression, Hou decides to become a Monk.
Hou learns the ways of the Shaolin temple, but before long his new life and temple is threatened by the now empowered Cao Man, so he must do what he can to defend the temple and save some of the homeless villagers that are suffering around him and the Shaolin Temple.
A Story of Personal Transformation
This movie does a fantastic job of telling the tale of Hou and his turning from warlord to monk (kind of reminds a bit of Jet Li’s Fearless).
With something as life changing as the death of his daughter, separation from his wife and loss of power, Hou’s whole life is turned upside down as he realizes what a horrible person he is. During his stay you can see him learning respect for the Shaolin way of life and starting to help others around him.
Fittingly, the very lines Hou used to discredit the monks at the beginning of the film are eventually fed back to him by the soldiers, showing his experience on both sides of the fence.
A fallen sign which reads “Shaolin Temple – The Birthplace of Martial Arts” was amended by Hou to say”Shaolin Temple – The Birthplace of Martial Arts is no big deal” at the beginning of the film. The most obvious sign of respect (in my opinion) was displayed when Hou set up a ladder and climbed up to clean off the graffiti he left – returning the sign to it’s original state.
Later in the film there’s a bit of visual symbolism which I think is a way of stating his ‘enlightenment’. Enlightenment (once again, according to wikipedia – I’m no Buddhist) is when a monk learns the truth about life, and can be symbolized with a halo around the head of the monk. A scene after the death of Jingneng (played by the oh so awesome Wu Jing), in which Hoiu is praying with the other monks, and a light is quite distinctly surrounding his head.
The personal struggle is shown well in the events of the film, and shines through in Andy Lau’s performance, showing a balanced amount of emotion that really has you feeling for his character, making this movie a little bit more than just a martial arts movie.
The Martial Arts
While Shaolin touches a lot on personal development and the lifestyle/beliefs of Shaolin, there is still plenty of action to keep this movie up in terms of some of the best martial arts movies out there.
The action shown isn’t as amazing as many ‘one on one’ style martial arts fight movies, but it’s so well motivated that you can’t help but enjoy the high quality (yet mixed) fight sequences in this movie. The moves are fast and much what you’d expect from the top stars of Hong Kong action movies.
Each action scene is generally pretty epic in nature with people running around everywhere, explosions going off and people getting shot, but the monks really make good use of their bo staff and continue to fight on.
One scene which I remember in part when the Shaolin kids are walking out to help the abbot, and despite being shot at, they continue, almost fearlessly – it was really awe inspiring imagery. When finally attacked, the kids take them out with excellent martial arts mastery marking the scene as exciting and truly memorable.
A Top Line Up of Chinese Martial Arts Actors
Shaolin is a film that stars some of the most recognizable martial artists in modern Chinese cinema.
The most notable would be Jackie Chan who plays a cook who is too afraid to leave the Shaolin Temple and venture into the real world. But learns to use the techniques and discipline behind cooking to better himself in a way that parallels practice of the Martial Arts.
The second most notable, in my opinion, is Jacky Wu Jing who plays the senior martial arts instructor at the Shaolin Temple. What small pieces of action you see from him are visually smooth and exciting to see, and he commands a strong presence as a tough fighter, right up until he sacrifices himself toward the end of the movie to save a group of imprisoned villagers.
Of course the main actors Nicholas Tse and Andy Lau have seen their share of martial arts action movies, but aren’t nearly as impressively high up the list as others. But I’ve always been a fan of Yu Xing, who usually finds himself in a supporting role in most of his movies (he’s been in top movies like Ip Man, Fatal Contact, Flashpoint, etc), but always offers a visually exciting performance.
There are a few more familiar faces, but I think the most notable are the names above, each performance fitting seamlessly into the film and adding a bit of weight the overall quality of the movie.
A classic! This is a good all-rounder as far as movies go, with plenty of high end martial arts choreography and magnificent story telling. Check it out if you get the chance!
On Blu Ray –
Region A (US & Canada)
Shaolin on Blu-ray
Region B (UK, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, etc)
Shaolin on Blu-ray
On DVD –
Region 1 (US & Canada)
Shaolin on DVD
Region 2 (UK, Europe, etc)
Shaolin on DVD
Region 4 (Australia, New Zealand, etc)
Shaolin on DVD