The Shaolin Temple trio of films left a strong cultural impression. They brought Jet Li to the big screen, as one of several members of the Chinese national wushu team brought on board to execute the impressive choreography. They also featured extensive shooting at the temple itself, lending a real sense of history to proceedings. These combined factors brought about something of a renaissance for the Shaolin temple at the time and its martial arts tradition. The first two films (Shaolin Temple and Shaolin Temple 2: Kids from Shaolin) used many of the same actors to tell unrelated stories and Martial Arts of Shaolin continues this practice. This time though, it goes big, with the Shaw Brothers studio taking over production and Lau Kar Leung jumping aboard as director.
The story is simple, with the attention and budget clearly directed at the action, cinematography, sets and costumes. The first half hour or so is spent with monk Zhi Ming (Jet Li) at the northern Shaolin Temple, meandering through some comedy, training and action that doesn’t really go anywhere, except for loosely characterising Zhi Ming as being not all that dedicated to temple life. When he hears word of an old enemy, Lord He Sao (Cheng-Hui Yu), having a birthday celebration in the capital, he promptly skips out of the temple to seek revenge.
Also attempting an assassination are Zhao Wei (Jianqiang Hu) and Si Ma Yan (Qiuyan Huang), secular students from the southern Shaolin temple who have their own separate beef with He Sao. In the fallout from the event, the three find themselves thrown together and on the run, escaping the capital for a cross-country road movie while dodging government authorities.
The movement in locations is a huge draw in the movie, showing off many of the marvels of China. From Shaolin Temple, to the Forbidden City, the Great Wall and the gorgeous countryside of bamboo-bordered rivers, Martial Arts of Shaolin serves up plenty for the eyes. The scenery sometimes looks less spectacular than it could, but considering this is filmed in natural light much of the time with elaborate setups and choreography this is excusable. Cinematography by An-Sung Tsao is carefully arranged to frame actors and backgrounds, particularly a dancer silhouetted against the sun during the birthday celebration performance or the distinctive tree-covered karst rock formations standing tall in the background of many shots in the river regions of the countryside.
The action taking place within these picturesque locales is just as beautiful. Sometimes it’s hard to know what to look at, as when fighting on the terrace of the Great Wall itself. No one bungee jumps off the side as in The Great Wall, but thirty years before that US$150 million epic, quality fights were being staged on the same structure without the benefit of CGI. Throughout the film action is fluid and varied with different weapons and unarmed forms all getting a look-in. It’s also cool to see, after an early settling of differences, practitioners of northern and southern martial arts teaming up. For the finale, a huge brawl centres on a large riverboat jammed up by bamboo rafts. The technical expertise on display here is astounding. Choreography is as good as the rest of the film, despite the precarious setting. It also boosts the reputation of the rock-solid horse stance, as Zhao Wei swats away opponents with each leg grounded on a different raft.
It’s all hugely entertaining, even if it does go overboard at times. High quality action is hardly surprisingly with Lau Kar Leung directing, especially after honing his craft for so long by this time — see The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter for another contemporary example of off-the-hook action. What is a bit of a let down this time is the fights are more showpieces in themselves than being integrated into the story, which leaves them being great fun to watch but with little impact. He Sao’s birthday celebration goes on longer than dramatically necessary, in order to show off the spectacle. The story overall is so slight anyway that focusing on the action was probably the right decision. The tension between the life of a peaceful monk and the desire for vengeance is a common enough trope in films like this, including Shaolin Temple, but here’s it’s glossed over quickly to get on with the hijinks. A romantic subplot is mainly played for laughs, although it does have a resolution that could have been poignant if it wasn’t so abrupt.
Despite all the punching, kicking and weapon swinging, it’s a mostly bloodless affair, with one exception. When a head is suddenly whacked off it comes as a jolt. Even here though, the impact of the violence is softened by being shown in a long-shot. This also makes the moment unintentionally hilarious, looking like a solid tee-ball hit on a primary school sports oval.
The final standout aspect is the soundtrack by James Wong. The main theme is very hummable and receives various treatments throughout the film. Sometimes it’s a pop ballad, sometimes the instrumentation is more traditional and sometimes it’s broken into cheeky percussive fragments. It’s fun and breezy and emblematic of the film as a whole — an entertaining excursion across China, one that may have you idly wondering about checking out some of these places yourself.