Our first Chinese film release in Australian cinemas this year is Benny Chan’s Shaolin, a big-budget action film packed full of stars and showcasing Shaolin kungfu and philosophy with an official seal of approval from the Shaolin Temple itself.
Straight off the back of his starring role in Detective Dee, Andy Lau stars as warlord Hao Jie, a calculating general who delights in ravaging across the countryside, capturing cities and amassing a serious retirement nest-egg. His most recent foray has resulted in the capture of a city near the Shaolin Temple, and the monks there apparently have their hands full caring for refugees, as well as the occasional combatant seeking sanctuary. Hao is utterly ruthless, gunning down an opponent who’s injured and begging for mercy and turning ferociously on his subordinates for questioning his authority.
One such subordinate is his second-in-command, Cao Man (Nicholas Tse), who’s with Hao every step of the way: flicking his hair out of his eyes, wearing natty uniforms and generally handling the dirty work. Also waiting in the wings are other warlords, jockeying for position and eyeing our general’s loot.
Events transpire (how’s that for spoiler avoidance?) and Hao’s world is turned upside-down, forcing him to run for his life. Finally aware of everything he’s lost and what he’s become, Hao presents himself at the Temple, seeking solace and character development as a monk. He’s accepted into their ranks, but we know that eventually the outside world will come looking for him.
It’s a story we’ve all seen before, and a staple of the martial arts cinema: the fighter whose hubris eventually leads to his comeuppance at the hand of a villain. After being reduced to next-to-nothing, he is then taken on by a master who offers introspection, humility and a deeper understanding of kungfu. (In the Shaws world, of course, said fighter then says, “Thanks!” and strides off to go find the villain and teach him a lesson he won’t forget!) Jet Li’s arc in Fearless is similar to Andy Lau’s here, substituting the rural idyll for the temple and the promotion of Chinese martial arts for the more universal message that the writers of Shaolin are going for.
Veteran action maestros Corey Yuen and Yuen Tak handle the action sequences, of which there are a great many. Both Andy Lau and Nicholas Tse give creditable performances, despite not having the martial arts background of much of the supporting cast — they’re both hardworking actors who did quite a bit of training for the parts, and they’ve both done a slew of films with serious action requirements in the past. Our pugilist set is rounded out with a bunch of familiar faces: Wu Jing (SPL) and Xing Yu (Coolie from Kung Fu Hustle) play senior monks, while Xiong Xin Xin (all of the Once Upon a Time in China series) takes a turn as a hard-kicking enforcer. There’s also a couple of more lighthearted action/comedy sequences, usually featuring a group of younger Shaolin monks, and one long-form cameo from Jackie Chan, doing what he does best as the cook whose utensils can be put to good use in a scrap.
The film is beautifully shot, probably the best-looking I’ve seen of Benny Chan’s work: lots of outdoor shooting, beautiful sets (particularly the Temple itself!), sweeping crane shots of monks training (reminiscent, as all those scenes are, of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin). It’s all extremely pretty, and there’s an exhilarating fluidity to many of the action sequences that is truly impressive as well. One scene which involves a pair of horse-drawn carts rocketing through the darkness down a tight, winding road against a cliff-face is truly gobsmacking.
I’ve only got a few nitpicks, really. Every now and then, the director uses a slow-mo pan to end a shot, lingering frame-by-frame over a face, or a departing figure. I noticed this in Bodyguards and Assassins, too, and in this film it seem oddly out of rhythm with the rest of the camerawork. As for the story, they do beef up the threat posed by the local villain with an extremely late entrance by the British as treasure-hunting evildoers. Said Brits carry on with the dialogue we’re used to hearing from them in HK films from the nineties, and they engendered general snickering in the audience here. There’s also melodrama aplenty, but that often comes with the territory for this sort of story; it is a little sad to see that pushing the melodrama along is about all Fan Bingbing (who plays Hao’s wife) is used for in the film.
Those minor quibbles aside, Shaolin is a more than worthy entry in the canon of Chinese films that bear the temple’s name, and it’s nice to see so many of Hong Kong’s action cinema greats sharing the screen in one film.