Review: Shaolin: Wheel of Life (2000)

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Not available in Australia on DVD (to our knowledge)

In early 2000 I was fortunate enough to see the “Shaolin Kung Fu Monks” show – 20 highly proficient practitioners of Kung Fu from the Shaolin temple in China in a 2-hour stage-show, that was touring Australia. I provided a review of that spectacular performance for Heroic Cinema.

When Mark offered me the opportunity to review Shaolin Wheel of Life — a commercial video/DVD from the same people, I jumped at the opportunity. What I found was definitely a mixed bag — quite disappointing when contrasted with the live show but still worthy of at least a rental in its own right. If you want to know the details, read on.

OK, same basic statistics. The Live Kung-Fu Spectacular SHAOLIN Wheel of Life comes professionally packaged as a DVD or VHS tape. The VHS version which I reviewed had both intriguing images on the cover, for instance a monk held aloft on the points of spears, and purple quotes from print media such as The Times. It has a PG rating and runs 75 minutes in length. The audio and video quality is of a high standard. Indeed there is narration by John Hurt. This is not a case of “let’s grab the footage shot by some audience member on their home video camera and sell it for some extra cash”. It is a fully commercial production with corresponding production values.

So what’s on the tape? It’s basically composed of two parts. The first 54 minutes is a highly liberal retelling of what is actually a myth (not legend!) of Shaolin history. It’s highly theatrical. If you’re getting the feeling I didn’t like it you’d be right, but more on that below.

Following the theatre there is a sequence of some 20-minutes of straight performance, particularly a number of “endurance feats”. That I liked… lots! Regardless though, this is Kung Fu monks: a melange of incredible acrobatics, unusual animal styles (of Kung Fu), exotic weapons, fast-and-furious choreographed fights, all with a simplified veneer of Buddhism, is the order of the day. In this aspect the tape cannot be faulted – these are gifted, highly trained performers carrying out feats that even most HK films fake with editing tricks – and those performances are captured well.

The main portion of the tape is, according to John Hurt’s voice-over: An adaptation of a legend from Shaolin history. Fanciful at best, would be a kind way to describe the historical accuracy of the story. Separating the myth that surrounds Shaolin from the reality is a tough job due to the passage of time, the oral tradition of martial arts, the fact the temple was indeed destroyed, and the temple’s central role in the founding myths/ legends of so many martial arts. That said, it’s strange finding the direct inheritors of the Shaolin ethos carting a story about themselves that any serious student of martial arts traditions knows is hokum. That aside, and even perhaps forgiven for the creation of a story that will let the monks strut-their-Fu, the delivery is wildly theatrical: mad emperors caper about the stage, while fight scenes take place to lurid lighting and painfully over- dramatic music.

To my mind though the greatest sin that has taken place in this theatrical section of the tape is the editing of the monks’ performances. Splicing of footage can clearly be seen, there is liberal usage of slow-mo, and they even resort to the Jackie Chan classic technique of repeating the same spectacular sequence twice or more in immediate succession, just shot from different angles. One of the hallmarks of a great martial arts performance is a long, continuous sequence of balanced actions seen as, and taken as, a whole. Not just a single punch or kick. To time and time again see great practitioners who can perform complete and unedited sequences have their work cut, spliced, and diced for the lowest common denominator of “dramatic effect” is a crying shame.

The above is perhaps harsh criticism, but it comes from a perspective of what-might-have-been. The martial arts of these men and boys is a thing of great beauty, it needs no embellishment. However embellishment is what the producers have gone for with props, extras, lighting, and editing. Rather than enhancing the core performances it actually detracts from and even cheapens them. That’s sad.

But let’s talk martial arts performance. There is truly inspirational material not only in the 2nd section of the tape but throughout the theatrical first section also. Young boys showing incredible speed and flexibility; men performing forms with great power and agility; unusual weapons controlled with great dexterity; choreographed fights, both unarmed and with weapons; and feats of amazing endurance/hardiness. These later are truly spectacular and are examples of what is sometimes known as Iron Shirt (Kung Fu) or Chi/Qi/Ki Packing — a means of “hardening” parts of the body through meditative breath control. Monks breaking metal bars across the top of their heads, another lying flat but raised above head-height on the points of four spears; these are examples of the mastery over their own body that some of the practitioners have achieved and that can be found on the tape.

I had high expectations for this tape, based on the live performance I had seen. It didn’t fully deliver on that promise. There are great performances here, which even inappropriate production choices can’t hide. However those production choices are such that they can and do detract from the simplistic beauty of a human being with great control over their own body…and that’s what the Shaolin performers do have that sets them apart.

7 out of 10.
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