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September 08, 2011

Shaolin

monkstraining.JPG

Xin shao lin si
Benny Chan - 2011
Well Go USA theatrical release

There's a scene in Shaolin where several Buddhist monks are standing on one leg, holding the other leg up, while maintaining their balance on tall posts with space for one foot. The scene is emblematic of Shaolin as a whole in that narrative is a balancing act between martial arts spectacular and Buddhist parable. The scene in mentioned here is also quite funny as one of the monks, hungry for a meal, pretends to be eating. This leads to a discussion of how to act as monk when one is surrounded by warfare and famine. Some of the monks jokingly, perhaps, discuss becoming outlaws, and several fall from the posts they are standing on, losing their concentration to laughter. From a Buddhist point of view, the scene is an illustration of the conflict between having an elevated life condition when the more human needs bring us down to earth.

I have to admit that as a Buddhist, I'm going to bring my own interpretation of certain aspects of the film. Is an understanding of Buddhism or Chinese history needed to enjoy Shaolin? Probably not, although I would think it would help in understanding some of the motivations of the characters. Certainly it's a handsomely produced film, and although Benny Chan is the director of record, credit needs to be given Corey Yuen as action director, and a frequently estimable director in his own right. At a time when various critics have been discussing how action sequences are filmed and edited, especially in Hollywood films, Yuen shows how to use space and action effectively to follow the chaos, especially in the big battle scene, where monks are fighting Nicholas Tse's army, and a small foreign army is shooting cannons at the temple.

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Taking place during the 1920s, Hou, a general leading one of the conflicting private armies, chases an enemy general to the Shaolin temple. After promising the temple's abbot that he will allow his wounded enemy to live, Hou shoots the man, and defaces the temple's sign. Accompanying Hou is Cao, an ambitious lieutenant. When Hou is given the opportunity to get a large shipment of machine guns from an unnamed foreign government, in exchange for that government's right to build a railroad, he rejects the offer in the name of protecting Chinese sovereignty. Planning a dinner in which to ambush a rival general, Song, Hou finds himself ambushed by Cao, losing his wife and daughter. Hou finds himself at the Shaolin temple, initially as sanctuary. Choosing to become a monk, Hou faces the effects of his past actions, his karma as it were. Even when given the chance to reunite with his wife, Hou stays at the temple for the inevitable confrontation with Cao.

Still, it would be the comic moments of Shaolin that would be best remembered by me. One very obvious joke would be having Jackie Chan, playing the temple cook, declare to a soldier that he does not know kung fu. Jackie Chan then proceeds to do what he does best, which is kick butt using every available prop and even people as a tool for fighting. Chan looks visibly aged, and the role may be his way of letting the audience know that he can't continue to do the kind of physical performance that could be sustained for an entire feature. Nevertheless, when he fights soldiers who have come to destroy the temple, his action scenes are pure vintage Jackie Chan from his best Hong Kong films.

The film is primarily dominated by Andy Lau, as Hou, an actor I've found to be more interesting as he has gotten older. One of the aspects to his career that makes Lau interesting to watch is his fearlessness in taking on roles that are not always heroic, nor reliant on what were his pretty boy looks of the past. Fan Bingbing appears as Hou's wife, a role that doesn't give her as much of an opportunity to show her range as in the recent Buddha Mountain.

There are hundreds of extras, swords, guns, and explosions, but some of the best parts of Shaolin are those that are smaller, more intimate. Who's not going to laugh when a young acolyte bonks a soldier on head with a frying pan, and then makes a small prayer over the unconscious man? And, yes, the symbolism is pretty obvious, but one of the more potent images is that of Andy Lau falling into the hands of the giant Buddha.

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All photos courtesy of Variance Film/Well Go USA

Posted by peter at September 8, 2011 08:13 AM