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Shaolin (2011, China)

16/09/2011

Director: Benny Chan    Starring: Andy Lau, Nicholas Tse, Jackie Chan, Yu Xin

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Cine Asia are probably the premier distributor bringing the cream of Asia’s action cinema to the rest of the world and this Andy Lau vehicle is certainly no exception. There is a pleasing renaissance happening in kung fu cinema that seems to be taking the traditional themes and values of classic, Shaw Brothers style kung fu movies but bringing a modern approach to production and storytelling that is finally enabling kung fu movies to be taken seriously by mainstream audiences.

Set at the beginning of the twentieth century rival warlords are embroiled in territorial disputes while foreign powers are beginning to take an interest in China. General Hou Jie (Lau) is one such warlord, revelling in battle and driven by lust for power and riches, a thirst he has passed on to his protege Tsao Man (Tse) along with his dispassionate ruthlessness. When Man betrays him, Hou Jie’s daughter dying in the process, he is forced to take refuge in the Shaolin temple where his grief and regret lead him to learn the principles of the Shaolin. His road to enlightenment is blocked however when Tsao Man learns of his survival, forcing Hou Jie and his brothers to protect the temple.

Plot wise it’s all very traditional stuff. Hou Jie takes a journey from brutality and superficiality to deep reflection and enlightenment but in order to take that journey he has to be punished for the iniquities of his early life. The death of his daughter, which earns him the enmity of his wife and great personal suffering is only half of his purgatory as he has still to deal with the monster he has created in the form of Tsao Man. Where this differs from a lot of martial arts movies is that a lot of time has been given over to conventional performance and drama, elements that are often left by the wayside in favour of action. The performances are superb. The scene when Hou Jie and his wife (Bingbing Fan) watch their daughter die in the arms of the monks is one of the most potent and emotional I’ve seen in a long time and especially in a martial arts movie. I’m not ashamed to say that Lau and Fan’s portrayal of a couple rent by grief, Hou Jie in abject denial of what he is witnessing, his wife seething with hatred for her husband who she sees as responsible for the death of their only child, had me welling up with its intensity. Jacki Chan’s role is also interesting, again focused more on acting rather than action, his Shaolin cook serving as a moral gide for Hou Jie.

Just because there is more emphasis on drama than is usual in kung fu movies doesn’t mean they skimp on the action. Action director Corey Yuen has brought his forty or so years of experience in martial arts movies to bear on fight scenes that work hard to support the story whilst remaining intense displays of martial skill. It’s almost as enjoyable watching the monks practice their forms as it is them taking on Tsao Man’s well armed troops. When they turn their guns on the Shaolin you can almost feel the righteous justice being doled out with poles and swords against the rifles and bombs of the bad guys. There’s even a fun if brief sequence where Jackie gets to flex his muscles, dispatching a group of bad guys with some cookery inspired moves that provide a moment of light relief in what is an emotionally rather brutal film.

Enjoying the lavish production values that are rapidly becoming the norm in Chinese martial arts movies it is a beautifully shot film, all the more stunning on the blu ray version. The transfer is impeccable, further evidence of Cine Asia’s supremacy at releasing not just quality films but quality discs. Their philosophy of releasing great titles like this at reasonable prices can only help bring the genre to a wider audience and this can only be a good thing. It certainly seems to me that in the last few years confidence in the international potential of kung fu movies has generated the finances to make the films themselves better. Long may this continue.

Although a dark and tragic tale, Shaolin is not without the upside. Its message, although savagely put, is one of hope, love and redemption. Firmly rooted in the Buddhist principles of the Shaolin it fosters the belief that the secret of enlightenment is to give up the futile pursuit of wealth and power and dedicate your life to selflessness and spiritual purification. It’s a lovely message and beautifully put.

Overall, Shaolin is a fine example of modern martial arts cinema and I think quite an accessible one for those sceptical about the genre. It’s even handed balance between character and combat makes it an ideal stepping stone from the more arty mainsream successes of Crouching Tiger, House Of Flying Daggers, et al and the old school fun and games of classic Shaw Brothers and with Andy Lau, possibly the greatest Asian actor of his generation, in the lead it doesn’t really put a foot wrong. Vive la Cine Asia!

 

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