Shaolin: Film Review

A well-mounted but soft-edged reinterpretation of a martial arts classic that gives precedence to drama over action.

Benny Chan's redo of famed Hong Kong martial-arts blockbuster "Shaolin Temple" charts the hubris and spiritual rebirth of a warlord rather than focusing on hardcore action.

HONG KONG — Benny Chan’s Shaolin is inspired by but not exactly a nostalgic homage to martial arts blockbuster Shaolin Temple (1982), which heralded the screen debut of Jet Li. Substantial rewriting of Alan Yuen’s original story by the screenplay team has significantly altered the philosophy and screen representation of martial arts. Instead of vengeance, the theme is repentance and forgiveness, as it charts the hubris and spiritual rebirth of a warlord. Directed with feeling for its richly layered protagonists, the film is elevated by its emotional complexity but simultaneously dragged down by the relative shortage of propulsive, hardcore action.

Shrewdly marketed to spark associations with its predecessor, which was an international breakout hit and still a standard bearer in the genre, the distributor cut nice deals across three continents. The film, which recently played in the New York Asian Film Festival, opens in the U.S. in September.

Upon the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1920s, China is embroiled in a power struggle between the republican government and lawless warlords, such as the protagonist Hou Chieh (Andy Lau). After a victorious turf war in Dengfeng, a town in Henan province, Hou becomes so puffed up with pride that he begins to see his sworn brother General Sung as a rival and threat. He ensnares Sung to a banquet to bump him off only to be double-crossed by trusted captain Tsao Man (Nicholas Tse), who engineered this to kill two birds with one stone.

Hou escapes with his fatally injured daughter Nan to nearby Shaolin Temple, where he repents and eventually ordains as a monk. His chance to atone for his sins arrives when Tsao lays siege against Shaolin to stop them from uncovering his conspiracy with a foreign arms dealer.

An early chase scene in which Hou courses through streets performing stunts between chariots and cliffs, as well as Tsao’s final assault on the temple are logistical feats that demonstrate Chan’s métier at making action of Brobdingnagian scale interesting in a cinematic way. The problem is, there are not enough of such set pieces to go around the drama-driven narrative, which does feel a bit long-winded for its two-hour plus duration.

The 1982 verison boosted titular Monastery’s image as the cradle of Chinese martial arts by rolling out hordes of national caliber “wushu” artists performing authentic moves with the synchronicity of North Korean cheerleaders. Shaolinalso inserts a handful of scenes of monks in awesome poses framed in artsy compositions but they ultimately serve a decorative function.

Corey Yuen’s (X-Men, Red CliffI&II) martial arts choreography tends towards decorous rather than dynamic. He is probably hamstrung by his leads Lau and Tse, who no matter how diligently they drilled, cannot measure up to Jet Li’s level. National “wushu” (martial arts) champion Wu Jing (SPL, Invisible Target) is allotted the meatiest action sequences and he displays impressive physical clout. Pity his role as an upright senior monk is so bland.

The casting of Jackie Chanalso delivers less than it promises. Playing Wudao, a goofy monk who becomes Hou’s spiritual mentor, the action superstar makes a belated entrance one hour into the film, only to show off his cooking skills rather than his signature danger-defying stunts. He does put wok and fish-slice to acrobatic use in a much later scene, but no matter how good-natured and crowd-pleasing, his role is ultimately one of minor comic relief.

Where Shaolinhas one-up on most Chinese action blockbusters, which are increasingly driven by spectacle alone, is the finely tuned screenplay, which takes the time to chart the protagonists’ moral trajectory instead of making them change overnight for plot convenience. Hou’s feelings toward his wife (Fan Bingbing) takes on surprising depth as his earthly love is sublimated into a higher state of compassion.

Nor is the relationship between the two male protagonists a simple equation of good and evil, since Tsao is like a shadow of Hou’s former self. Their final duel packs a genuine emotional wallop, as Hou’s intention is not to defeat Tsao, but to enlighten him. A beautiful sequence designed around a giant Buddha statue evokes spiritual serenity.

If the action underwhelms, spectacle comes in the form of the imposing sets, constructed as one-to-one models of the real site.

Opens: Sept. 9 in U.S. (Well Go)
Production companies: Emperor Classic Films Co. Ltd., China Film Group, Huayi Brothers Media Corporation, Beijing Silver Moon Productions, Shaolin Temple Culture Communications Company present
Cast: Andy Lau, Nicholas Tse, Jackie Chan, Wu Jing, Fan Bingbing, Yu Shaoqun
Director: Benny Chan
Screenwriters: Cheung Chi-kwong, Wang Qiuyu, Chan Kam-cheong, Zhang Tan
Original screenplay: Alan Yuen
Chief producer: Shi Yongxin
Producer: Albert Lee, Benny Chan
Executive producers: Albert Yeung, Han Sanping, Wang Zhongjun, Xue Guizhi, Fu Huayang
Director of photography: Pun Yiu-ming
Production designer: Yee Chung-man
Music: Nicolas Errera, Anthony Chue
Costume designer: Stanley Cheung
Editor: Yau Chi-wai
Sales: Emperor Motion Pictures
No rating, 131 minutes