|Like its predecessors, Chang Cheh's 1976 classic The Shaolin Temple and the same-titled 1982 Jet Li vehicle, Shaolin takes the fact-based destruction of the Shaolin Temple (recorded as occurring numerous times throughout history) and uses it for fiction, going for storytelling dramatics over supposed fact. A more fact-based film about the Shaolin Temple's destruction might actually work as an earnest historical drama Ė but if the filmmakers attempted that, where would they put your awesome, kickass kung-fu? Historical drama is cool, but having people overact, jump around and lay down smack like kung-fu superheroes is super cool. Ergo, you probably want Shaolin.
Anyway, Benny Chan directed Shaolin, and if thereís a man you donít want handling earnest, important drama, itís Benny Chan. Chanís most serious film has arguably been Divergence, which was marred by Aaron Kwok hamming it up while munching on a hamburger. Drama in most of Chanís other films has been serviceable if not clumsy or even embarrassing. How then, is Chan going to handle an epic tale of redemption, honor and tragedy? Simple: heíll let his formulaic story and star actors do the heavy lifting then get out of the way for the action sequences - which hew to Chanís strengths in that theyíre pretty damn good. If thereís one thing you can count on Benny Chan for, it does happen to be action.
Andy Lau stars as General Hou, a warlord in fractured early 1900s China, whose lust for power becomes his downfall. After an attempted coup goes incredibly wrong, Hou is left alone and demoralized, his army largely falling under the control of his former number two, Tsao (Nicholas Tse), who demonstrates his evil by not shaving and adopting bad posture. Though he once offended the Shaolin Temple, Hou takes refuge among the suspicious monks before adopting Zen Buddhism and becoming a Shaolin Monk himself. Atoning for his sins, Hou now treads a righteous, peaceful path. That is, until Tsao finds him and the whole thing erupts into bloody Chinese on Chinese violence. The Shaolin Temple meets its end, but righteousness? The way of Shaolin? It survives. Cue end credits.
Note to the anti-spoiler police: the above arenít spoilers, theyíre conventional plot points that one would expect from a film bearing this premise. Shaolin is about the burning of the Shaolin Temple, so the ending is expected (Surprise! The Shaolin Temple is burned!). What Chan and his cohorts need to do is deliver the action and drama with the requisite craft and panache. The drama itself is solid but sometimes obvious and exaggerated; many of the scenes are overacted by Andy Lau and Nicholas Tse, both better actors when reined in by a stronger director. Also, the film resorts to a cheap narrative trick Ė the presence of dastardly, mean-to-China foreigners played by crappy Caucasian actors Ė as a means of creating sympathy for its characters. Nationalism is all the rage in China films, but that doesn't mean we have to clap every single time it appears.
Much of Shaolin works though, and the credit can be spread around evenly. The action from Corey Yuen , Yuen Tak and Li Chung-Chi is entertaining, with some real martial artists (including Wu Jing and Xing Yu, going here by his real Shaolin name Shi Yanneng) ably showing their stuff. Choreography is sometimes wire-assisted (especially when the actors are not real fighters), but itís fast and clear, with full shots, fewer cuts and less CGI, making the action sequences stronger and more dynamic. The supporting actors are quite good; Wu Jing and Xing Yu also overact, but they have cause to do so, and Beijing Opera-trained Yu Shaoqun brings a refreshing innocence as another one of the monks. Fan Bing-Bing does a fine job in what could have been a flower vase role, as Houís supportive yet not spineless wife.
However, the most fun character is Jackie Chanís. The aging martial artist gets a nice star turn as Uncle Wudao, an older, more playful Shaolin Monk who works as the temple chef. Wudao is wise but supposedly weak, proclaiming that he sucks at martial arts, which is why he works as the chef. As expected, he gets his own action scene, teaming with a bunch of Shaolin kids to ward off some invading soldiers. The part uses plenty of wires, but also features Jackie Chanís patented mix of action and comedy, complete with props. Itís a fun scene, but also incongruous with the action and drama that Shaolin tries to sell. The production is a large canvas combining history and character, but with Benny Chanís inability to create a consistent tone, the whole exercise comes off as more patchwork than it should be.
Adding to the uneven feel is Andy Lauís performance, which swings from intense megalomaniac to guilt-ridden sinner to sincere monk, a character arc that isnít out of Lauís range. However, in Benny Chanís hands, it feels perfunctory, like a checklist of required character moments. Chan worked with Andy Lau back on the classic Moment of Romance, a sterling example of Hong Kong Cinema that combined violence, drama and overwrought emotion into a compelling mix. That was a small film, however, without the larger backdrop of history and tragedy. As Chanís budgets have ballooned and his films have grown in scale, there seem to be diminishing returns, the emotions in his films feeling more formulaic and less important than the spectacle and stunts.
But hey, action is a large part of why many audiences turn out for Hong Kong Cinema, and in that, Shaolin delivers. As an update of the martial arts actioner, Shaolin should please plenty. The less discerning viewer can easily gloss over the shoddier parts of the production (character development, organic drama) in favor of the big budget production values, widescreen framing and large action sequences. Some of the filmís key moments do pack an emotional punch, and Wu Jing and Xing Yu anchor their big action moments with strong, charismatic presence. Ultimately, thereís plenty to enjoy in Shaolin, just not enough to put the film on the same trail blazed by Warlords, Bodyguards and Assassins or Ip Man. For that, you may need more than Benny Chan. (Kozo, 2010)