I’ve mentioned this before but I think it bears repeating, especially in relation to director Bennie Chan’s Hong Kong epic ‘Shaolin’, that if you bleed from the mouth, even just a little bit in a Chinese movie, especially one with Kung Fu Fighting… you’re DONE. It’s over for you. They might as well start making funeral arrangements. You can get shot, stabbed, dismembered, gutted… but you still have a chance if you can just avoid spitting up blood. So try not to get too terribly attached to anybody in this movie because blood spitting is the order of the day.
Another thing we have been taught by watching these Chinese films, prior to the commies taking over, is that China had many issues. Where this movie takes place in turn of the century China, warlords are battling it out over land and the foreigners are at the door ready to exploit. We catch up with one particular beleaguered warlord who has managed to escape to what he had hoped was the sanctuary of a Shaolin Temple, but General Hou (Andy Lau) really wants this guy dead. Dude thought he had sanctuary at the temple? Maybe he should’ve asked somebody.
General Hou is not a good person. He seems to be a good husband to his wife (Bingbing Fan) and a good father to their precocious six year old daughter, but when he’s not murdering fellow warlords, he’s teaching his right hand man Cao (Nicholas Tse) on the ways of suppressing your enemy and plotting out ways to kill other fellow warlords. It is this plot that changes the generals life in that his right hand man has learned his lessons all too well and now this general, who was on top of the world a few hours ago, is on the run, his family is in ruins and the only people who offer him sanctuary is, you guessed it, the Shaolin Temple he disrespected so… uh… disrespectfully, earlier in this film.
Now the general has to go through the grieving process. Denial, followed by anger, then extreme depression and finally acceptance. To assist in his transition from warlord to monk, he will aided by a kindly cook who claims he doesn’t know Kung Fu (Jackie Chan), and not all of the brothers at the temple believe he is sincere in his repentance, particularly Big Brother Jeng (Wu Jing), but soon he follows the way of the Shaolin and allows Buddha to be his guide.
Too bad Cao didn’t get the memo. Last time we saw Cao he was a clean cut, stoic, proper, upright gentlemen. Now he has an evil goatee, a crooked grin, walks tilted to the side and cackles a lot. Evil does that to you. Plus he's aligned himself with the foreigners, who also tend to cackle. Doesn’t get much more evil than that in a Chinese movie. Mainly, however, he just wants Hou dead. He doesn’t care if he has to kill all of China to see Hou dead, but he wants him dead in the worst way.
Eventually the Monk and the goateed Warlord will have their moment, but not before a lot of people of die, a lot of stuff blows up, and one of those cats will be bleeding from the mouth before it’s all said and done.
There is an awful lot to like about Benny Chan’s ‘Shaolin’. For starters, despite the plethora of fight sequences and shootouts and explosions, especially in the fiery conclusion… who knew that wood could be so combustible… but despite the action sequences this is more of a philosophical drama about one man’s journey towards redemption. The tenants of Buddhism, the struggle for inner peace and the difficult task of forgiving one’s self are the primary order of the day here in ‘Shaolin’, with the action and the violence playing off of that. As far the actors go, Andy Lau has put together a string of great performances in a laundry list of very good films, we will casually forget that we saw ‘Future-X Cops’, and he gives it his all here making the transformation from brutal warlord… who was not a complete asshole… to sympathetic protector of the people in a very emotional and believable way. Wu Jing was probably the most pleasant surprise, even though he was relegated to minimal support both as a character and as far as the action goes, but he gave one of the better acting performances we’ve seen from the young man as the Senior Brother of the temple. It is a little peculiar that in the big battle with Cao’s top enforcer, Chan opted to use actor Yu Xing as the final combatant as opposed to Wu Jing, but that was his decision and we respect that. I wouldn’t of done that, but respect that. Then there’s the curious case of Nicholas Tse, who through no fault of his own was obviously told that bad guys cackle, preen, cackle some more and walk tilted over. If ever there was a caricature of bad guy character in a movie, this was it. You know he could’ve still been a bad guy and not have grown the evil goatee and still walk like a normal person.
Cory Yuen’s fight choreography was decent, though Chan seemed to shoot the scenes in real close quarters so it was often difficult to make out who was fighting who at times, and you have to love the nationalism in that even the most despicable Chinese characters can be redeemed, but the foreigners? Might as well slaughter them the minute they touch land with their cackling and precious Chinese treasure stealing. There was also this odd mix of cherubic children doing kung-fu, Jackie Chan doing what Jackie Chan does in movies, with it all encased around the brutal slaughter of pretty much everybody. A strange combination of images, to be sure.
Nonetheless, ‘Shaolin’ was still a very entertaining film, taking a slightly different slant on the action genre by giving us a little spiritualism to go along with the generous allotment of bloody, explosive mayhem.