Shaolin (Xin shao lin si), 2011.
Directed by Benny Chan.
Starring Andy Lau, Nicholas Tse, Jackie Chan, Fan Bingbing, Xin Xin Xiong, Yu Xing, Jacky Wu, Hai Yu and Xiaohong Shi.
A brutal warlord is double crossed by his deputy and seeks refuge among the peace-loving monks at the fabled Shaolin Temple. When his enemies discover his location, the former warlord must stand with his new brothers to protect the Temple and complete his redemption…
Glancing briefly at the cover for Benny Chan’s Shaolin – a loose remake of Jet Li’s 1982 feature film debut, Shaolin Temple – I rather hastily made two presumptions, both of which proved to be inaccurate. The first was that Shaolin was the latest in a seemingly never-ending line of ‘historical martial arts epics’ set the in period of the Three Kingdoms and secondly, that the ‘special appearance’ by martial arts superstar Jackie Chan would amount to little more than a glorified cameo. As it happens, Shaolin takes place during the Warlord Era of the fledgling Republic of China (i.e. early 1920s) – which certainly made a refreshing change from the typical Imperial China setting (see Curse of the Golden Flower, The Lost Bladesman, Red Cliff, Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon, etc.) – while Jackie Chan enjoys just about enough screen time to justify third billing behind co-stars Andy Lau (Infernal Affairs) and Nicholas Tse (New Police Story).
After the fall of the last imperial Dynasty, China is plunged into chaos as rival warlords battle to expand their fortune through the violent subjugation of the population. When the town of Dengfeng is conquered by the military general Hou Jie (Lau) and his deputy Cao Man (Tse), the Shaolin monks throw open the doors of their monastery to assist the wounded, leading an enraged Hou Jie to challenge the temple’s Kung Fu to demonstrate his power. Meanwhile, concerned over the intentions of his sworn brother Song Hu (Xiaohong Shi), Hou Jie sets a trap to assassinate the rival warlord, only to find himself double-crossed himself as Cao Man launches an assault that ends with the death of Hou Jie’s infant daughter. Forced to seek solitude in the Temple, Hou Jie is introduced to the Shaolin way of life by the cook Wu Dao (Jackie Chan), eventually finding peace and forgiveness. Of course, Cao Man soon discovers that Hou Jie has built a new life for himself and the new warlord rallies his army to wage war on the monks and destroy the revered Shaolin Temple.
Although the redemption storyline is fairly generic, Shaolin manages to stand out from the crowd courtesy of director Benny Chan’s (Gen-X Cops, New Police Story, Robin-B-Hood) trademark mix of action of humour. Much of the latter comes from Jackie Chan’s character Wu Dao – who also gets to take part in a fantastic fight scene alongside a group of ass-kicking preadolescent Shaolin monks – while Andy Lau is more than competent with the weighty dramatic moments and Nicholas Tse delivers a suitably bastardish performance as the antagonist. However, the film’s true success is its stunning action set-pieces, which includes a dramatic horse-and-carriage chase, along with the wonderfully realised final assault on the Shaolin Temple. This takes up most of the third act and really is breathtaking stuff, with the gigantic temple set coming under sustained attack in a truly epic sequence that just begs to be seen in glorious high-definition (which means I’m going to have to fork out the Blu-ray).
Given my initial expectations, I was thoroughly surprised by Shaolin and found it to be one of the most entertaining Asian films I’ve seen so far this year. It gets the mix of action, drama and comedy just right and there’s plenty of impressive martial arts action to satisfy even the most hardened of fans. I watched it this weekend as part of a home cinema double-bill with Miike Takashi’s 13 Assassins and while I enjoyed them both, it’s Shaolin that I’ll be revisiting first.