Tuesday, March 1, 2011

"Shaolin" - A Kung Fu Movie About Redemption

If one thinks that "Shaolin" is a remake of the 1980 "Shaolin Temple" movie that launched Jet Li to international fame, then Red Dot Diva says -- think again.

The only similarity between the 1980's "Shaolin Temple" movie and the new movie is the use of the famous Shaolin temple in China. The temple was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in August 2010.

Instead of just a mere show of the kung fu moves that the Shaolin monks are reknown for, "Shaolin" (新少林寺 or "New Shaolin", if one takes the literal translation from the Chinese title) is more stately and quite fitting of current times.

The movie is set in Henan province during the post-Qing Dynasty where feudal warlords battle each other for riches and property, without much thought to the plight of the humble villagers.

Hou Jie (played by the still very handsome Andy Lau 刘德华) is an arrogant and greedy warlord who had just killed his predecessor in front of the abbot of Shaolin Temple. Aiming to secure his position as top feudal lord in the area, he plots to eliminate and assassinate an elder warlord General Song (Shi Xiaohong) during a marriage betrothal ceremony between his precious daughter and the older man's son.

Unknown to him, however, his ambitious second-in-command Cao Man (Nicholas Tse 谢霆锋) is eager to succeed Hou by all means necessary and had no qualms subverting Hou's plans. What happened was a violent massacre attempt on both families that cost Hou his young daughter's life. His wife (Fang Bingbing 范冰冰), bitter with grief over the loss of their daughter, walked out on him.

Having lost his family and severely wounded, Hou sought refuge at the Shaolin temple where he met seemingly bumbling temple cook Wu Dao (the wonderful Jackie Chan 成龙). Wu helped Hou deal with his anger, self-pity and grief.

There was civil unrest in the country at that time and while assisting Wu in his daily chores, Hou began to feel empathy for the sufferings of the refugee villagers and see a larger meaning to life. He decided to shed off "worldly desires", rename himself Jing Jue and become a Shaolin monk as well.

Meanwhile, the festeringly evil and ruthless Cao Man is still not at peace even though he is now reigning feudal warlord. He wants to see Hou eliminated for good. As part of his plans to torment and kill Hou, Cao decided to make a deal with the foreigners (the British?) - modern artillery for imperial treasures - which unfortunately ended with the Shaolin monks battling to defend the besieged temple and all those who seek refuge within it.

In recent times, many kung fu movies have taken to cheesy CGI or too much wire-work for the fight sequences. Red Dot Diva is pleased to say that this did not happen too much with the "Shaolin" movie. Director Benny Chan and fight choreographer Cory Yuen decided to go mostly old school, which truly showcased how beautifully elegant (and yet lethal, if necessary) the Shaolin moves were. Due to that, the action sequences seem faster and cleaner too.

Surprisingly, Andy Lau manages to convince as a proud power-hungry man who works through his tormented soul to become a better person, and finally, finds forgiveness and peace. Red Dot Diva says it's surprising because Andy's star status tends to overshadow the characters that he plays on screen.

In this movie, it was quite clear how invested Andy was in the role of Hou. The emotional scene where he cut off his hair in that one take (maybe he was channelling Britney Spears.... maybe not... ) was very convincing. And Red Dot Diva certainly also gives Andy credit for delivering the goods with his well-rehearsed Shaolin Seven-Star Fist sequence.

Red Dot Diva, however, did not appreciate the portrayal of the evil younger Cao by Nicholas Tse. Nicholas performed Cao in the most caricatured manner with over-acted tics and twisted postures. Instead of menacing, it was almost funny. And not in a very good way.

And poor Fang Bing Bing was the token female in an action-filled movie ... yet again. Nothing much else could be said about the role of a "rich man's wife".

With these disappointing performances, it was therefore, refreshing for Red Dot Diva to watch the martial arts actor Wu Jing do this thing as Jing Neng, the Shaolin "big brother" monk. Wu Jing certainly didn't fail to show his athletic prowess in his action scenes. Besides Red Dot Diva thinks he's rather cute.

And what about Jackie Chan's cameo as Wu Dao? As expected, Jackie provided the comedic relief in the rather sombre film. It was a good thing his funny moments in "Shaolin" was balanced with an introspective side story concerning Wu's own personal journey and purpose. But at times, Jackie's segments do seem a little out of place with the general tone of the movie.

Having worked with Jackie before and knowing that his performance works best with various props, Benny put Jackie into good use with a fantastic fight sequence involving giant woks and erm... a big wooden spatula.

So, with all this in mind, Red Dot Diva chants a Zen-like Red Dot on the latest incarnation of the "Shaolin" movie.

The stunning rural scenery and the 1,500-year-old Shaolin temple certainly helped to create a handsome kind of melacholy to the movie. The set details and the costumes were wonderful. It was surely a feast for the eyes.

Director Benny Chan is known for his action movies but when it comes to emotional scenes, Benny can be touch and go. But after watching "Shaolin", Red Dot Diva thought Benny Chan came through with a rather satisfying kung fu film.

She still suspects that the movie was made for a longer running time. Some segments seem to have been edited rather oddly and the flow seems uneven in some places. Also, if one notices, there was another actress in a previously-shown trailer who never appeared in the movie!

Even though there were all that blood and violence, "Shaolin" is essentially a tale about redemption and forgiveness, and... karma. The Shaolin kung-fu was shown to be used as a line of defense with harmony and non-violence profferred first and foremost.

A suitable reminder and notion for these current times - with a peaceful protest that happened in Egypt and with moves for democracy now rippling through most of Middle-East.

Yes, Red Dot Diva agrees that there was the very annoying and stereotypical use of "white foreigners" as the token bad guys, and the movie took a formulaic turn towards the third act.

Still, despite its flaws, "Shaolin" is an entertaining kung-fu movie with heart, and somehow, Red Dot Diva walked away from the theatre hall admitting that it had a spiritually-freeing quality to it.


For those who want to check out the movie, here's a trailer!

No comments:

Post a Comment