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September 2011

Shaolin

cast: Andy Lau, Nicholas Tse, Jackie Chan, Fan Bingbing, and Bai Bing

director: Benny Chan

131 minutes (15) 2011
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Cine-Asia blu-ray region B
[released 12 September]

RATING: 7/10
review by Christopher Geary

Shaolin

Praise Buddha, here's yet another blockbuster epic from the maker of Divergence and Connected. During early years of the Chinese republic, a bitter feud between generals Hou and Sung, both sworn to uphold the principles of brotherhood, erupts anew into a deadly conflict with pistol killings and hordes of axe-men assassins. Meanwhile, the local monks adopt guise of benevolent masked outlaws, stealing rice from army stores to help feed starving peasants. The authorities seem too busy trading with foreigners, and certain army factions are willing to accept guns as bribes to allow Euro expansion into building railways.

However, political intrigues eventually give way to action with a horse-and-cart chase that's boldly exciting. In the story's pivotal sequence, the Shaolin monastery's Abbot cannot save a tragically injured little girl, the only daughter of a greedy warmonger. The monks harbour General Hou from his enemies, but he's not especially grateful at first. Jackie Chan pops up as the Shaolin cook, nearly halfway through, when that fuigitive general falls into a hunter's pit. Of course, the betrayed Hou sees the error of his evil vengeful ways, staying with the monks to learn the humility of martial Zen in honest compassion, following the traditional Shaolin lifestyle of peaceful philosophy.

Naturally, there's lots of remorse and melancholy suffering, but so what? This is, like so many Asian movies, primarily another superb kung fu showcase. Shaolin boasts world class production values, much excellent fight choreography (by the great Corey Yuen), the ever-inventive use of breakaway props, and limited wire-work stunts, plus a top notch main cast. Sadly, none of this can disguise the rather tired, and blatantly unoriginal, plotline. Shaolin is very worthy, so far as modern Asian cinema goes, but I cannot honestly recommend it for telling an engrossing or involving story.

This really is terribly predictable, at times, even when its most notable actors do their best with such material. It's not entirely a serious drama, either. Jackie Chan presides over the most prominent comedy sequence, unable to resist having cheeky fun with a demo of kitchen fu involving a kombat wok, and tabletop wrestling against a group of hapless soldiers. The undeniably spectacular finale sees a temple destroyed by British artillery barrages, while the heroic monks fight enemy Chinese troops inside the walls of their sacred refuge.

Ultimately, the monastery is sacrificed for the sake of progress but, of course, legends of martial prowess and cultural myths remain, kept alive for marginally realistic films like this.



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