In the early days of the Chinese republic, rival factions of the military butt heads and wage war over territory. Refusing western intervention in exchange for free-reign, General Hou Jie (Andy Lau) is betrayed by his ambitious first officer (Nicholas Tse). His family destroyed and now a wanted man, Hou Jie seeks sanctuary with the Buddhist monks of the Shaolin Temple, where he discovers his inner self as the country around him rages into chaos.
Those who know anything about Hong Kong cinema know that there is a long held tradition of Shaolin based martial arts films. They usually went as so; Cocky person is wronged by bad guys, end up at the Shaolin Temple, learn about piece and forgiveness, but also how to kick ass, then defeat the bad guy for reasons more honourable than revenge. It’s heartening then, for seasoned Hong Kong film fans, to see that Benny Chan’s Shaolin holds very close to the tried and tested formula, but adds so much more.
It actually starts on a bit of a duff note, with some distractingly noticeable CG fire, and soon after some ropy wirework, but things soon pick up, to the point where it boasts really quite impressive action and FX, of both the CG and practical variety. It’s pretty rare these days for a Hong Kong film to be unimpressive visually, and Shaolin follows suit; almost immediately Benny Chan’s direction combined with Anthony Pun’s cinematography and Yee Chung-man’s production design astound with their rich, textured and grand aesthetic that feels nothing short of epic. That’s not to say that it’s big and colourful, like a Zhang Yimou movie (Hero, House of Flying Daggers); Shaolin has a grimy, distressed look, that carries across into its costume design, and puts it more akin to a contemporary war films such as Saving Private Ryan or Brotherhood.
The action, which though impressive is never truly stand-out, is actually pretty sparse until the very end, the film choosing instead to explore character in a way that is more genuine than we are accustomed to seeing from Hong Kong cinema, of this or any previous generation. The story, of course, is relatively broad, but there is a real emotional twang that keeps you invested beyond the visuals and action.
This is helped by the always-reliable Andy Lau (Infernal Affairs, Detective Dee), who, apparently, is in every second Hong Kong release of late (Donnie Yen is in the rest). He isn’t really being pushed as an actor in his role of the sorrowful Hou Jie, but it’s precisely the kind of role that he excels at, to such an extreme that it almost feels like the character was written for him. Nicholas Tse (Time and Tide, Gen X Cops), as the treacherous Cao Man, gets a wee bit maniacal by the end of the second act, but it’s no biggie; we all like to see the defeat of a supremely evil bastard, right?! The big surprise in the acting stakes though is Jackie Chan’s charming turn as a kindly cook. It’s little more than an extended cameo, and he has a single action sequence that feels a bit out of place, but the subtlety of the character suggests that Chan is fully living up to his desire to become a talented character actor of range.
If Shaolin is not the action rollercoaster that its title would imply, it does have heart and a more involving story than we have seen from Hong Kong in quite some years, and can be highly recommended to fans of martial arts cinema and beyond.
B+ rating – for storytelling
B rating – for action
A rating – for visuals
B rating – for acting
Overall rating – B+
Shaolin is available on region 2 DVD and Blu-ray, courtesy of Cine Asia, from September 12, 2011 and region 1 DVD and Blu-ray from October 25, 2011.
Cine Asia extras include commentary from the always-informative Bey Logan, a ‘making of’ gallery and a ridiculous fifteen interviews and twenty featurettes, the Blu-ray also includes the Cine Asia exclusive deleted scenes gallery.
Watch the trailer…