Jet Li's 1982 film Shaolin Temple is a fantastic martial arts film that signaled a sea change in the Hong Kong film industry. It was the first Hong Kong martial arts film to be filmed in mainland China, it had brilliant choreography, and it had the uniquely charismatic Jet Li. The film's story of a young refugee in 7th Century China who seeks refuge and training at a Shaolin temple in order to avenge the death of his father is based on common martial arts themes, but the use of naturalistic settings and the fluidity of the martial arts choreography are what make this film a standout to this day. The film's martial arts are amazing, but real -- and all the more amazing for it. The film didn't rely heavily on wire-work, as many earlier and later martial arts films have done. It is a masterpiece, and to "remake" such a film is pure folly.
The futility of making a "remake" didn't stop Benny Chan, Andy Lau, Nicholas Tse, Jackie Chan, and Wu Jing from trying with 2011's SHAOLIN. The result of their attempt is an extraordinary film that is emotionally powerful, even if the martial arts lack the grace captured in the earlier Jet Li classic.
At the beginning of the film Hou Jie (Andy Lau) is a powerful warlord who has just won a major victory, and who has a chance to stabilize the region and bring about a peace that he doesn't yet understand he desires. In the celebration over his victory, General Hou's sworn brother General Song Hu congratulates Hou and proposes that they formally unify their kingdoms and their houses through an arranged marriage. Given Song's tone, Hou's paranoia takes over. He wonders why Song has not asked about the massive wealth he acquired in the battle. Hou's concerns are further fueled by his ambitious lieutenant Cao Man (Nicholas Tse) who goads Hou into using the marriage arrangement dinner as an opportunity to ambush Song and end a threat to Hou's hegemony. Cao Man is also attempting to convince Hou to trade with foreign entities who wish to build a railroad in China. The foreigners will trade water cooled machine guns for the right to use Hou's land. Hou resists the temptation to sell out his country to foreigners, but accepts the plan to ambush Song.
As one might guess, Hou learns of Song's sincerity and fidelity too late. Hou finds himself betrayed by Cao Man -- to whom Hou had been cruel and dismissive. Hou tries desperately to save himself and his family during the ambush. He manages to escape, but in the process of escaping his daughter is fatally wounded. He takes his daughter to Shaolin temple in the hopes that they can heal her, but it is too late. Hou finds that in his pride and greed, he has caused the death of his daughter and the end of his marriage as his wife comes to hate him for his actions.
It is a powerful opening filled with emotional pull. Andy Lau is compelling as Hou and gives his motivations enough plausibility that we never think of him as evil, even as he is causing others suffering. He is ruthless and paranoid, but he is a loving father and husband.
The story progresses from their as Hou becomes a monk, is asked to learn cooking due to his impure heart, but who is eventually allowed to study Kung Fu under a senior brother (Wu Jing). The audience watches as Hou transforms from a ruthless man into a redeemed man, but not yet a man at peace. Hou must still find a way to bring balance to the harm he has caused the world.
He is given the opportunity when he discovers that Cao Man is using laborers to dig up antiquities -- China's history and soul -- and is selling them to the foreigners in exchange for guns. Cao Man is willing to betray his own people, and murder them to keep it quiet, without one moment's remorse. Nicholas Tse is masterful in his presentation of the ambitious and treasonous Cao Man. What looks like it might be an over the top melodramatic performance, shifts subtly as Cao Man eventually faces the horror of his own actions and overcomes his longing for status and revenge. This transformation occurs during the fight scene between Hou and Cao, a fight scene that is routine in physical execution but exquisite in emotional appeal.
Given that the film includes Jackie Chan in the cast, one might expect him to steal the show. While his performance is entertaining enough, it is also somewhat formulaic. He is a combination clown and hero, a role that Chan has provided us many times before. He does so ably here, but his performance isn't overpowering or overly memorable.
What is memorable is the performance of martial arts prodigy Wu Jing -- Wu has done some fantastic work over the past few years including a spectacular fight with Donnie Yen in Kill Zone. If any actor can be said to bring the kind of charisma that Jet Li brought to the first Shaolin Temple it is Wu. His character has very few lines in the film, but his facial reactions to events within the film provide volumes of detail. He has a natural ability to convey emotions, an undeniable charm, and his solid performance provides the hub around which the narrative takes place. The film is -- in many ways -- the story of how Hou becomes more like Wu Jing's character. The one fight scene that is more than routine is Wu's, sadly it is also the fight scene with the worst camera work. His grace is remarkable and I look forward to seeing him in more films.
Like many of the best martial arts films to come out of Hong Kong, Shaolin is a deeply patriotic film that is as much about the spirit of the middle kingdom as it is about the narrative being shown. The movie is well acted, has some spectacular camera work -- even though there are about 2 crane shots too many, and has passable kung fu fights that rely too much on wires and not enough on the grace of the movements.
There isn't as much action as one might imagine a kung fu film to have, this is a kung fu drama and drama is its greatest virtue. The score and the acting manipulated my emotions perfectly. I worried for the characters, and wept at all the right moments. The final scene between Hou and his wife is one of the best scenes I have watched in a Hong Kong film. It is romantic and tragic, it is everthing I watch movies in order to feel.
If the martial arts had been as good as the acting and the story, this film would have been a classic. As it is, it is merely excellent.