Period action drama
2010, colour, 2.35:1, 131 mins
Directed by Benny Chan (陳木勝)
By Derek Elley
Tue, 01 February 2011, 12:47 PM (HKT)
Potentially epic tale ends up as okay popcorn entertainment. Beyond Asia, largely ancillary.
Central China, early years of the Republic, c. 1920s. In Dengfeng, Henan province, a battle for the city has just taken place between rival warlords and, as winter approaches, the monks of Shaolin Temple help shelter and feed the locals. Defeated warlord Huo Long (Chen Zhihui) takes refuge in the temple, where he is hunted down and killed by victorious warlord Hou Jie (Andy Lau), even after he has handed over to Hou all his plunder. After taking control of the city, Hou tells his deputy Cao Man (Nicholas Tse), whom he took under his wing like a younger brother years earlier, to assassinate fellow warlord Song Hu (Shi Xiaohong) who wants to divide up the city between them. Hou's wife (Fan Bingbing) begs him not to, as Song is Hou's sworn elder brother, but Hou refuses. At the dinner where the assassination is to take place, the plan goes awry, and Hou just manages to escape with his young daughter Shengnan, who's seriously wounded. Hou takes refuge in Shaolin Temple and begs the monks to help save her, but Shengnan dies. Enraged, Hou's wife walks out on him. After meeting itinerant monk Wu Dao (Jackie Chan), who works in Shaolin's kitchen, Hou enrols at the temple as a novice, despite the enmity of many monks - including Jing Neng (Wu Jing), Jing Hai (Yu Shaoqun) and Jing Kong (Shi Yanneng) - over his former behaviour towards them. However, he gradually wins their trust and becomes a fully fledged Shaolin monk called Jing Jue. Meanwhile, Cao, who double-crossed Hou over Song's assassination, has done a deal with British military types to help them build a railway in exchange for automatic guns. Now crazed with power, Cao asks Hou to re-join him, but Hou refuses, setting the two on collision course - and Shaolin Temple with them.
Though the Chinese title (New Shaolin Temple) signals it as a remake of the 1982 Mainland movie that introduced Jet LI 李連杰, Shaolin 新少林寺 (2011) is much more just a popcorn action drama reminiscent of Hong Kong productions shot in China 20 years ago. The plot also centres on a man who turns to the temple for redemption, and the movie also features actor-cum-wushu Grand Master YU Hai 于海 from the original, but the setting is updated to the early 20th century — with a strong message for the present about "the Great Powers falling over themselves to get into China", to quote the opening titles — and there's none of the 1982 film's obsessive focus on training and technique that was such a part of martial arts films of the era. As a popcorn movie, Shaolin is an entertaining two-hour-plus ride, with strongly drawn characters, some good action sequences (Andy LAU 劉德華's early escape with axes and horses, the temple's final destruction), and handsome production values with a grey, dusty look to the temple scenes. Its main problem, as with many of director Benny CHAN 陳木勝's films (Gen-X Cops 特警新人類 (1999), City under Siege 全城戒備 (2010)), is that it still promises much more than it actually delivers.
The movie's original version was reportedly around three hours, and a lot appears to have disappeared in the cutting room while trying to get it down to just over two. After a broad-limbed beginning, which draws the plight of the locals following a battle between opposing warlords, and sets up the forthcoming conflict between Lau's ruthless general, Nicholas TSE 謝霆鋒's loose-cannon deputy, and with the monks themselves, the film sketches Lau's personal life with his wife and young daughter, followed by a well-paced restaurant sequence in which Lau's assassination plot goes horribly wrong. From thereon, however, Shaolin gradually abandons any pretence at being an epic character drama and becomes a formula action movie. Even Jackie CHAN 成龍's nicely insouciant character of a monk-cook is interestingly set up but then pretty much thrown away: the veteran star gets one witty fight sequence with kitchen implements and kids but is never really incorporated into the plot. Actress FAN Bingbing 范冰冰 simply disappears during the middle portion before being resurrected as a plot convenience.
The film still has more going for it on a character level than TSUI Hark 徐克's Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame 狄仁杰之通天帝國 (2010), which also started promisingly, and the action and martial arts, staged by veterans Corey YUEN 元奎 and YUEN Tak 元德, feature some solid business without resorting to fantastic visual effects. But with this kind of cast and budget, Shaolin could have been much more. Lau's classiest acting comes in the first half-hour as the unreformed bad guy, where he's well supported by Tse as his ambitious sidekick; Lau's later playing of the redeemed monk and Tse's power-crazed warlord are much more formulaic. Some of the best inter-action is between the trio of monks played by action star WU Jing 吳京 (Wind Blast 西風烈 (2010)), up-and-coming YU Shaoqun 余少群 (the young Mei Lanfang in Forever Enthralled 梅蘭芳 (2008)) and dopey-looking SHI Yanneng 釋延能. All have professional wushu training and likable screen presences, with Shi an actual Shaolin disciple for good measure.
ContactSales: Emperor Motion Pictures (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Theatrical release: China, 19 Jan 2011; Hong Kong, 27 Jan 2011.
Presented by China Film Group (CN), Huayi Brothers Media (CN), Beijing Silver Moon Productions (CN), Shaolin Temple Culture Communication (Dengfang) (CN), Emperor Motion Pictures (HK), in association with Beijing Letao Century Culture Media (CN), Beijing Meitao Jiayi Film & TV Culture Communication (CN), Bona Film & Television Culture (CN), Henan Television (CN), Henan Film & TV Group (CN). Executive producers: Han Sanping, Wang Zhongjun, Xue Guizhi, Fu Huayang, Albert Yeung. Producer: Benny Chan, Albert Lee.
Script: Cheung Chi-kwong, Wang Qiuyu, Chan Ka-cheong, Cheung Tan. Original script: Alan Yuen. Photography: Anthony Pun. Editing: Yau Chi-wai. Music: Nicolas Errèra, Anthony Chue. Production design: Yee Chung-man. Art direction: Ben Lau. Sound: Hou Xiaohui. Action: Corey Yuen. Martial arts: Yuen Tak, Li Chung-chi. Visual effects: Eddy Wong.
Cast: Andy Lau (General Hou Jie), Nicholas Tse (Cao Man), Fan Bingbing (Yan Xi, Hou's wife), Jackie Chan (Wu Dao), Wu Jing (Jing Neng), Yu Shaoqun (Jing Hai), Xiong Xinxin (Suo Jiangtu), Yu Hai (Shaolin abbot), Shi Yanneng (Jing Kong), Michelle Bai (Tian'r), Shi Xiaohong (General Song Hu), Chen Zhihui (General Huo Long), Liang Jingke, Sang Weilin, Zhang Zhinan.