Starring Jet Li, Yu Hai, Ding Laam
Fight Choreography by Ma Xian Da, Yu Hai, Wang Chang Kai
Directed by Chang Hsin-Yen
In 1980 the secretive Shaolin temple found itself at a crossroads of sorts. There were not too many new monks coming in, and the temple was finding it difficult to survive without funds. So, in an effort to garner new students the Shaolin Temple teamed up with a Hong Kong production company to make a movie that would showcase Shaolin style kung-fu. The production would be the first time a Hong Kong film would be shot on the Chinese mainland. The background actors would be the monks themselves, and for the star a little known 17-year-old martial arts wunderkind who had won many championships was chosen. His name was Jet Li, and this is where he began his film career.
The film takes place between the Sui and Tang Dynasties, and Jet Li plays Juen Yuen, a young man who, along with his father, a famous kung-fu fighter, are turned into slaves by General Wang. Yuen’s father gets into fight with some of the soldiers and then with Wang himself, and is killed, but not before Yuen is able to escape. Injured and suffering the loss of his father, Yuen makes his way to the Shaolin temple, where he is cared for and allowed to stay by the monks there, much to the dismay of the Abbot’s second.
While he recovers, Yuen is able to watch the monks practicing kung-fu in a great scene of the monks showing off their various forms and styles and weapons, and this leads to what may be one of the most jacked-up scenes ever, as the dog of a girl he likes, named Bai, disrupts his watching the monks in secret, and he accidentally kills the dog, and what he does with the dog after that just defies, well, you just have to see it for yourself. It’s both laugh out loud and cringe inducing all at once.
Yuen does join the monks, but his thirst for revenge always seems to undo everything he has learned about tolerance and forgiveness, as he fights General Wang and his men again and again, but saves Bai as he does so (there is another scene where the soldiers attack her and what they do to the sheep…damn. If you are a member of PETA just steer clear of this film.)
Yuen’s constant attacks, and then saving a rebel Wang is looking for leads to an epic battle as Wang attacks the temple itself, and the monks finally have to defend themselves or fade into history…
Look, let it be known that without a doubt this is a big time propaganda film for the Temple. Even the theme song sounds that way. Having said that, it’s not a bad film, but may best be known as the film that started Jet Li’s career. The story is decent but nothing that hasn’t been done before in different dressing, but there are fun moments to be had, such as when the master always seems to find some way to justify doing something that a monk shouldn’t do, such as eat meat or kick some ass. It’s hilarious to see the gears turning in his head as he comes up with some buddhist explanation that his students and Yuen are all too eager to accept. Jet does a pretty good job as the star of the film, especially for a first time actor.
The fight scenes start off fairly well but gets better as the film progresses. The field fight and the assault on the temple are the highlights of the film, and while not as smooth as what we may be used to seeing, the fights are very well choreographed and has a flow all its own.
Where the film really falls astray of greatness is in the actual production values of the film itself. The camerawork is shoddy at best, and there are scenes, particularly the night-time fight scenes that are horrendous not because the fights are bad, but because the lighting is terrible, and leaves parts of those fights to the imagination. The editing also has some baffling moments, where they do a cross fade within the same fight scene. Cross fade editing is supposed to be used as a transition from one scene to another, not to be used in a fast paced fight scene that isn’t in any sort of transition.
Despite this the film did very well, and sparked several sequels, and really did spark a new popularity in China for martial arts films, and introduced the world to Jet Li.
(On a scale of 1-10. 10 being the best):
CHOREOGRAPHY: (8) Well done, but not the best ever. It does a great job of showing off the Shaolin fighting style compared to other styles in the film. Jet Li has the most complex stuff, and does well with it.
STUNTWORK: (7) These stuntmen took some nasty looking falls and flips here, and while some wasn’t the best acted, they brought energy to their scenes, some of which looked difficult especially when dealing with the fight choreography.
STAR POWER: (6) When this film came out no one knew who any of these actors are, but Jet Li would go on to become a great star, one of Hong Kong’s biggest ever.
FINAL GRADE: (7) Shaolin Temple isn’t the best film in the world, but it gave us a look inside the philosophy of the temple itself and the style, and gave us Jet Li. That alone makes this worth a look.