I’m sure this will be of little surprise to most of you, but, during my teenage years, I was one of those awkward kids who sat in his room and watched a lot of weird movies all day and night. One particular genre that I grew to appreciate was that of the kung fu flick. Despite the fact that they rarely showed anything in the way of sex and/or naked ladies, they did fill another void that my raging hormones raged on about: fighting. But this wasn’t that tactless, pummel-the-shit-out-of-a-guy technique jocks employ on another guy when they can’t come to grips with the realization that they’re attracted to that other fellow. No, this was that graceful style of combat that relied on choreography, wires, and bad dubbing courtesy of nasal British and Australian actors in order to be successful.
As the years went by, my addiction to martial arts movies dwindled, but the all-too-similar stories the many, many movies of the genre passed in my direction stayed with me — even as the entire Hong Kong filmmaking industry seemed to disappear from my view altogether. During the last couple of years, the popularity of martial arts movies has once again risen, to wit film distributors like Well Go USA have been unleashing a number of new entries to the old genre for today’s awkward teenagers to enjoy in the sanctity of their own dimly-lighted boudoirs. And, while the nasal sounds of obscure Aussie and English voice actors may be sorely missing in these instances, the choreography and high-wire action is just as strong as ever.
Benny Chan’s latest kung fu epic, the 2011-made Xin shao lin si (or, Shaolin as it’s titled for English-speaking markets), reveals another familiar tale; that of a lost soul who joins the Temple of Shaolin, only to learn the ways of the holy Buddhist school and gain the respect of the monks and pupils in the process. The difference here is that the lost soul in this instance is a military man. Due to his own lust for power and wealth, General Hou Jie (Andy Lau) has lost everything in his life that mattered — from his army to his young daughter — after betraying and murdering his blood brother, Song Hu (who really, in all honesty, deserved what he got).
Abandoned in the vicinity of the Shaolin whose very monks he once ridiculed face-to-face, Hou Jie is taken in and taken care of by the sanctuary’s simple chef, Wudao (Jackie Chan, in one of his better, least-annoying performances to date). As time goes by, Hou Jie decides to atone for the sins he had committed in the past, and joins the temple to become a monk. Unfortunately for all, Song Hu’s bloodthirsty and vengeful second-in-command, Cao Man (Nicholas Tse), has since seized the armies that were left behind, and sends his men to arrest Hou Jie upon learning his nemesis is still alive so that he may avenge his master; a vow of revenge that threatens to destroy all, especially since Cao Man has been conspiring with the gwailo for the possession of advanced weaponry!
I couldn’t help but wonder how things would have worked out had Hou Jie simply said to his rival: “Hey, don’t have a Cao Man!” Ha-ha.
Shaolin emerges is an enjoyable period drama with some fine performances from its cast. The fight scenes have a rather classic quality about them, and thanks to modern computer-generated imagery, all of those wires have been erased. CGI is also used a bit in the film’s fiery finale, but — and I rarely say things like this — said CGI is well done. Well Go USA ’s Blu-ray “Collector’s Edition” release of Shaolin presents the movie in a lovely 1080p transfer, with original Mandarin and English-dubbed soundtracks (optional English subtitles are included for the Chinese-language audio tracks). Special features are housed on a second disc (a DVD) and consist of several deleted scenes, a couple of featurettes about the making of the masterpiece, and trailers for this and other Well Go USA releases.