Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Film Review - 'Shaolin'

Without any sort of central government to establish order, China is at the mercy of warlords all eager to carve out their own personal kingdoms. This is what is known as the 'Warlord Era' in Chinese history - a period running from about 1916 to 1928, where opposing military forces threatened to tear the country apart. And, it is also were we find ourselves in the martial arts film, Shaolin.

In the midst of all of this chaos, the monks of the Shaolin Temple try to get by as best they can. Devoting themselves to simple lives of reflection and training, they also do what they can to aid the people living in the area around their Temple. The conflict that they had hoped to avoid is brought right to their doorstep, though, when Huo Long flees to the Temple seeking refuge in the aftermath of a battle in which his own forces were defeated. He is pursued by a rival, Hou Jie (Andy Lau) - a somewhat ruthless individual who refuses to be swayed by the monks' pleas for mercy, and who ultimately kills his rival on the Temple grounds.

Later, Hou Lie enacts a plan to deal with another potential rival to his own base of power - luring his long-time ally, Song Hu, into a trap under the guise of finalising an arranged marriage between his young daughter and Song Hu's son. Complications arise, though, when one of How Lie's sub-ordinates, Cao Man (Nicholas Tse) takes the opportunity to launch a plan of his own - moving against Hou Lie, and those loyal to him.

Finding himself caught off guard, Hou Lie is left with no alternative but to make a hasty escape with his family. In the chaos, though, Hou is momentarily separated from his wife, and his daughter is severely injured. Madam Hou (Bingbing fan) manages to escape on her own - but, even a desperate dash to the Shaolin Temple isn't enough to save Hou's young daughter. Blaming her husband for the entire ordeal, and in particular the death of their daughter, Madam Hou ultimately leaves him.

Losing both his wife and daughter in a single night, and knowing that he was, ultimately, responsible for both is enough to force Hou Jie into a period of depression and introspection - and, who no where else to turn, he seeks shelter at the very same Shaolin Temple he had mocked and desecrated earlier. Though the irony of the situation isn't lost on anyone, the Abbot of the Temple still relents and allows him to remain. With the support of both the Abbot and the Temple's cook, Wudao (Jackie Chan), Hou Jie begins to learn from the monks - eventually, even earning a true place among them.

From here, we have what seems to be a fairly standard tale of redemption and atonement, as Hou Jie works to put the mistakes of his past behind him, and embraces a new life at the Temple - but, of course, things aren't going to be that simple. In his absence, Cao Man has been quick to establish himself as a formidable new power in the region - one with a reputation for ruthless cruelty that rivals his own predecessor. With Cao Man's influence slowly extending to the Shaolin Temple, it would seem that another meeting between the two men is practically inevitable.

There has never been any sort of rule that states that a martial arts film is required to be all about the spectacle of its action sequences, of course - but, even with that in mind, Shaolin is a serious and sombre sort of film, which takes a somewhat restrained approach to its handful of action scenes. That is entirely appropriate, of course, given the film's concern with such weighty themes as the cost of violence, on both victim and perpetrator, and with the possibility of genuine redemption. That's not to say that the film's action sequences aren't impressive, though. They are as well shot and well choreographed as you could hope for - but, it's clear from the start that 'martial arts action' isn't intended to be the main draw of this film.

A side-plot concerning some monks' plan to help the poor by putting their impressive skills to use in a series of 'Robin Hood' style robberies does add some entertainment, though - and, it is also the source of some of the films few moments of levity. But, unfortunately, it also doesn't really lead anywhere especially interesting - and, it is ultimately abandoned toward the end. Jackie Chan, meanwhile, is another source of humour in the film, naturally enough - though, his role as the reclusive cook afraid of leaving the Temple grounds is really only a small one. Also, his character's claim to have no real skill at martial arts may disappoint some of the actor's long-time fans.

Despite his character's claims, though, Jackie Chan does still manage to work in one of his typically entertaining action sequences - showing that he is still perfectly capable of performing, when the need arises. The problem, though, is that Jackie Chan's one moment of (contractually obligated?) action is so tonally inconsistent with the rest of the film that it is actually somewhat jarring. It's a sequence which plays out as the same sort of 'martial-arts comedy' scene which has made him famous - and, it just feels very out of place in a film like this. As depressing as it may be to have to say this, it might have served the film better to have left it out, entirely.

The true stars of the film are, of course, Andy Lay and Nicholas Tse, themselves. Andy Lay proves to be perfectly capable of capturing each aspect of a complicated character like Hou Jie - both the mix of cold ruthlessness toward his enemies, and love toward his family, that made up the warlord he was, and the genuine and earnest devotion of the repentant monk he eventually becomes. It is a fascinating character-arc - and, it is very well played. Nicholas Tse, on the other hand, has a much more straight-forward role to play - with Cao Man, essentially, amounting to little more than a fairly standard 'sneering villain'. To be fair, though, he does play the role very well.

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