China/Hong Kong, 2011, colour, 2.35:1, 131 mins.
Director: Chen Musheng 陈木胜 [Benny Chan].
Potentially epic character drama ends up as an entertaining but formulaic action movie.
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 (Liu Dehua), even after he has handed over to Hou all his plunder. After taking control of the city, Hou Jie tells his deputy Cao Man (Xie Tingfeng), 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 Jie’s wife, Yan Xi (Fan Bingbing), begs him not to, as Song Hu is Hou Jie’s sworn elder brother, but Hou Jie refuses. At the dinner where the assassination is to take place, the plan goes awry, and Hou Jie just manages to escape with his young daughter Hou Shengnan, who’s seriously wounded. Hou Jie takes refuge in Shaolin Temple and begs the monks to help save her, but Hou Shengnan dies. Enraged, Hou Jie’s wife walks out on him. After meeting itinerant monk Wu Dao (Cheng Long), who works in Shaolin’s kitchen, Hou Jie 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 Man, who double-crossed Hou Jie over Song Hu’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 Man asks Hou Jie to re-join him, but Hou Jie 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 Li Lianjie 李连杰 [Jet Li], Shaolin 新少林寺 is much more than 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 in 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 – the early escape of the character played by Liu Dehua 刘德华 [Andy Lau] 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 films by Hong Kong director Chen Musheng 陈木胜 [Benny Chan] (Gen-X Cops 特警新人类, 1999; City under Siege 全城戒备, 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 Liu’s ruthless general, the loose-cannon deputy of Xie Tingfeng 谢霆锋 [Nicholas Tse], and with the monks themselves, the film sketches the former’s personal life with his wife and young daughter, followed by a well-paced restaurant sequence in which the assassination plot of Liu’s general goes horribly wrong. From thereon, however, Shaolin gradually abandons any pretence at being an epic character drama and becomes a formulaic action movie. Even the nicely insouciant character of a monk-cook played by Cheng Long 成龙 [Jackie Chan] 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. Mainland 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 [recent big-budget action-drama] Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame 狄仁杰之通天帝国 (2010), which also started promisingly, and the action and martial arts, staged by veterans Yuan Kui 元奎 [Corey Yuen] and Yuan De 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. Liu’s classiest acting comes in the first half-hour as the unreformed bad guy, where he’s well supported by Xie as his ambitious sidekick; Liu’s later playing of the redeemed monk and Xie’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 吴京 (Wind Blast 西风烈, 2010), up-and-coming Yu Shaoqun 余少群 (the young Mei Lanfang in Forever Enthralled 梅兰芳, 2008) and dopey-looking Shi Yanneng 释延能. All have professional wushu training and likeable screen presences, with Shi an actual Shaolin disciple for good measure.
Presented by China Film Group (CN), Huayi Brothers Media (CN), Beijing Silver Dream Film & Art (CN), Shaolin Temple Culture Communication (Dengfang) (CN), Emperor Motion Pictures (HK).
Script: Zhang Zhiguang, Wang Qiuyu, Chen Jinchang, Zhang Tan. Original script: Yuan Jinlin [Alan Yuen]. Photography: Pan Yaoming [Anthony Pun]. Editing: Qiu Zhiwei [Yau Chi-wai]. Music: Nicolas Errèra, Chu Zhendong [Anthony Chue]. Production design: Xi Zhongwen [Yee Chung-man]. Art direction: Liu Minxiong [Ben Lau]. Sound: Hou Xiaohui. Action: Yuan Kui [Corey Yuen]. Martial arts: Yuan De, Li Zhongzhi [Nicky Li]. Visual effects: Huang Jianeng [Eddy Wong].
Cast: Liu Dehua [Andy Lau] (Hou Jie, general), Xie Tingfeng [Nicholas Tse] (Cao Man), Fan Bingbing (Yan Xi, Hou Jie’s wife), Cheng Long [Jackie Chan] (Wu Dao), Wu Jing (Jing Neng), Yu Shaoqun (Jing Hai), Xiong Xinxin (Suo Jiangtu), Yu Hai (Shaolin abbot), Shi Yanneng (Jing Kong), Bai Bing (Tian’r), Shi Xiaohong (Song Hu, general), Chen Zhihui (Huo Long, general), Liang Jingke, Sang Weilin, Zhang Zhinan.
Release: China, 19 Jan 2011; Hong Kong, 27 Jan 2011.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 1 Feb 2011.)