The Shaolin Temple – a 5th century monastery and now world heritage site in Eastern China – has been a rich source for storytellers for 1500 years. Repeatedly destroyed by warlords and rebuilt by Buddhist monks – many of the fables that surround the Temple come from its long association with martial arts – in particular Shaolin Kung Fu. Actor Jet Li’s breakout film The Shaolin Temple (1982) is updated here by Hong Kong action director Benny Chan, and the action moved into the 1920’s to allow for guns and foreigners. The plot – evil warlords bent on destruction and nifty monks fighting for peace – remains the same.
Prolific Hong Kong singer and actor Andy Lao stars as warlord Hou Jie, a ruthless general who has plunged the nation into poverty and hunger whilst he rampages on horseback seeking power and wealth. For many, the only source of food, shelter and medicine is from the Shaolin monks who clash with Hou when they give help to one of his enemies. But when Hou is betrayed and running for his life from his far more evil protégé Cao Mang (Nicolas Tse), he turns to the monks for help and realizes the errors of his violent ways.
Although the film contains some classic wire-assisted fight scenes (and thankfully little CGI), director Chan is just as interested in foregrounding the pacifist philosophy of Shaolin throughout the film. The rather unusual result is that the power of Buddhism converts all the bad guys into good guys, even after they have killed all the really good guys and you have come to despise them. (This doesn’t apply to the English, who – as foreigners with terrible beards – are clearly beyond redemption.) With sweeping cinematography, a cool grey palette and romanticised music, the film has epic historical pretensions that are not matched by a rather sprawling screenplay and several dire moments of the most severe melodramatic histrionics.
Whilst Lao and Tse sizzle and strut appropriately, the acting honours go to the supporting band of monks who add warmth, depth and supreme athleticism to an otherwise two-dimensional tale. The prominent billing of Jackie Chan in the film is misleading – he stars as the kindly old monastery cook, getting a few throw-away lines about knowing nothing about martial arts before showing off a little stiffly with an out of place comic fight scene.