SHAOLIN TEMPLE is a martial art movie of an undeniable historical importance for being not only the film debut of Hong Kong action cinema superstar Jet Li but also the very first kung fu movie done inside Communist Mainland China. Indeed for three-decades beginning with the Communist take over of China in 1949, their highly authoritarian and dogmatic regime had nothing but scorn for “wuxia” (or martial art) fiction either literary or cinematic for being too feudal and individualistic minded. Yet ironically enough, while H-K or Taiwanese made martial-art movies were officially banned inside China and likely denounced as “decadent bourgeois entertainment” the country’s great helmsman Mao Ze-dong is now known to have tremendously enjoyed k-f movies shown in very private viewings. Then within a few short years, China went through tremendous changes starting with the death of Mao in 1976, the end of the Cultural Revolution and the rise of Deng Xiaoping. As China’s new great leader, he implemented radical socio-economic policies and proclaimed a catchy new motto “To get rich is glorious”.
At the dawn of seventh century China, the ruthless all-powerful general Wang Shi Huang (Yu Sheng-wei) rules the land and crushes the people under a ferocious tyranny. Having witnessed his father’s savage murder at the very hand of the tyrant, young Chueh Yuan (Jet Li), escapes and finds refuge at the Buddhist monastery of Shaolin. Actually, he couldn’t have come to a better place because powerful martial arts were taught at this sanctuary. The young man was to quickly earn the sympathies of a wise elder fighting monk (Yu Hai) who accepted him as a pupil as long as he agreed to abide by the Buddhist rule of not killing. Seasons pass, Chueh Yuan grows into a truly accomplished fighter but one day the tyrant Wang, heading his army, comes into the monastery’s vicinity leading to a series of confrontations with the still vengeful minded Chueh. Caught in the middle, the Shaolin monks have to choose between their pacifist doctrines or defend themselves against the bloodthirsty general and his men.
Still, let’s not be too needlessly picky for even though it does miss the mark of true martial art greatness, SHAOLIN TEMPLE with its authentic wu-shu and natural settings constitutes a refreshing counterpart to the wire-fu extravaganza of the nineties, as well as the cramped tacky studio bound Shaw Brother type martial epics - even though it does not equal the best examples of either. The film also benefits from an undeniable polish on the technical, visual and even narrative level which is also refreshing as most k-f movies tend to be lacking in one way or another in those areas. It also makes judicious use of earthy humour early on and the boyish earnest enthusiasm of not only Jet Li, but of his fellow wu-shu mates creates a genial, appealing feel to the movie that allows one to overlook the conventionality of its plot and the relative lack of edge and spark in the action. And finally there is the cute shepherd girl (Ding Laam) who is not only nice to look at, but can whip butt when the plot requires it. Overall then, despite it’s shortcomings TEMPLE comes across as a quite decent and entertaining effort.
King Hu, the most renowned martial art filmmaker at the time, was approached to direct the planned movie but he politely refused arguing that he was clueless about the Shaolin legends. Another good reason not to accept the offer however was that the Chinese Republic of Taiwan was blacklisting any people who dared conduct any business with the Mainland. Eventually, the directorial reins went to Cheung Yan-yin a veteran H-K director with a twenty-year career and good dozen movies behind him. One of these included THE JADE BOW (65), which was considered a groundbreaking film back in the mid-sixties for its then revolutionary screen action by the choreographic team of Lau Kar-leung and Tang Chia. Cheung was no cinematic martial art visionary in the way King Hu, Chang Cheh and Lau Kar-leung were but he was a competent and reliable craftsman, which a novel project such as this needed.
Wu-shu is the term in which martial arts in general were referred to in China, (kung-fu is only a recent designate of it), but it has come nowadays to define the acrobatically inclined brand of martial arts practice in the Mainland. At the beginning of the Communist regime, China’s new leaders had readily recognised the value of martial arts as an important part of China’s cultural legacy but they also thought it unwise to have fighting methods accessible to the populace at large. So the whole of the martial arts; schools, teachers and exponents of all styles and persuasion virtually everywhere in China became strictly regulated by the new order and with no practice or teaching being allowed outside special state-supervised schools, the martial arts themselves went through an extensive overhaul. As a result, practical martial art teaching and use was restricted to the military and police force while a “civilian brand” was designed. This fused elements from Peking Opera and traditional acrobatics and was centred on the precise, graceful and acrobatically inclined displays of martial styles and weapons but was devoid of any practical use or philosophical underpinning.
Wu-shu benefited from heavy state sponsorship and became one of the nation’s top sporting disciplines. It may also have enjoyed some level of protection, for while some martial art’s masters are known to have been persecuted during the terrible Cultural Revolution period at least some Wu-shu institutes appear to have been left alone. So while from the mid-sixties to mid seventies hundred of thousands if not millions of students and teachers alike were forcibly send to the countryside to learn from peasants by working the field, a young boy was learning the demanding Wu-shu arts to become an extraordinary prodigy; Li Lian-ji, the future Jet Li. In 1974 he was even part of a Wu-shu international tour sent to Hong-Kong, Mexico and the US to perform at the White House where a Watergate embattled President Nixon must have found the presentation some relief from his troubles.
It’s no small wonder then, that when the idea of a Mainland made kung-fu film came about, it was eventually thought that it would be a perfect wu-shu promotional tool. Director Cheung Yan-yin had actually seen a Wu-shu showcase when the international touring team visited HK back in 1974. He had been quite impressed and so once given the Shaolin Temple film project directorial reins he decided that the action scenes be done in a way that best favoured the wu-shu displays, different from the usual H-K style. Thus he rejected the use of a H-K fight instructor and instead put the choreography in the hands of the Wu-shu senior coaches. Such crucial choices may have created some difficulties however. For one thing while the coaches had expertise at choreographing Wu-shu for the stage, they likely had little experience for doing it on the screen. Another problem lay in the very nature of Wu-shu itself which was largely designed to be performed as solo displays of martial/physical virtuosity. Thus when done at sporting tournaments, participants do not duel one another as in karate, Takwendo or judo but instead they compete on the perfection of forms. That is why TEMPLE’ s solo displays done in the training scenes are undeniably superb, while the film’s actual action scenes have a distinct lack of flair when compared to those seen in their H-K made martial movie counterparts. Such was the price paid to make the film into a perfect Wu-shu showcase.
From then on the fortunes of the Shaolin temple rose through the centuries as imperial dynasties succeeded one another. In 1644 the Manchu’s invaded China, established their own dynasty the Chin and the Shaolin Monastery became a place of anti-Manchu resistance by serving as safe-haven for Ming-dynasty patriots. The monastery eventually paid dearly for its less than religious activities when in 1736 the Imperial authorities raided it. It was not destroyed as alleged by subsequent Shaolin myths however. Instead after being thoroughly purged it was officially reopened by the Manchu Emperor Chien Lung and continued to teach martial arts. The twentieth century was especially hard on the temple as it suffered partial destruction while been caught between two warring armies during the Warlord period (1916-1929), and the temple and its remaining monks must have endured much during the Cultural revolution. By the time of the SHAOLIN TEMPLE shooting, much of the place appeared to be in shabby, half decrepit condition. Contrary to widespread belief, until that time the monastery had never a been a Wu-shu teaching center and Jet Li was never taught there.
While nearly all H-K or Taiwanese made Shaolin K-F movies focused either on it’s anti-Manchurian myths or those surrounding it’s famous “Eighteen Bronzemen” training automates, the men behind the Mainland version decided rather to tell a story inspired by its monks giving a hand to the Taizong Emperor set early in the seventh century. This choice though led to some major historical discrepancies in the film. Thus most of the Shaolin monastery buildings and constructions seen in the movie date back from the Ming dynasty (1366-1644) nearly a thousand years in the future from the period when the story is set, at a time when the abbots stone pillars resting ground seen as ancient and decrepit in the movie may not have even existed yet. Another anachronism is that twentieth century Wu-shu of course did not exist in the seventh century and neither were the traditional style or even most of the weapons from which they modelled themselves after, such as the broad sword or the three-handed staff. Of course, all of these discrepancies do not affect the film in the least, and only a historian or scholar would notice and chuckle or grumble over them.
SHAOLIN TEMPLE starts off during its opening credit sequence with a big chorus chanting the praise of the temple with the same corny over-flowering and fervour found in the songs once praising Chairman Mao.
How many heroes adore you
How many wonderful stories mentioned you
Your martial art is the only one in the world.
The Shaolin Temple is famous every-where.
Its history will last forever.
Shaolin is splendid
With such a song Mainland China was truly making its claim on the Shaolin legend. It’s so pompous however that a viewer might expect and dread on viewing such an opening that the film would turn out to be one of those usually dogmatic pieces of film propaganda so typical of totalitarian states. Thankfully, after some plot exposition, an earthly humour appears which gives much welcome levity to both the characters and the narrative. SHAOLIN TEMPLE’s heroes might be nearly all monks but the film pokes fun at some Buddhist rules by having its monks drink wine as well as eat a bit of meat with a mischievous smile on their face or how they justify breaking the supreme Buddhist rule of not killing.
SHAOLIN TEMPLE became a tremendous success in the Mainland which is no wonder considering that’s it populace had never seen a martial art movie before and hundreds of Chinese youths even flocked to the Shaolin site itself in the hope to be taught Wu-shu as Li Lian-ji’s character in the film. In fact, it became such a flood of people that some state agencies were brought forward to reiterate that in the Peoples Republic of China no one needed to know self-defence. TEMPLE was also a huge hit in Hong-Kong whose audience while far more seasoned in martial art cinema than their Mainland cousins, were still nonetheless attracted by the novelty of a “made in China” k-f production. The film ended up fourth in the 1982 local box office chart and the second kung-fu film champion of the year (after Jackie Chan’s DRAGON LORD). 1982 was actually a huge year for martial art cinema since it also saw the release of two masterpieces of the genre, Lau Kar-leung’s LEGENDARY WEAPONS OF CHINA and Sammo Hung’s PRODIGAL SON. Both films were arguably far superior martial arts efforts than SHAOLIN TEMPLE, yet the latter still ended up earning nearly twice as much money in the colony’s theaters. DRAGON LORD, LEGENDARY, PRODIGAL SON and TEMPLE were all nominated at the H-K Oscar that year for action choreography and it was PRODIGAL SON that won.
Thanks to SHAOLIN TEMPLE’s success Li Lianji became the Mainland’s first martial art star, but the film also established an entire generation of Mainland martial art cinematic performers. People like Yu Hai, swordsman Yu Cheng-wai, Dim Laam, shaved villain Gai Chun Wa, 1981 Wu-shu champion Woo Gim-keung and drunken staff performer Sun Jian Kua. Jet Li and much of the same wu-shu company gathered again for two unrelated Shaolin based sequels; KIDS FROM SHAOLIN (84) once more directed by Cheung Yan- yin and MARTIAL ART OF SHAOLIN (86) directed and choreographed this time by none other than H-K master martial filmmaker Lau Kar Leung. Afterwards both Dim Laam and Yu Sheng-wai soon retired from the movies. Jet Li of course became a huge H-K superstar, while both Yu Hai and Gai Chun Wa had fruitful H-K movie careers in each of their respective stock roles; of the kindly master for Yu, and fiendish shaved henchmen for Gai. Woo Gim-keung did the action choreography for the Ann Hui Mainland/H-K Wuxia co-produced diptych ROMANCE OF THE BOOK AND SWORD/ PRINCESS FRAGRANCE (86). Since then he has moved to the US and opened a Wu-shu institute in New Jersey.
Sun Jian Kua became a wu-shu instructor of his own right and reappears as villainous albino eunuch in jet Li’s TAI CHI MASTER (93). The most unlikely movie-turn by a SHAOLIN player came from one of SHAOLIN Temple’s senior coaches, choreographer Master Pack Quing-fu who ended-up playing his own role to the benefit of his real life student American Wu-shu exponent Mark Salzman for the latter’s film-biography; IRON AND SILK (91).
In the end SHAOLIN TEMPLE is undeniably a historically relevant movie and in it’s own right a classic of sorts. But it’s no masterpiece either. As stated earlier it has the limitation of a mundane symphony however talented it’s orchestra actually is. Still it remains a polished, entertaining effort with its marvellous un-enhanced Wu-shu displays done in the magnificent scenery of China. TEMPLE is therefore mostly recommended to martial art newbies, Jet Li fans or those who are getting a bit tired of Wire-fu or cramped studio bound epics such as done by Shaw.
Rating for the film: 7.5