The Shaolin Temple

Reviewed by Yves Gendron

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”.

It’s at this point that someone thought it would be a good idea for the Mainland to jump onto the highly successful martial art cinema bandwagon. It wanted to reclaim this part of the Chinese cultural heritage as its own as it had been monopolized by the British ruled colony of Hong Kong and the “rebellious” province of Taiwan – and at the same time to make a bundle of money. Mainland China actually lacked the cinematic expertise to carry out such an enterprise but it had some major assets of it’s own including China’s national Wu-Shu team, headed by their great champion the young Li Lian-ji, (the Jet English tag would come later) as well as a vast panorama of beautiful natural scenery and historical monuments in which to shoot action films. This included the famous Shaolin Temple, the legendary source of all Chinese martial art and of countless heroic myths - one of which set at the rise of the Tang dynasty would serve as the basis for this movie’s plot.

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.

Undeniably TEMPLE is a splendid Wu-Shu showcase, with Jet Li and his follow wu-shu mates displaying astonishing physical feats especially with weapons such as broad swords, spears and halberds where their speed and acrobatic gracefulness and precision is a wonder to see. The film of course has plenty of fights as well as a couple of training sessions - one with the young fighting monks, the other with Jet Li performing solo exercises with a multitude of weapons where we can admire him in all his youthful virtuoso prime. TEMPLE also boasts natural Chinese scenery or temples that are gorgeously shot giving the film a scope and breadth rarely found in the largely studio bound martial art movies. Chief among the sights are ones of the true Shaolin temple itself. It contains shots of its entrance gate, its abbot’s sacred resting ground made-up of towering pillars of stones and its grand training hall where fighting monks have practiced so hard and for so long over the ages that the floor contains numerous caved in holes. So do the brilliant wu-shu and the Chinese scenery make the film into a great martial art flick? Well not quite.
The film’s big problem is the screen fighting, for while the wu-shu performances in themselves are undeniably great, and while the film director does make use of many martial art cinema patented action techniques such as fast zoom-in, travelling shots, fast editing and dramatic slow-motion, it lacks the invigorating and precise stylish flair which makes H-K style martial art action such an ebullient and edgy spectacle. Further, the film has a pretty typical “vengeance is mine” plot. As a result SHAOLIN TEMPLE feels overall rather like a symphony being performed in a beautiful opera house and played by a top-notch orchestra but being lead by a competent but unimaginative conductor.

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.

SHAOLIN TEMPLE’s exact pedigree is a bit clouded for while indeed the film was made inside Mainland China and showcased Mainland born Wu-shu performers, it was produced by a H-K based film company, Chung Yuen. But Chung Yuen was a leftist studio meaning that while it was located within the British colony it was aligned and largely sponsored by the Communist Mainland. In the end this reviewer does not know if it was someone at Chung Yuen that originated SHAOLIN TEMPLE or if the film was a commissioned Mainland planned project. The Shaw Brothers studio also got involved in the film’s making by graciously providing advice from some of its expert directors as well as lending some of its inside sets. Many of Shaw’s martial art movies were probably studied as well, most notably Lau Kar-leung’s great Shaolin k-f classic THE 36 CHAMBERS FROM SHAOLIN (78).

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.

The making of SHAOLIN TEMPLE was it would seem a complicated affair as it took three years to complete while a typical H-K production is done within months or even weeks. No doubt it took such a long time because of various complication between the Mainland and H-K parties as no such type of co-operation had been done before. There were also several location shoots across China. It has also been reported that at one point an original cast of actors/performers was sacked and replaced by another.  Indeed, while SHAOLIN TEMPLE is forever linked with Jet Li and the wu-shu oriented spectacle, it seems they were initially not a part of the movie project. Peking Opera originated performers were first selected, which makes sense considering that the martial art cinema stars of the day like Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung were originally Peking Opera graduates turned stuntmen. Whether TEMPLE’s initial cast was eventually dropped and replaced because they proved themselves inadequate or because of behind the scenes politics favouring a Mainland Wu-shu team is not known by this reviewer.  In the end though only one of the original Peking Opera cast remained, the shepherd girl Ding Laam.

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.

Thus martial arts was changed for all intents and purposes from a fighting method to a performing art and competitive sport. Many traditionalists have criticised wu-shu for neutering martial arts. They may have a point but there’s no argument over the spectacular spectacles it offers and the high level of skills and physical abilities required. It’s also good to note that Mainland wu-shu weapons were also redesigned from the traditionalist norm to be lighter and less cumbersome (with for example halberd blade and broadsword been made of folded metal). Small wonder then that those wu-shu weapon displays are such whirlwinds.

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.

The Shaolin Temple is of course the most legendary site of all Chinese martial art history and is often referred to as the source of all Chinese martial arts. This is something of an exaggeration of course but quite telling of its actual historical importance and of the inspiring myths surrounding the place. In Chinese “Shao lin” means Little Forest. The temple is located in the very center of China in the province of Henan at the foot of the Song San mount that had been sacred for the Chinese even before the establishment of the temple itself. Originally the site served as a refuge for hermits seeking solitude and it was in 495 that a Buddhist Monastery was established there under Imperial patronage. In 535 the Indian born holy man Boddhidharma came to Shaolin to meditate for nearly a decade and during that time became the temple patriarch (at least for a time) and introduced special physical exercises to keep the monks fit in body and sharp of mind. These were later altered to become effective fighting methods and it’s from there that the legends of Shaolin’s fighting monks grew.  In 630 a group of Shaolin monks had a hand in the establishment of the Tang dynasty’s first Emperor Taizong.

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.

Shaolin Shaolin
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.

As the first “victims” of this peculiar broken vow are a frog and a dog, animal lovers are forewarned that there are some unpleasant moments waiting for them in the film. Considering that Shaolin Temple was made in an officially atheist country which during the making of the film in the Cultural revolution was scorning its traditional ideology and religion as counter revolutionary rubbish, it would be easy then to see the irreverent streak toward Buddhism as a political statement. Let’s not forget though that the film was directed as well as produced by H-K people and thus this humorous aspect of the film is less a political statement than an attempt to make the characters into a jolly appealing bunch for the benefit of the viewing public.

 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.

TEMPLE’s success brought some restoration work to the original Shaolin site and its change, for better or worse, as both a Wu-shu learning center and a tourist attraction. In later years the Shaolin name and image was in fact so extensively used both in promotional Wu-Shu documentaries (such as DRAGONS OF THE ORIENT) and travelling Wu-Shu tours featuring shaved performers passing for Monks, that the line between wu-shu and real Shaolin monks became a blur. The irony of course is that contrary to widespread belief Shaolin Monks themselves were probably barely involved in the making of the film except for the use of the Temple site as a shooting location and also perhaps being used as extras.

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