World, you spoil us. No matter how much we’ve seen — and we have seen a lot — you always have something else waiting in the wings to delight and make jaws hang slack. Martial arts films are especially fecund soil for stories that operate in the far margins of loony concepts, made all the stranger by the fact that the most surreal and outrageous scenarios are usually handled with the utmost banality of attitude, as if Chinese skinheads kidnapping Abraham Lincoln during World War II is the sort of mundane shit that happens every day. What’s more, there’s something so astoundingly crackpot in the sorts of weirdness with which these films confront the viewer that it’s difficult to fully grasp the sort of thinking that led to such ideas in the first place. This is an honest, sincere wierdness, not the same as, say, the sort of predictable, labored, and juvenile weirdness of a Troma film or one of the endless stream of Japanese splatter-comedies that plague the exploitation film market of that once proud industry. The sort of mind that dreams up, “how about she’s a naked schoolgirl, and then a chainsaw shoots out her butt?” I know people rank that high on the “what the hell?” meter, but to me it’s a very rote sort of goofiness, the kind of thing that any decently perverse or stoned teenager would dream up.
Silver Hawk (originally titled Masked Crusader) is loosely based on a series of popular pulp tales by Xiao Ping, published in Shanghai during the 40s and 50s. These told of the adventures of a masked heroine, Wong Ngang, sort of a female Chinese Robin Hood in superhero garb. The stories were previously adapted into Hong Kong movies and TV shows in the 60s and 70s, with the heroine portrayed by big stars of the time including Connie Chan, Angie Chiu and Petrina Fung Bo Bo. This movie’s genesis was rather more down to Earth: producer Thomas Chung was in China doing promotion on The Touch and noticed that Spider-Man was doing bravura business, and decided a superhero movie could make some serious money.
I have nobody to blame but myself. I mean, by now I should know that Hong Kong movies are not what they once were (i.e. good). And I should certainly know not to expect anything much from pop duo The Twins, a.k.a. Charlene Choi and Gillian Chung – I did, after all, suffer through their crummy vampire action mess The Twins Effect. So why in the Gay Blue Hell would I be interested in Protégé De La Rose Noire, their latest box office smash? Well, because one of my Hong Kong heroes, Donnie Yen, was the man behind the camera, and Donnie kicks ass. He was the action choreographer on The Twins Effect, and deserves the credit for making the mostly non-fighter cast look halfway competent. So maybe, just maybe, he could pull something out of the fire. Also of interest is that the movie features Donnie’s little sister Chris Yen, returning to the big screen for the first time since her debut in the little-known 1986 Yuen Woo-ping film Close Encounter With A Vampire. Still, I didn’t dare get my hopes too high, which is just as well because the movie still couldn’t live up to them.
Well I just… I mean… you know. Huh. How about that? I guess to have any hope of communicating effectively about a movie like Hero Dream we have to first summarize the concept of the Hong Kong Cat III film and, more importantly, the batshit insane, anything-goes attitude that drove Hong Kong cinema off the cliff and into pure pandemonium. I’m pretty sure this has come up before, so I’ll keep it brief. Or as brief as I ever keep anything. And after that, we can talk about how I racistly can’t tell the difference between Chin Siu-Ho and Chin Kar-Lok unless they are standing right next to each other, and even then I have problems unless one of them happens to have a bowl cut and a salmon colored blazer.
You are probably like me, at least in some ways. Many of you were Jackie Chan fans. You came in during the wild, wild days of Police Story, Project A, and Dragons Forever, or maybe a couple years later it was Drunken Master II that turned you on to Jackie. Or hell, maybe you’re even older than me, and you were around for Young Master and Dragon Lord. Whatever the case, you knew the first time you saw one of those movies that it was something special. You became obsessed, started haunting the local VHS-stocking Chinese supermarkets in search of Jackie Chan movies you’d never heard of. You began scouring other video stores for the rare dubbed domestic releases. Or you decided that it was time to enter the seedy shadow world of tape trading. Anything to get your hands on another movie, or hell, even a scrap of information. At the time, there was no world wide web. There was no Netflix. If you wanted info on Jackie Chan, or any other Hong Kong movie makers, your only sources were Rick Meyers’ column in Inside Kung Fu magazine, and word of mouth.
I’ve been a fan of Hong Kong cinema since about 1989. Pretty much all of us who got into the films around that time did so by seeing either The Killer or Police Story, released in the United States as Jackie Chan’s Police Force. For me, it was Police Story. I was over at my friend Dave’s house. He was the one who was responsible for really sending me off the deep end of obscure film collecting. Usually, we convened in his basement to watch whatever ridiculous splatter film had been released that week, but on that night, he decided to trot out a sampling of stuff that had recently been sent to him. And that’s how I first saw Police Force.
Oh, I’d seen Jackie Chan movies before; I just didn’t know it. We had the old “Kung Fu Theater” broadcast on the weekends, so I’d caught Half a Loaf of Kung Fu, Spiritual Kung Fu, and a few others. But I didn’t know Jackie Chan from Hwang Jang-li at the time. It wasn’t until I was watching that ridiculously insane opening action sequence in Police Story, with Jackie dangling off a speeding bus and driving through — literally through — a shanty town, that I learned his name and knew there was something about him that… well, to be honest, something about him that wasn’t quite right, but in the most glorious way.
For years, being a Jackie Chan fan was challenging but rewarding. If you lived somewhere other than a major urban area, you really had to work to find any of his movies. I used to drive upwards of an hour to a Vietnamese grocery store on Preston Highway in Louisville. They stocked a modest but well-chosen selection of Hong Kong films there, most dubbed into Vietnamese. And if you think English language dubbing is bad, well let me tell you: nothing can prepare you for the horrors of a bad Vietnamese dub. I remember sitting down to watch A Chinese Ghost Story II off a tape that had been dubbed into Vietnamese. There were like four people doing the dubbing for all the characters, not bothering to try and do different voices. Whoever wasn’t working at the moment was sitting in the background having a conversation of their own, unrelated to the movie, and at some point, everyone started eating lunch. If one of them had to do a line while their mouth was full, well, no worries. Just mumble it out as best you can.
When I moved to Florida, things were better and worse. There was only one store in Gainesville that stocked any movies at all — an extremely meager selection of bootlegs, though that didn’t matter to me since the cranky middle aged guy behind the counter refused to rent his crummy bootleg videotapes to non-Chinese people. Luckily, Orlando has a pretty huge (for Florida) Asian population, and there was a grocery store there called Trung My that stocked hundreds and hundreds of tapes – originals, at that. It was a glorious wonderland with absolutely no organization whatsoever. Tapes were piled three rows deeps on the shelves. If you had a particular movie in mind, you better have worn your expedition gear and brought a sleeping bag, because you were probably going to be there for a while. But if you simply wanted to stumble across something amazing, then you didn’t have much work to do.
The drawback, though, was that Orlando was about a two hour drive from Gainesville. For a college kid with no money for food, let alone gas, it was a substantial investment of time and money just to rent a movie. It was good fortune, then, that Trung My’s tapes cost a buck to rent for a whole week. So we could assemble a team of hungry Hong Kong movie fans, split the cost of the trip, and rent four or five movies at once, also picking up some tasty treats from the local bun shop. Oh yeah — we’d also stop in at Fairvilla Video, but umm, well… I guess if you’re from the Orlando area, you know what that means.
During our whole era of discovering something a billion other people already took to be common knowledge, a couple things were occurring that would begin to alter the landscape for Jackie Chan fans. First, Jackie was getting older. And second, the end of British stewardship of the island nation was fast approaching. Staring down the gun of a return to being governed by the Chinese mainland — the last time Hong Kong had been subject to Chinese rule, there were still emperors in the Forbidden City — a lot of the big names in the Hong Kong film industry started looking toward England, Canada, and the United States as a new base of operation. The US, in particular, meant having a stab at Hollywood, and even for a film industry as huge and accomplished as Hong Kong’s, making it in Hollywood still held an undeniable seduction — like how even the most accomplished online writer still dreams of getting a book deal, even though a book would probably be read by fewer people than a successful website.
So in the middle of the 1990s, a lot of the people who built the Hong Kong film industry into the global juggernaut it became in the 1980s jumped ship. Some did so with no intention of returning to Hong Kong and subjecting themselves to the uncertain tenderness of the Communist government in Beijing. Many others decided to try a balancing act, working in Holly wood while also maintaining their career in Hong Kong. What we all should have foreseen, though, was that handover in 1997 was the least of Hong Kong cinema’s concerns. for years — decades, actually — the industry had been controlled by organized crime. For a while, this meant that there was enough money being pumped into the industry to finance any ridiculous piece of crap a film maker could crank out. But as uncertainty over the future began to grow, and as actors and directors began to organize opposition to triad control, the gangsters who controlled huge chunks of the film industry began to gut it.
At the same time, piracy reached such rampant levels that even the most popular movies struggled at the box office. Dirt cheap VCDs of big movies were available weeks before the movie itself was released, resulting in no one bothering to go see a movie at the theater. It was all too much for the increasingly fragile shell to support. By the new millennium, the Hong Kong film industry came crashing down.
Jackie Chan’s career seemed to be on a similar trajectory. He tried his hand in Hollywood with varying degrees of success. Things started out promising. Rush Hour was watchable, and Shanghai Noon was, in my opinion, quite good. Each movie got a sequel (or two), and while I like Shanghai Knights pretty well, I can’t remember a thing about Rush Hour 2, and I never even bothered to finish Rush Hour 3 — and that was on while I was on a plane, with nothing else to do. The need in Hollywood to stuff Jackie into increasingly dopey comedies resulted in him starring in all sorts of stuff that probably never should have been made, and his age coupled with the much heavier focus on insurance and avoiding broken necks that prevails in American film making meant that the Jackie we got in America was not the Jackie we’d grown to love in Hong Kong.
His Hong Kong films fared better for a while. the late 90s and early 2000’s saw the release of a lot of Jackie Chan films I liked: Who Am I, Accidental Spy, Mr. Nice Guy — no classics among them, but for me, plenty enjoyable. Jackie himself seemed to have entered a self-destructive phase, though. Drinking heavily, making a tabloid spectacle of himself multiple times, getting exposed as a rotten husband and father in a series of scandals — if it was a lukewarm time to be a Jackie Chan fan, it was a bad time to be Jackie Chan (and an even worse time to be his wife). His personal demons seemed to manifest themselves most famously in 2006, when a drunken Chan meandered out of the audience and stumbled onto the stage in the middle of a concert by Taiwanese pop idol Jonathan Lee. Chan capered about, demanded to sing a duet, tried to conduct the band, and then threw some slurred insults at the crowd. It didn’t do a lot to revive his waning popularity.
And then the movies really started to reflect the crumbling personal life. His Hong Kong films went from good to bad, and his American films went from middling to unwatchable, with pretty much everyone pegging The Tuxedo as the worst Jackie Chan movie ever made. Through it all, a core group of people stuck with him, hoping against hope that we would once again see the light of day, that Jackie would pull himself together, make amends with his estranged family and fans, and remind us all of why we came to love him so much. Things were grim through these years, filled as they were with Robin B. Hood, The Medallion, The Myth, and The Spy Next Door. One by one, those who had done their best to stick by Jackie — not excuse him, mind you — fell away, until eventually, even the most die hard of his fans had no reason at all to do anything other than give up on him.
And then something happened. In 2009, Chan made Shinjuku Incident. It was not the Jackie Chan movie people expected. Even his best films have been filled with dippy comedy and ham-fisted mugging for the camera, but this movie saw a much grimmer Chan, something more along the lines of the glimpse we got in Ringo Lam’s Crime Story. Here was a Jackie Chan who was no longer trying to deny his age. Here was a Jackie Can who was trying to make a good movie, with a good script and good acting. After years of poopy diaper jokes and Jennifer Love Hewitt striking Karate Kid poses, Shinjuku Incident seemed to be saying that it was time to start paying attention to Jackie Chan again.
And then, in 2010, came Little Big Soldier, and Jackie Chan fans, covered in cobwebs and the dust of the wasteland, knew that our time in the wilderness was finally at an end.
Little Big Soldier returns Jackie to the period setting of his older movies, something he hasn’t done often since the late 1970s. The Myth saw Chan trying his hand at the sort of sweeping period epics that became all the rage in the wake of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero, and just not getting it right. For this second attempt at a period setting, Jackie eschews trying to mimic the wire-fu antics of recent epics and just makes an old fashioned kungfu film. He plays the old soldier, a happy-go-lucky farmer who has spent the last several decades of his life serving against his will in the army. He has lasted that long because of his unique approach to warfare, which is to shout, trigger a spring-loaded arrow mounted to his breastplate, then fall down and play dead until the fighting is over.
When the film opens, the nameless old soldier is the only apparent survivor of a bloody battle that saw both sides annihilated. As he roams the corpse-strewn battlefield, he soon discovers that he’s not as alone as he thought. The two opposing generals are beat up and near death, but not so near death that they can’t try to kill one another. The younger general (New York-born Wang Lee-Hom, recently of Lust, Caution and previously appearing in the execrable China Strike Force) best the older, but then collapses from his wounds. Realizing the opportunity suddenly in front of him, Old Soldier binds up the fallen enemy general and sets off to turn him in for the reward about which the farmer has dreamed: a modest parcel of land and lifetime exemption from military service.
Making his way across the war-ravaged countryside, however, is not as easy as Chan’s frequently-singing farmer hoped, especially once the general wakes up and slowly begins to recover from his wounds. The duo soon realize they are being pursued by a force commanded by the general’s younger brother (the seemingly fey but freakishly buff Yoo Cheng-jun). It’s the old chestnut about the younger brother, jealous of the older. So begins a game of cat and mouse that gets even more complicated with the arrival of a band of volatile brigands and occasional warring armies.
If Little Big Soldier‘s backdrop is epic in scope, the central story is intensely intimate. Jackie Chan wrote the script, and it’s a very personal, introspective meditation on a variety of subjects, not the least of which would be getting older, but the most obvious of which is the nature of warfare and loyalty. Chan’s farmer is torn between several different forces. His loyalty to his country means that he must answer the call when he is conscripted. But his father’s dying wish was that, since Chan’s two other brothers had already been killed in the war, Chan somehow survive to carry on the family name. Thus he comes up with the playing dead ploy. He sees no honor in battle and shakes his head wearily as the captive general gives him speeches about patriotism and warfare and the glory of dying on the battlefield. All Jackie can see are the shattered lives, sad people, and ravaged farmlands.
Jackie’s movies have been called many things; “deep” has never been among them, but Little Big Soldier has a world-weary yet somehow optimistic philosophical edge to it that immediately lets you know Chan is putting his heart and soul into this one. The result is equal parts charming, quaint, refreshing, and poignant. As he nears sixty, and with enough injuries to kill a normal man, Jackie can’t pull off the stunt work he used to do. Anyone who expects that of him at this point in the game is, frankly, kind of an asshole. Not that Little Big Soldier is bereft of action — there’s plenty, some of it involving Jackie, much of it being shouldered by the younger members of the cast. In place of Jackie Chan the stuntman, we’re getting Jackie Chan the actor and Jackie Chan the writer. I don’t know what sort of shape his personal life is in, but Little Big Soldier feels like a lot of personal demons being looked square in the eye. The movie hits the perfect notes — balancing the action and comedy (which is generally pretty funny, for a change) with hint of melancholy and an ending that is truly heart-wrenching. This might be the first Jackie Chan movie that makes people cry (no, Heart of the Dragon didn’t make me cry, no matter how many times Jackie and Sammo cried at each other). And unlike many times before, the shifts in tone feel completely organic.
There are some familiar faces sprinkled throughout the cast, but for the most part, they were actors with whom I was unfamiliar. Great performances all the way around. Jackie tones down his mugging, when mugging is called for, to a more believable level, and the rest of the cast are giving it their all as well. Yoo Sung-jun seemed like he might be a weak link at first — the feminine acting pampered guy being a stock character in kung fu films, usually handled with as much over-the-top-hamminess as possible — but he really pulls a great performance out of the character. He’s aided by the script, which doesn’t allow the character to become a cartoon. By the time we’re nearing the end, he’s not even really the bad guy anymore. Although the story of Jackie’s old soldier is the center of the plot, the relationship between the two estranged brothers is no less powerfully realized.
If any portion of the story gets short shrift, it’s that of actress Lin Peng, playing a woman who has escaped a life of being forced to entertain troops. Where Jackie’s farmer is eternally optimistic despite the carnage through which he must maneuver, the singing woman is much more bitter. Unfortunately, while we understand Jackie’s quest, both physically and spiritually, hers seems just as interesting but largely undeveloped. She simply drifts in and out of the movie in a couple spots. I suppose, though, that’s the point. As Old Soldier and the general travel across the countryside, their journey intersects with multiple people whose lives have been wrecked by the war: farmers turned to brigandry, scholars turned to slaves, soldiers turned to deserters. It lends a creeping sense of sadness to the atmosphere of the film, a particularly effective way to write a movie about war without ever showing the war.
The other aspects of the film achieve the same high quality. The cinematography is gorgeous. One of the benefits of Chinese governance of Hong Kong is that filmmakers can now take full advantage of the mainlands uncountable sweeping vistas and dramatic scenery. The sort of half-assed setting, uneven pacing, and other rough around the edges elements of some of Jackie’s recent films are not present here. This is a near perfect, well-polished piece of film making. Director Sheng Ding is no one I’d ever heard of, and it turns out that’s because he’s never done anything else. The hand behind the direction is remarkably deft and able, so much so that I think Jackie must have had more than a passing involvement in what went on behind the camera.
To be blunt, I was stunned. I’d heard good things about the movie going into it, but I wasn’t prepared for just how good it was. It might not be Jackie’s best action film — that honor probably still belongs to Project A or Drunken Master II — but it’s Jackie’s best film. It balances the action and comedy we hope for and expect with a truly moving story. Even if I hadn’t spent the last decade being increasingly disillusioned with his work, even if my exuberance over his films had never faltered I don’t think I would have been prepared for just how good Little Big Soldier is. Seriously — you will ever be able to hear the phrase “A big road passes through my house…” without tearing up.
Release Year: 2010 | Country: Hong Kong | Starring: Jackie Chan, Yu Rong-guang, Wang Lee-Hom, Ken Lo, Yoo Sung-jun, Wang Bao-qiang, Lin Peng, Mei Xiao-dong, Wu Yue, Jin Song, Du Yu-ming | Writer: Jackie Chan | Director: Sheng Ding | Cinematographer: Zhao Xiao-ding, Ding Yu | Music: Xiao Ke | Producer: Jackie Chan | Original Title: Da bing xiao jiang
Me and Benny Chan go back a ways, and our relationship has been stormy. Some of his directorial efforts, like Who Am I and Big Bullet, I really like. Others, like New Police Story and Gen Y Cops, I really dislike. So I guess I come out even enough that when Chan makes a new movie, I figure I might as well see it. Shaolin, Chan’s first stab at a big budget period epic, is in a way the ultimate Benny Chan film for me in that I really liked about half of it and really didn’t like about half of it. It’s a movie that seems specifically designed to highlight both his strengths and weaknesses as a director.
Most of Shaolin comes straight out of the generic kungfu film screenplay generator, so much so that I felt like anyone who ever wrote a kungfu film should have gotten credit for the script. As it is, three screenwriters get credit for Shaolin — one of whom (Chi Kwong Cheung) hasn’t done much of note, one of whom (Cheung Tan) wrote a bunch of stuff in the 1990s that was really good, and one of whom (Alan Yuen) wrote a bunch of other Benny Chan films I didn’t like. But it hardly matters who was responsible for what, since so much of the movie is a repeat of things we’ve seen before, only delivered with a lack of subtlety that is nigh staggering. When a film is unsubtle even by the generally subtlety-free standards of the kung film — well, I guess that’s some sort of an accomplishment.
Case in point: we open with the familiar scene of monks cleaning up a corpse-strewn battlefield. Within a minute of the film starting, we get a shot of a lone yellow flower (I think it’s yellow — Benny Chan has opted to go with the artificially washed out, colorless look — like pretty much every other director in the last decade) blooming amidst the grime and death. As if that wasn’t groan-inducing enough, the point is further sledgehammered home by having the flower cupped in the hand of a dead child. Seriously, Chan? You’re going with the single flower on the battlefield? In the hand of a slain child? That’s your opening shot? Amazingly, the film actually managed to get even more ham-handed than that as it progresses through its story of warlord Hou Jie (Andy Lau, who apparently devoured, Highlander style, the power of all other superstars from the 1980s and 1990s to turn himself into the most powerful elder statesman ever), a basically evil guy waging war with his neighbors during the lawless period after the Chinese Revolution. This might be one of the first times one of these warlords hasn’t been portrayed by a bald guy with a handlebar mustache (even though Warlords proved Andy Lau can wear fake facial hair with pride). Hou Jie is the merciless sort, even willing to gun down an already dying man — in the back, no less — on the steps of Shaolin Temple, much to the consternation of Shaolin’s abbot (a welcome Yue Hoi, who starred in the much better Shaolin trilogy alongside Jet Li in the early 1980s) and prize pupils (Jacky Wu, Yu Shaoqun, and Xing Yu).
Tagging along with the dastardly general is pouty young upstart Cao Man (Nicholas Tse), who despite being a warlord’s second in command during the early 1900s, still sports anachronistic 1990s moody anime guy hair, proving that no matter what Nick Tse does in his career, his hair is still most important. While Hou Jie schools Cao Man on the finer points of being a ruthless dictator, the Shaolin monks start careers as noble bandits, stealing stockpiled rice and flour and delivering it to the city of refugees that has sprouted up outside the temple. The monks and the soldiers don’t have much interaction with one another after the film’s initial conflict, until the night Hou Jie and Cao Man conspire to murder an ally warlord. It turns out, however, that the ambitious Cao Man has really been paying attention to Hou Jie’s evil lessons, and the young soldier stages a coup of his own, with the assistance of a band of brigands (which includes Xiong Xin-xin, as is required by Chinese law I assume).
In the ensuing fight, Hou Jie’s wife is gravely wounded and his little daughter, after being tossed around like a rag doll for a spell then hit by a galloping horse then tossed off a cliff) is killed. At this point, the movie kicks off what is basically an endless parade of people weeping, though to be fair to Benny Chan, at least he mixes it up with a blend of weeping hysterically and weeping solemnly or simply letting a solitary tear roll down an actor’s cheek. Andy Lau and his wounded wife (Fan Bing-Bing, from Shinjuku Incident and Bodyguards and Assassins) turn in a ten minute freak-out during their daughter’s death that looks like they were both trying to outdo Jacky Cheung’s famous scenery chewing freak-outs from Bullet in the Head.
Hou Jie, wracked with grief and rage, wanders out into the countryside and promptly falls in a pit owned by Shaolin’s eccentric cook (Jackie Chan), who of course is going to be the one to dole out in whimsical fashion a series of philosophical platitudes and questions that will cause Hou Jie to realize the errors of his greedy and evil ways, renounce violence, and become a monk. The other monks are suspicious of the one-time warlord at first, but he soon proves himself a dedicated and benevolent changed man. Not so for his underling, though. Cao Man, freed from the shadow of his mentor, embarks on a reign of terror that includes flopping his bangs into his face, slouching, and growing a goatee. He also teams up with a nasty, conniving British general who eventually gives the movie its single greatest, most stilted line reading, and the best example of hilariously terrible acting by a white guy in a Chinese film since the evil Dutch East India guy in Once Upon a Time in China barked, “Who is this Wong Fei-hong? THE DEVIL???” Needless to say, Cao Man will eventually learn that Hou Jie is still alive and thus will declare war on Shaolin Temple. A truly monumental amount of people crying and being murdered in slow motion will result.
To say that Shaolin‘s many stabs at symbolism are sledgehammer subtle would be to underestimate the precision work one can do with a sledgehammer. This movie is an endless barrage of symbolic cliches, from the aforementioned solitary flower on a battlefield to the scene where Andy Lau’s repentant monk slides, in slow motion, down the front of a giant buddha to land resting in its hands. But even that isn’t enough, so Benny Chan then has it rain, so that we can get scenes of rain washing away blood while — I kid you not — a solitary tear streaks down the Buddha’s face. I was shocked that Chan didn’t follow this up with a shot of the entire nation of China crying dramatically in slow motion. As with the lame attempts at emotion and pathos in New Police Story, Benny Chan overplays everything to the point where attempts at tragedy simply become comical, and the ham-fisted delivery of his film’s symbols and messages would seem clumsy in a first year screenwriting student’s first assignment of the year. There is no feeling of sincerity or earnestness. The stabs at emotion and symbolism are so generic and overdone that they feel little more than crass, cheap melodrama. Benny Chan doesn’t try to jerk tears from the audience; he tries to rip them from you using a giant dump truck and a drag car.
Attempting to match the screenplay’s goofily overblown melodrama is the acting. Andy Lau turns in a credible performance for most of the film, but he has a few scenes that push into the realm of ridiculousness. His character’s journey from ruthless overlord to modest monk happens without any sort of journey. He’s a bad guy; his daughter gets killed; he sits in a pit for a day while Jackie Chan talks to him, and then he emerges as the single most pious and devoted monk ever. There’s no sense of development, no hint at internal conflict the way we got in movies like Eight-Diagram Pole Fighter or 36th Chamber of Shaolin, where a similarly violent character seeks refuge as a monk but must constantly struggle to defeat their inner demons. Although those films have less of the air of “prestige picture” about them, they are much better at exploring the struggle in the central character. In contrast, Andy Lau’s character seems to obtain benevolent enlightenment almost instantly.
Luckily, anything Lau does, no matter how overcooked, seems reigned in when compared to the embarrassing performance by Nicholas Tse. In the late 1990s, when the boy band idols were given the reigns of the Hong Kong film leading man status, I thought that maybe Nicholas Tse would emerge from beneath the hair salon addiction and make something of himself. And while he has flirted with doing that from time to time, for the most part he remains still a pretty boy pop idol who plays every role like a pretty boy pop idol. His attempts here to act or laugh menacingly made me cringe and chuckle. He’s just terrible, often humorously so, which makes it even harder to buy into Benny Chan’s desperate and over-ripe attempts to infuse this movie with tragedy and meaning.
The monks fare better, with most of them turning in decent if forgettable performances. Jackie Chan’s turn as the quirky cook is basically him doing Jackie Chan, only a little less so. There is something novel about seeing him play the character his character from older movies so often trained with, but the joke about how Chan is the one monk who doesn’t know any kungfu is as predictable as everything else in this movie. Jackie Chan cameos can often stop a movie dead in its track (see Project S), as it often feels like he wandered in from an entirely different movie, but I think he clicks pretty well in Shaolin. It’s a strange day indeed when Jackie Chan is the actor giving the most restrained performance.
Action direction is handled by the team of Yuen Kwai and Yuen Tak, and it’s the usual modern mix of real stuntwork with tons of wirework. Some of the wirework is well done, some of it not so much, but for the most part, I enjoyed the action scenes. As is par for the course these days, Benny Chan’s camera spends too much time on fast edits and gets too close to the action, but I think maybe my brain is getting to the point where it can decipher this style of filmmaking. Andy Lau is a believable fighter, and Xiong Xin-xin does what he usually does, which is show up and kick the shit out of people. Nicholas Tse has about as much presence as a fighter as he does as an actor, but the rest of the cast is able enough to carry him. The final assault on Shaolin Temple is pretty spectacular, full of all the noble slow motion death you expect from such a film but with the added bonus of a well-executed artillery siege courtesy of that fantastic British general. The action scenes are not great, but they’re good enough to save the movie from the hollow, overwrought melodrama in which it wallows.
All in all, Shaolin isn’t a very good movie, and Benny Chan’s weakness as a director and the screenplay’s endless procession of cliche and hokum can’t be disguised by the big budget epic sheen — which is dulled considerably by the seemingly unquenchable desire of every modern filmmaker to make every film looked dull, washed out, and blue tinted. Seriously, the color palette in this film is so over-processed and dim that I thought the projector was messed up when I saw it. However, Shaolin is bad in a way that still allows it to be entertaining, and entertained I was. There is some good action, and the destruction of Shaolin Temple achieves the epic scope for which the film strives. It’s a shame that Chan didn’t recognize the event itself was powerful enough, and thus he feels the need to undermine it with lots of shots of people crying in slow motion or falling into the hands of a giant Buddha with rain-tears rolling down its face. I wouldn’t really give it much a recommendation, but if you happen across it, it’s dumb but harmless enough. Once people get past the big budget glaze, I think they’ll see Shaolin for what it really is: a hokey, badly acted, poorly written, astoundingly hammy, generally entertaining modern day equivalent to cheap, generic, moderately enjoyable old kungfu films.
At the same time, suffering through Shaolin‘s overplayed attempts at tragedy might make you wonder why you aren’t just watching Eight Diagram Pole Fighter or Shaolin Temple instead, and to that question, my only answer is, “Yeah, why aren’t you?”
Release Year: 2011 | Country: Hong Kong | Starring: Andy Lau, Fan Bing-Bing, Nicholas Tse, Jackie Chan, Jacky Wu, Yu Shaoqun, Xing Yu, Yue Hoi, Xiong Xin-Xin, Bai Bing, Sang Wei-Lin, Chen Zhi-Hui, Liang Jing-Ke, Shi Xiao-Hong | Screenplay: Chi Kwong Cheung, Cheung Tan, Alan Yuen | Director: Benny Chan | Cinematography: Anthony Pun | Music: Nicolas Errera | Producer: Benny Chan
There was nothing about the old VHS box for Shaolin Invincibles that made us think we were renting anything other than a standard “kungfu orphans get revenge on villains who murdered their parents” story. We plucked it from the shelves because, well, why not? We were up for renting anything that wasn’t Unique Lama. By the time Ocean Shores video splashed that bright red “The End” graphic onto the television screen, we’d seen tongue-waggling ghosts, bug-eyed zombies, and that most treasured of kungfu film appearances — the kungfu gorilla. I won’t say that the impact of Shaolin Invincibles on our mental faculties was as pronounced as it was after watching Young Taoism Fighter for the first time, but that’s a pretty high bar to set.
During the first half of the 1990s, Hong Kong was wire-fu crazy. It seems like all you had to do to get your movie made was show up at a studio waving around a napkin with “guys in robes fly around, then there’s a fart joke” scrawled on it. Even if the studio already had ten movies exactly like yours in production, producers saw no reason they couldn’t add one more to the pile. New Legend of Shaolin, starring Jet Li when he was the undisputed king of being hoisted around on wires, is the epitome of mediocre 1990s wuxia. It’s bad but not enragingly bad. It’s fight scenes are terrible but not “really terrible.” And as was almost always par for the course, the tone jumps wildly and without any transition from slapstick fart comedy to atrociously overwrought melodrama. It’s a textbook case of by-the-numbers, don’t-give-a-shit Hong Kong film making from Wong Jing, the master of by-the-numbers, don’t-give-a-shit Hong Kong film making.
To the martial arts cinema purist, the phrase “made in Taiwan” doesn’t exactly stand as a guaranty of quality. It was Hong Kong, after all, that played home to the Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest brands, as well as the galaxy of first rate talent that they attracted. Taiwan, on the other hand, appeared to have a lot of anonymous fields and quarries in which fights could be staged without any risk of expensive props or set elements being damaged. But what Taiwan’s martial arts cinema lacked in terms of budgets and top notch performers, it made up for in crazy. In other words, while the fighters in an old school Taiwanese kung fu movie were less likely to be as skillful as those in, say, a Liu Chia-Lang film, they were also much more likely to be wearing mangy gorilla suits.
It’s time to start paying attention to martial arts movies again. We’re not quite out of the desert through which we’ve been wandering, but there’s definitely an oasis on the horizon. Long years of Hong Kong turning its back on the genre, or making movies so bad that you wish it’d turned its back, might finally be over. The new school that Hong Kong forgot to train to take over when guys like Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung got too old seems to finally be graduating, thanks largely to the potentially vast pool of talent in mainland China being opened to fim makers who want a little more authenticity in their action stars. It was slow going. For years after the handover of Hong Kong by the Brits back to China, the behemoth and the city-state were like two people on an awkward first date, trying to figure one another out, making stuttering attempts at small talk. Then came Zhang Yimou’s Hero, which mixed up Chinese and Hong Kong casts and crews and took over the world. Slowly, the two partners got more and more comfortable with each other. And by 2008 or so, they were ready to consummate the union, so to speak.