The last Chinese empire has collapsed; warlords are dividing up the territory and its spoils for themselves. The strong grow rich while the weak starve. Hou Jie (Andy Lau) is one such brutal warlord. Having defeated a rival outside the Shaolin temple he mocks and humiliates the monks while his greed and arrogance increase. Growing tired of playing second fiddle he hatches a plan to take it all by betraying his sworn brother with the help of his trusty lieutenant Cao Man (Nicholas Tse). However, things do not go to plan and Hou Jie pays a terrible price for his ambition. Left for dead, he has nowhere to go but back to the very same monks he humiliated at the beginning. Whilst at the temple he must undergo a spiritual journey so that he might make amends for all the cruelty he dished out during his old life.
Shaolin is not a remake of the 1982 classic Shaolin Temple that introduced the world to Jet Li, but a retelling of a similar story with a new setting. You might be surprised that Andy Lau is playing a Jet Li type role; although he’s done fighting roles before he’s more dramatic actor than Kung Fu superstar. Don’t get me wrong he’s no slouch in the action department, but thankfully this is a Shaolin movie that gives equal weight to character development as well as martial arts ability. As such, having an actor of Lau’s caliber in the leading role is a real asset and it’s his fantastic performance that carries the film and lifts it above the normal standard.
Hou Jie’s brutality is evident right from the offset on account of his cruel and arrogant nature. However, meeting his wife and daughter we see a totally different side to him - the tyrant fades away and the family man shines through. His pretty little daughter has drawn a picture of him in uniform, with the caption ‘daddy loves to fight’, and she seems sad that her father spends all his time fighting and not enough with her. This is the only hint we get that Hou Jie might be capable of redemption.
His success has brought him a protégé by the name of Cao Man who, it seems, is about to surpass his master in terms of warlord vices. Hoping to get his hands on more modern weaponry like Gatling/machine guns and artillery, he is about to make a trade with foreigners (presumably British, but with American accents) when Hou Jie angrily cuts him down and councils him to have no truck with untrustworthy gweilos. Humiliated, Cao Man is not perhaps as enamored with Hou Jie as he once was.
This introduces two minor themes of the film: firstly and slightly worryingly, there’s always foreigner waiting to an opportunity to stick his nose in where it’s not wanted, offering false promises and trickery. Secondly, that this is a world in the middle of very many transitions. A slightly unsubtle demonstration of this comes when the temple sign that reads something like ‘birthplace of Kung Fu’ is shot down and broken from yards away. What use is Kung Fu when there’s a gun in your face and artillery exploding all around you? Fear not, the monks will set you straight on that one, quite frequently as it happens while they prove their worth over and over again.
As you might expect then, there a lot of action sequences with some really nice choreography (Corey Yuen), all of which is well executed and captured. Even Jackie Chan in his small role as the cook Wu Dao gets an opportunity to show off his skills, alongside some cute “mini-monks” who very nearly convince some grizzled soldiers to put down their arms and eat some buns.
The real heart of the film though lies in Buddhism. Unusually, we spend quite a lot of time exploring Hou Jie’s spiritual journey and his eventual transformation into a Shaolin monk complete with new Buddhist name. He redeems himself through suffering, sets about making right some of the pain he caused in his old life and eventually finds enlightenment.
Obviously, it’s not the most original of plots, but it’s very well done. The film’s lack of subtlety and occasional forays into melodrama and sentimentality bring it down slightly, and although some may complain about a non-martial artist like Lau taking such a prime role in a martial arts epic, it’s largely his skill that prevents this becoming more of a problem. Shaolin might not be faultless but it is one of the better big budget martial arts epics of recent years.
Mandarin 5.1 and English 5.1 language tracks with optional English subtitles, Extras include audio commentary with Bey Logan, a making of gallery (consisting of nine featurettes), trailer gallery, interview gallery (fifteen interviews, all in Mandarin or Cantonese with English subtitles) and behind the scenes gallery (with twenty featurettes).
Additional content on the Blu Ray edition consist of a DTS HD Master Audio Mandarin 5.1 audio track, Shaolin Wushu in action (a CineAsia exclusive extra) and deleted scenes.