Film Review: Shaolin

When a ruthless warlord turns to religion, he endangers the safety of the revered Shaolin Monastery. Large-scale melodrama is short on action and long on histrionics.

Set in 1920s China, Shaolin uses the famous martial-arts monastery as a backdrop to the drama about a warlord's personal redemption. Shot on an epic scale and featuring two of Asia's most popular stars, the film has moments of grandeur but many more stretches of tedium. Lack of action will limit its appeal even with kung-fu fans.

Opening scenes show the aftermath of a battle between competing warlords. A general seeks sanctuary in the Shaolin monastery, only to be pursued and killed by General Hou (Andy Lau). Determined to consolidate power, Hou tries to assassinate a former ally, but is betrayed by his underling Cao (Nicholas Tse). When his daughter is murdered, Hou leaves his army, deserts his wife Yan Xi (Fan Bingbing, also known as Li Bingbing), and enters the monastery.

Hou struggles to remain true to Buddhist beliefs, alternately aided and mocked by Wu Dao (Jackie Chan), a rough-hewn chef. It's while working among the poor that Hou begins to learn what's important in life.

Cao, meanwhile, makes a deal with foreigners represented by "Sir Peter" (Karl Robert Eislen) to build a railroad through the district. He enslaves local peasants, leading to a confrontation with Hou, with the imprisoned Yan Xi's life at stake. An all-out war on the monks ensues, with both Cao's soldiers and foreigners seeking an end to the monastery.

Director Benny Chan (Who Am I?, New Police Story) has always aimed for the mainstream, but even by his standards Shaolin is anything but subtle. Death scenes drag on forever, monks deliver empty platitudes, foreigners snarl and hiss like white devils. Chan punctuates many scenes with laughable touches, like the flower plucked from a corpse's tiny hand. At the same time, he downplays what could have been interesting storylines. The monks' lives are largely ignored, and Jackie Chan is reduced to a couple of scenes.
It's a shame, because the action scenes are superbly staged by Cory Yuen, in particular a nighttime chariot chase that evokes Ben-Hur. Real-life monks participated in some of the martial-arts sequences, but even these feel unnecessarily truncated.

Shaolin is clearly targeted at Chinese audiences, not Western ones, and at times resembles unapologetic propaganda. Like many recent films from mainland China, its nationalism is too broad and overt to take seriously. If you like your sentiment thick and your narrative simple, Shaolin fits the bill. Just don't expect to find much entertainment.