There was a particular type of kung fu film I was expecting to watch when I undertook this marathon and while most of the films I have seen thus far have been considerably enjoyable, they were not within this frame of reference I had inexplicably created. For example, I expected there to by a heavy degree of acrobatics and gravity defiance in the films, only to be offered something like The Man From Nowhere that is very much attached to the reality of physical violence. Similarly, I expected highly idealistic and lofty narratives about justice and understanding what is right, yet Riki-Oh completely rejected all notions of the place violence plays in martial arts. Indeed, had I not finally got a chance to see Shaolin Temple, I would have completely rejected the possibility of any such type of martial arts film existing, anywhere but in my mind. Being Jet Li's first film, Shaolin Temple has managed to attain a cult status to varying degrees, which is understandable because on a surface level it is not quite the pure adrenaline pounding experience one expects from a martial arts induced film and occasionally suffers from some serious continuity errors. Needless to say, it is still a rather audacious work, particularly in terms of some of the choreography, with battles and feats of athleticism stretching over rivers and waterfalls and across the walls of town fortresses. No amount of time was spared in making these scenes look believable, despite their rejection of physics and it is really in this element that the movie shines, taking the notion of the transcendence the monks possess and giving it a visual element with which the viewers might draw metaphorical inspiration. Indeed, I found myself learning a whole new set of teachings about the ways and world of Buddhism from this fight heavy movie and while to say one learned from a movie about fighting Buddhist monks might seem a bit oxymoronic, it really captures and considers some of the tougher issues in the philosophical framework. Furthermore, when in the late 90's and early 2000's the wave of neo-martial arts films were released featured entire fights that occurred off of the ground, I assumed that they were entirely of their own creation, but it is clear that a work like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon pays its respects to Shaolin Temple, knowing that its ethereal quality is only a result of another directors daring choices decades earlier.
Set up as a historical docudrama, Shaolin Temple focuses on a transitional period in Chinese government, when the dueling Sui and Tang dynasties uses the spaces of China to advance their forces and ideologies, often not sparing the persons who occupied these spaces in the process. One such person being a young man named Jue Yuan (Jet Li) who after the death of his father attempts to fight off the military forces ends up being wounded a fleeing to a town with a Shaolin monastery. Wounded a group of the Buddhist monks agree to take him in and heal him, while trading this service for his devotion as a worker in the temple, all of this of much concern to the Abbot who finds Jue to be a person of potential evil and unfit to be present in the temple. Nonetheless, Jue stays and becomes a part of the temples family, engaging in their chores, while also longing to learn the skills of Shaolin kung fu which he sees while walking the grounds one day. Despite continually begging to be part of the training, he is denied, being told that it is a practice that takes a lifetime of training and a sense of unbridled discipline. During his time in the temple, Jue also begins a pseudo-romantic relationship with a young woman named Bai Wu Xia (Ding Lan) who happens to be the daughter of another prominent martial artist. It is indeed Bai's father Shi Fu (Hai Yu) who agrees to train Jue, although it is in a variant of Shaoln kung-fu, because as a non-monk he is not trained and indeed forbidden to teach the particular style of the monastery. Nonetheless, Jue takes to his training with much zeal, always having his revenge lingering in the back of his mind, one that has now expanded to a hope of killing the emperor with his own hands. It is this revenge that result in his inability to restrain himself even during simple sparring matches and Jue comes close to killing one of his fellow monks, resulting in his being banned from practicing kung fu. In fact, it is not until the arrival of yet another kung fu master whose own relationship with the emperor is quite negative that Jue is able to find a compatriot in a quest for revenge. The two take to traveling incognito in a quest to kill the emperor, one that is eventually completed, bringing peace back to China. These acts afford Jue a chance to be a monk finally, although the lifestyle does not come without considerable sacrifices.
The description I just gave is rather all over the place and loaded with a ton of seemingly non-linear events. I tried my best to grab the highlights, but for a movie that is only about an hour and a half long there is a lot going on, if you do not believe me I suggest looking at the Wikipedia plot description for this film, it could foreseeably take as long to read as it would to watch the film. Nonetheless, I think this narratively intense film speaks to the nature of a historical epic as it relates to a place like China whose vast lands and diverse populations mean that identity and singular stories are not only frowned upon but almost entirely negated. Sure the film focuses primarily on Jue's own quest for revenge, but director Chang Hsin Yen makes it rather clear that his choices as a character, effect the larger narrative, even the historical outcome of events. This is seen perhaps most clearly in his relationship with Bai, which begins as innocent, but takes a decidedly dark turn, when in an unfortunate accident, Jue kills Bai's dog. Enraged Bai refuses to talk to Jue, but this refusal leads to the two being present when Bai is attacked, wherein Jue saves her and affords her life, a trade for the death of her dog Bai gladly makes. Problematic without a doubt, this nonetheless speaks to a notion that singular events to not affect a person in any degree of singularity, in fact, each choice Jue makes pushes him away or towards the possibility of a life with Bai, one that is ultimately denied, because when he decides to pursue the life of a monk, he must dismiss all earthly pleasures, including the possibility of taking a wife. Of course, sacrifice is reconsidered in the film, as due to a decree by the new emperor, Jue is still allowed to enjoy wine for some inexplicable reason. This is only a minor example for the larger narrative, because one could certainly argue that were it not for Jue's initial arrival at the monastery that none of the Buddhist monks of the Shaolin temple would ever have been faced with the emperor's wrath, nor would they have been given the task of caring for a large amount of refugees from war torn spaces. Much like the Buddhist notion that all is interconnected, this film moves in and out of story lines with such a pace and precision that it would be impossible to extract any singular identity, because at all times everything is of one.
Key Scene: Jue's first encounter with the Shaolin monks training is a spectacle of kung fu and clearly iconic in regards to what would define the look of a martial arts film.
This is a rather easy film to come across considering that it is essentially in the public domain as it relates to Chinese cinema. However, renting it might be a safe bet, before purchase.