Tuesday, July 5, 2011

SHAOLIN (2011- China/Hong Kong)
D: Benny Chan.  SHAOLIN is a massive widescreen epic set in 1920’s China.  Pop icon Andy Lau plays a powerful and paranoid warlord general who knocks off his key rival in a teahouse and ignites a massive bloodbath resulting in the death of his young daughter and the disintegration of his marriage.  To repent, Lau (really) crops his hair and joins the local Shaolin temple to journey the convoluted road to personal redemption.  While Lau immerses himself into the transcendental temple lifestyle, his former right hand thug (Nicholas Tse of Jackie Chan’s NEW POLICE STORY and ROBIN-B-HOOD) has usurped power and proves to be an even more ruthless dictator!  Ultimately, the two must face off with Lau committed to destroying (and then saving!) the monster he created even at the cost of his own life.

Visually impressive and packed with large scale battles and explosions (hopefully with CG enhanced horse stunts? Ouch!), the numerous kung fu fights are swift and brutal courtesy of veteran action director Cory Yuen (THE TRANSPORTER series among others!).  Of course, as requisite for any Shaolin tale, there are some cool training and philosophical bits to satisfy the old school fans.

Jackie Chan pops up in the film’s second act and injects comic relief as the kung fu ignorant temple chef.  He has a brief but fun fight scene where he is goaded on by some juvenile monks to apply his supreme cooking skills and techniques to combat multiple opponents- and it works!  Bingbing Fan (Andy Lau’s BATTLE OF THE WARRIORS) has the thankless role as the general’s wife who gets to cry a lot, is repeatedly beaten and nearly drowned.  As usual, the few Caucasian actors roped into portraying some British soldiers come off amateurish and ill costumed.  For a production of this size, they surely could have brought in some name western thespians?

SHAOLIN is overwhelming and impressive on the big screen with a suitably lush music score.  However, it will be interesting to see how it fares on the small monitor.  The over the top moralizing and melodramatic, tear-jerking moments start to wear thin as the film pushes the audiences’ capacity for compassion and tragedy to the brink and well over the cliff!   Although Lau gives an emotionally powerful performance, the film seems to take the position that even the most evil, heinous, mass murdering despot can repent and transform into a peace-loving, innocent soul with the eternal guilt of their past deeds as punishment enough.  Needless to say, the two-hour-plus film doesn’t convincingly exhaust the debate on that touchy issue.  Benny Chan’s previous credits include numerous Jackie Chan films such as NEW POLICE STORY (2004).  Screened in 35mm at the 2011 New York Asian Film Festival, Lincoln Center, NYC (7/2/11)

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