Fighting for Redemption, by David Bax
Shaolin, Benny Chan’s new film, is definitely a martial arts movie but really only secondarily. Chiefly, it’s a semi-epic historical drama and, as with most other epic films, it encompasses a lot of subjects. It takes place mostly in and around the famed Shaolin monastery and in the city of Dengfeng on whose outskirts the monastery sits. In a broad but significant way, the movie is about that historic building and its place in China’s national consciousness. It’s also about the sad dangers of a divided China, which is generally what a lot of Chinese historical dramas are about. Still, an epic picture can’t just be about big ideas and themes. It has to have a story to hang all that on. Ultimately, Shaolin is the story of a man’s search for redemption.
The tale begins with a military force, led by General Hou Jie (Andy Lau), storming into the monastery. Hou cold-bloodedly kills the commander currently in charge of the region and with that becomes the leader of Dengfeng and its environs, monastery included. Once Hou realizes he’ll have to share control with his superior officer, he plans a coup, which goes violently wrong. In the ensuing battle, Hou’s young daughter is killed. Afterward, Hou’s wife, blaming him for the death of their child, leaves him. Exiled from the city, Hou finds refuge in the very monastery he mocked and defiled days earlier. This is all in the first act and the rest of the film deals with Hou’s recovery, the reclamation of his soul and the repercussions of the sadist who has taken over Dengfeng in the power vacuum.
All this is punctuated with a number of very good martial arts sequences, many of which carry heavy consequences. However, even the more light-hearted and superfluous-seeming fight scenes are remarkable for rarely losing sight of the characters that are their participants. These people don’t just fight, they fight for something and they fight in a way that exemplifies their individuality. Even when superhuman stunts are included, Shaolin is fairly consistently a deeply felt and realistic-seeming story. This is in spite of the fact that, after that twisty first section, it’s also a largely predictable story.
Though the main narrative is that of Hou, there is a sprawling nature to the movie’s scope and Hou’s journey is echoed in a number of minor characters. While our protagonist is making fundamental changes to who he is as a person, smaller characters also change before our eyes. The monastery’s ambitionless but very skilled cook (played by Jackie Chan) stands up for himself and his cohorts when the time comes to do so. Meanwhile, the monk whose chief purpose in the film has been comic relief becomes a badass of the highest order.
These are, as mentioned, somewhat predictable story beats. The director doesn’t attempt to avoid that aspect but instead tells these beats as earnestly and with as must honesty as possible. Clichés become clichés for a reason and Benny Chan mostly uses them without becoming indulgent. There are times when things spill over into being far too movie-ish, as with the endless and gratuitous explosions in the film’s climax but mostly, Shaolin is a sturdy and enjoyable (if middlebrow and unchallenging) example of old school silver screen storytelling, with a transcendent lead performance by Lau at its center.