The Shaolin Temple is everything you could possible want in a kung-fu movie. It harks back to the days when action directors actually showed you the action. Modern day flicks rely on quick cutting to either trick you into thinking some awesome moves are going on in there somewhere, hide bad CGI, or heighten the suspense. No such artifice exists here; director Chang Hsin Yen beautifully, and clearly, displays the masterful martial arts talent of his cast, made up of real martial artists. The stuntmen are the actors, and it makes a big difference in how the fight scenes play out.
Let’s be real, the plot is secondary to the action in these types of films. No one is watching to get an education in Chinese history. However, the movie is very loosely based on the defeat of Wang Shi-chung’s army (who overthrew the Emperor) by a small group of Shaolin monks in 621. It follows Chueh Yuan (Jet Li) as he seeks shelter in the temple after his father has been killed by one of Shi-chung’s evil generals. After witnessing the monks’ fighting abilities, he begs to be admitted into the order even though all he wants is revenge. The fatherly master advocates on Yuan’s behalf, and after a few bumps in the road he becomes a skillful (yet still bloodthirsty) monk. Yuan bonds with the others because they have also sought refuge from Shi-chung, and there is even a love interest thrown in for good measure. It’s a pretty standard coming-of-age/kung-fu plot.
This is no Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, much of the core cast is made up of wushu champions who collaborated on the film’s fight choreography, bringing an air of authenticity. There are a couple of camera tricks and sequences with sped up moves, but for the most part the fighting is straight technique. In addition to the action, shots of the monks training are other impressive displays of skill. Each has their own style and weapon, making for a nice variety in the fighting sequences; their timing is impeccable and each choreographed scene is graceful.
One of the other interesting aspects of this film (and many other martial arts movies) is that while women are still relegated to secondary characters, their deft fighting skills are displayed as common place. No one makes a big deal about the fact that the romantic interest, Bai Wu Xia (Ding Lan), whips the hero into submission (then adorably giggles about it). Of course she would, he ate her dog! When the monks go charging into battle, Bai is leading the pack on horseback and delivers a few good kicks in the final showdown.
The Shaolin Temple was such a huge success in Asia that it spawned hundreds of “Shaolin” martial arts schools, and caused the Chinese government to reopen the real temple and appoint the first Abbot since 1664. Beyond its cultural importance, the film is great fun and worth watching for a young Jet Li (in his first movie) and some amazing kung-fu skills. See it before Justin Lin (the director responsible for four out of seven Fast and Furious movies) films his blockbuster remake.