Shaolin Temple: Random Thoughts

I have 2 DVD versions of this movie and one of them is on a compilation disc of 10 Jet Li movies. It cost me $20. That’s $2 a movie, which may explain why the subtitles for Shaolin Temple belong to a completely different film – apparently a schmaltzy melodrama about a young American couple called Tony and Joan. The subtitles are of the “But gosh, Joanie, what’s your father gonna say. He was dead set on you marryin’ a lawyer” type of bilge. The accompaniment of 1950s middle American declamation to a martial arts epic set in Tang dynasty China is actually quite hilarious. For example, when a bunch of villainous soldiers are about to search for Jet Li in the Shaolin temple graveyard, according to the subtitles the instruction their commander furnishes them with is “Make him marry you”, which is almost certainly not what is being said in the actual soundtrack. I wonder if Tony and Joan’s movie is mystifying some DVD watcher somewhere with subtitles that say things like “What a wild girl – kill her sheep!” or an allusion to martial arts technique or someone drinking ram’s penis soup as an aphrodisiac. This would cast quite a different pall over the doings of the psychologically stodgy Tony and Joan and no doubt disrupt the viewing pleasure of a fan of drawing room dramas. I have no pity for them. I think they deserve it.

Given the choice of watching either a movie about the dreary Joan and Tony or Shaolin Temple and I know which one I would rather pick. When I come trudging home from another grey day in my little grey life the last thing I want to do is to subject myself to 2 hours of turgid, middle class soap opera. The colour and dynamism of movies like Shaolin Temple are a shot in the arm for me.

 And there is colour and dynamism aplenty in Shaolin Temple. To this old cougar’s delight, the temple seems to be populated by exquisitely toned, shiny young men. And the most exquisite and shiny of them all is, of course, a young and pretty Jet Li making his screen debut. Critic Elvis Mitchell has this to say about him:

In his debut film, Shaolin Temple, you know that you’re watching something new and very different. Usually when you see somebody that young bursting onto the scene there’s almost a sense of them jumping up and down with excitement; and that self-contained quality that you see in Jet Li to this very day begins in Shaolin Temple.[1]

 I don’t completely agree with this statement – I get the feeling that little Jet is about to burst out of his skin with excitement in this film. But I do agree that that air of self-containment is also very much present. What is interesting for me is to compare his performance in this film with those in more recent films like The Warlords, Fearless or Danny the Dog; and to track his progress towards being a mature performer whose interpretations are marked by nuance, authority and sensitivity in the films in between. But Mitchell is right to comment on the sense of self-containment in the adolescent Jet in Shaolin Temple. It is palpably there, and was to be the bedrock he could build his actor’s skills on[2].

 Don’t get me wrong – Jet acquits himself well in his first film. Naturally, his displays of wushu are superb and in terms of his acting his performance is good – it is earnest and expressive. What his acting lacks in subtlety at this stage of his career (and, in my opinion, he would develop into a very subtle actor very quickly) he more than makes up for in high animal spirits and, of course, physical ability. And subtlety perhaps isn’t required here as this film, like so many chop sockies, has a melodramatic script and over the top physical antics that call for a big, demonstrative acting style.

 Kudos to the supporting cast: those beautiful, shiny boys contribute really amazing displays of martial arts virtuosity. There are some fantastic performers among the older cast as well. Yue Hoi is endearing as the doughty Sifu[3], and his stocky body conveys a sense of refined power during his performances of martial arts. And Yue Sing Wai is wonderful to watch as the villain of the piece.

 The physical virtuosity of the performers and the sense of energy that they invest in their performances (physical and dramatic) are important in this film as they compensate for a lack of choreographic cohesiveness that can be seen in other, more sophisticated martial arts films.[4]  

 Displays of physical mastery are what drive this film along and, for me, give it its main appeal. Early in the film we see the monks training with various weapons. This adds little to plot or character explication and is really just an excuse to show us a lot of super fit lads doing loads of tricks. It’s still bloody amazing to watch, though, and, as such, is highly entertaining.[5]

 Shaolin Temple vibrates with an almost manic energy from beginning to end, as its characters bounce from one potboiling situation to another. It is packed with displays of physical prowess that couch potatoes like me can only marvel at. It is the perfect tonic for any grey day.


[1] Taken from the Special Features of the Dragon Dynasty release of Tai Chi Master.

 [2] I actually have a theory that this quality was refined through the type of focus that training in and performing a physical discipline calls for. 

 [3] I find myself wondering what Buddhists would make of this film. Even though many of the characters are Buddhist monks they seem to play fast and loose with Buddhist precepts. Sifu smilingly rationalizes the killing of animals and soldiers but hey! anything for a good movie.

 [4] Jet Li had this to say about the choreographic process for this film in the essay ‘We didn’t know how movies were made’ on :

We didn’t know how movies were made. And there were no action choreographers. Instead, the director told us the basic story, and we took what we had learned in class to design our own fight scenes. …We didn’t know any better and we had no experience, so we made up most of it ourselves. It was a good learning experience.

 [5] Hot fighting tip: next time I am trying to defend myself remind me to do a series of backward somersaults with each one landing on the crown of my head. Without using my hands. This is apparently a marvellous defence strategy.

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2 Responses to Shaolin Temple: Random Thoughts

  1. craigtaylor says:

    Awesome post and very good read. Shaolin Temple is a classic and showed just an inkling of what Jet would bring to the table in his career. Now you got me in the mood to watch it 🙂


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