Jet Li’s 2nd Shaolin Temple film is not exactly a sequel to the first but it brings us a similar brand of high kicking action in the same type of historical setting. Perhaps the words “high kicking” are quite apposite when describing the Shaolin Temple films as they not only refer to the wushu in these films but also a certain kinship they have with Hollywood musicals. In his book Kung Fu Cult Masters, Leon Hunt has this to say about Kids from Shaolin:
“In Kids from Shaolin / Shaolin Xia Zi (1984), the Shaolin and Wu Dang play out a bizarre kung fu version of 7 Brides for 7 Brothers, with… musical interludesi and scenery fetishism” p 74
While the 7 Brides for 7 Brothers comparison is apt I would also compare this film with The Sound of Music. A lot of the characters are little kids who show the same talent for wushu that the Von Trapp littlies show for singing. I could even draw a long bow and compare the effect the youngsters make sartorially – in The Sound of Music, Maria dresses her charges in clothes she makes out of floral curtains, in Kids From Shaolin the youngsters are distinguished by some of the most outlandish hair styles in the history of cinema. Both films feature lush and mountainous scenery, although the landscape in The Sound of Music does not have the same overt phallic significance as the peaks in Kids from Shaolin (hence Hunt’s reference to scenery fetishism).
The young performers in Kids from Shaolin do some pretty amazing martial arts (as do the adult members of the cast). A lot of the business in this film is devoted to showing the kids involved in lots of wushu style jolly japes and high jinks. Jet Li’s character is older brother to about 9 boys and he has a nice rapport with the lads. But be warned – with Jet’s boys plus a further 5 young, female children (plus 2 babies) in the cast there is a lot of kiddie energy in this film and the cuteness quotient is enormously high. I suggest repeat viewings of The Sound of Music, as well as McCauley Culkin, Shirley Temple and Margaret O’Brien films to deaden your nerves and acclimatize yourself to the heady heights of saccharine coyness that Kids from Shaolin climbs. Don’t worry – you WILL enjoy Kids from Shaolin more than those other films. Just when the wee tackers start to become a bit too shrill and cloying, a kick arse fight scene happens and the cuteness factor comes under control. I recently saw Meet Me in St Louis starring Judy Garland and Margaret O’Brien and I was rather bored by it. What it needed to give it some zip, in my opinion, was a few good kung fu fights.
I have always thought that Hollywood musicals and kung fu movies are quite similar beasts in a wayii. In a musical the cast break into a song and dance routine every 5 minutes and this is similar to the frequency with which fight scenes are found in martial arts movies. One of the many charms of Hollywood musicals is that they transport their audiences into a parallel universe. This universe is familiar to our own (in either a current or historical setting) but it is a world in which it is normal to break into an elaborately staged musical number at regular intervals, and where even passers by happen to have beautiful voices and stunning dance abilities. Kung fu movies also take place in a parallel universe where a certain amount of the population are martial arts masters, and it is to be expected to see people flying through the air, perching on the top of bamboo stalks or catching bullets in their hands. During my recent reading I was delighted to find out that this parallel universe was actually given a name in wuxia (or swordplay) novels and films – jianghu. Here is a definition of jianghu – I got it off Wikipedia so it must be true:
Jiānghú ( Cantonese: gòng wùh) is the milieu, environment, or sub-community, often fictional, in which many Chinese classical wuxia stories are set… Jianghu is an alternative universe coexisting with the actual historical one in which the context of the wuxia genre was set…Wulin is a term referring to the smaller microcosm within Jianghu. Inhabitants of wulin are clearly differentiated from those within Jianghu, in that they all know some form of wushu or martial arts. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jianghu)
When discussing these films with acquaintances (who all seem to think I am mad for liking them) one of the criticisms that are leveled at chopsockies is that the acting is dreadful. (I am always amazed and dismayed at how dismissive people are of kung fu movies. And quite often these same people, on careful questioning, reveal that they haven’t actually seen many kung fu movies. “Oh, I saw half an hour of some Bruce Lee movie once. Didn’t like it. And I’ve seen Rush Hour” they will say airily, before going on to condemn all kung fu movies in sweeping and damning terms.) I actually don’t think that it is reasonable to make this generalization about the acting being bad. Quite often what these acquaintances are criticizing is a style of acting that is more theatrical or mannered or exaggerated than they are used to. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that this makes the acting bad – it is just an acting style that sits in a different frame of cultural reference. I think that this might be where a lot of kung fu movie casts betray their Peking Opera influences and even training. I also think it’s helpful to compare the acting in Hollywood Musicals to that in kung fu movies. Picture, in your mind’s eye, Doris Day as Calamity Jane or Gene Kelly and Co in Singing in the Rain – their acting styles are pitched big and could not be called subtle or naturalistic but are, at the same time, absolutely appropriate to the art form in which they are performing. If you are performing material that is geared towards the elaborate and excessive, and if your performance technique has to incorporate not only the delivery of spoken text but also virtuoso physical performance then you need to pitch your acting style to a level where the transition from speaking a line of dialogue one moment to doing an extreme physical movement the next is seamless and appears to be organic. Or if you are interpreting a character who inhabits jianghu, then your performance technique has to sit comfortably with the fantastic actions that take place within this parallel universe. This applies equally to Operetta, Peking Opera, Hollywood Musicals or Kung Fu movies.
There is little naturalism or subtlety in the acting styles of the cast of Kids from Shaolin. But this simply doesn’t matter. This is a high-energy and dynamic film that needs a big and bouncy approach to performance from its cast in order to complement the displays of wushu, the film’s fantasy setting, exotic art direction, enjoyably silly plotline, and the abundantly youthful spirit of its cast.
i In terms of the “musical interludes” I find it a bit disconcerting how the characters break into song early in Kids from Shaolin – Jet Li, for example, mimes fruitily to a shrill and reedy tenor.
ii On the Yes Asia website I found this glorious quote about Martial Arts from Shaolin, which is the next installment in Jet Li’s Shaolin Temple films:
Internationally lauded as one of the greatest, this magnificent martial arts masterpiece marked the titanic, one-time only, teaming of renowned champion Jet Li (Romeo Must Die) with legendary director Lau Kar-Leung. The two mount unforgettable battles in the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, and even on the Yangtze River with a kung-fu cast of hundreds. If the brilliant American musical director Busby Berkeley knew kung fu, this spectacular, eye-filling epic might be the movie he would have made.
And I don’t think that I am the only one who is interested in the kinship between chopsockies and musicals. Leon Hunt in Kung Fu Cult Masters discusses this theme a few times (…there are points of convergence…) and refers to other critics who write about it.