Kids from Shaolin is, first and foremost, a rambunctious martial arts adventure that is suitable for the whole chopsockie viewing family. Its wholesomeness is genuine and its intention to entertain appears to be paramount and I don’t think the filmmakers intended to give the audience any deep and meaningful subtexts to winkle out. This film wears its heart on its sleeve and what you see is what you get. But, apart from virtuoso displays of wushu, cute kids and a heartwarming story, what I think you see and get in the movie is lots to do with sex. Being a film intended for a general audience Kids from Shaolin never gets near to explicitly showing us the sexual act – the characters never even attempt to kiss each other or allude to intimate relations in any way. But the sexuality of the characters is a constant theme in this film, and is depicted in a way that is appropriate to the level of maturation in those characters.
In relation to the prepubescent child characters perhaps ‘sexuality’ is not a word some readers of this blog (if there are any) will feel comfortable with. What I am actually talking about here in regards to these young characters is the un-self-conscious curiosity in bodies that sometimes informs children’s play and which will, given a decade and the right mix of hormones and healthy psychological development, form part of the basis of an emerging adolescent sexuality. An example of this is the scene where the kids, in the rough and tumble of their everyday play (and as fledgling martial artists the tumbling gets mighty elaborate), sometimes, in all innocence, cop a feel of each other. There is a scene where the Shaolin boys and Wudang girls are playing a game where a blindfolded child has to grab, feel and guess the identity of another child. The scandalized Wudang father interrupts this game just as a Shaolin boy, sitting astride one of his Wudang daughters, is groping his way down her face and chest and is about to accidentally grab her tiny boobs. In other scenes, in the spirit of unembarrassed enquiry with which kids have been disconcerting adults for eons, the children in this movie also spy on each other taking a pee, and shout questions about a baby’s genitals across a river.
On his website, Jet Li has this to say about the inspiration for Kids from Shaolin:
The genesis of the storyline for Shaolin Kids was our own youthful mischief. The writers asked us actors about our experiences and we told them about what it was like to grow up in a wushu school. They took these anecdotes of playfulness and friendship, of teasing and tricks, and fashioned them into a narrative… the stories themselves are timeless: about girls and boys training together and growing up together. I like to think that the film conveys that feeling of camaraderie and joviality. (http://jetli.com/jet/index.php?l=en&s=work&ss=essays&p=2)
There is nothing in the above quote to suggest that Jet Li was thinking about sexual development when he said this. I think that this quote reflects the atmosphere of innocence in the film, which does indeed convey “that feeling of camaraderie and joviality.” For me, alongside the “teasing and tricks” that are shown, there is, for the film’s younger characters, that beginning of an awareness of bodies, and gender differences and the part these will play in human relationships.
As the characters get older, the depictions of sexuality become flavoured by a more adolescent or adult sense of knowing and self-awareness. The film handles the gradation of this depiction well. In between the innocent child and more knowing adult characters are the adolescent Lung San (played by Jet Li) and his eventual love interest, the tomboy Phoenix (played by Wong Chau Yin). The ages of these characters are never stated outright but their behaviour indicates that they seem to be in their late teens. Their sexuality is nascent – something that is just delicately coming into play in their consciousness. At the beginning of the film they are shown as not being able to figure out what to do with this, and by the end of the film, while they have not exactly gotten to the acknowledged holding hands stage, you get the sense that there has been a progression and that they are more comfortable with their emerging feelings for each other. This progression is shown in many instances throughout the film. In an early scene, Lung San sits musingly on a river bank and, upon being asked by his chirpy little brothers what is wrong, says wistfully that he wants a phoenix, but the look of puzzlement on his face as he says this gives you the sense that he hasn’t quite worked out why. A nice device that is used a couple of times in the script is having Lung San come close to an admission of partiality for Phoenix but then converting it into a professed interest in something else. In this instance, when he says that he wants a Phoenix he then follows this up with a statement that what he wants is a wife for his father. We are left in teasing doubt as to whether he was actually thinking all along of the individual named Phoenix, or whether he was using phoenix as a euphemism for any woman for his Dad (or maybe also for himself). Later in the film he shoots a longing look at the tomboy Phoenix but then announces that what he actually wants is to learn her family’s Wudang style of swordplay. You are given the distinct impression that he is definitely interested in Phoenix but is too shy and perhaps too unaware of the nature of his interest to be able to articulate it yet.
A dramatic scene in the film is where Lung San demands to be thrown into the river along side Phoenix in order to share a punishment. His espoused reason for doing this indicates that it is a gesture of fellowship and camaraderie that she has earnt for selflessly backing up his course of action in an earlier scene. However, it also comes across as a rashly and extravagantly emotional gesture, symptomatic of a hotheaded up-and-coming hero in the grip of his first serious crush. Fortunately for Phoenix, it turns out to be a cover for a rescue plan and she is smuggled to a safe hiding place in a cave. When her father storms in to drag her back home (and perhaps to face further severe punishment) Lung San desperately protests and tries to prevent him. The viewer gets the sense that he is genuinely altruistically concerned about her welfare, but you also feel that, deep down, he just doesn’t want her to go.
Before the Wudang father’s appearance, Lung San and Phoenix are shown sparring. The ostensible reason for this is that Phoenix wants to repay Lung San for rescuing her by teaching him Wudang swordsmanship. However, the soft and graceful choreography shows a harmonious exchange of energy between these 2 teenagers rather than a brutal exchange of blows between combatants, and this suggests an equivalent harmonious exchange of feeling between the 2. Up until this scene, fights between these 2 have been a series of instances of one up man ship. Alongside the melting quality of movement of the fight in the cave, you get a sense of a melting of antagonism between these characters, and a new keenness for and enjoyment of their opportunity to physically engage with one another in some way.
Phoenix is shown in a feminine light in this cave scene – she wears a pretty frock and her mannerisms are gentle and softened. In the best patriarchal traditions it is implied that her rescue by Lung San has made it possible for her to abandon her tomboy ways and to capitulate to her feminine side. When we first see her in the film she is aggressive and controlling, and eager to enter into combat with Lung San in order to humiliate him. In an emasculating gesture she cuts the crotch of his pants so that we can see his undies during one such fight. However, her affected machismo is shown to be brittle. When she is dunked into the river by the boys she can’t cope. When a reluctant and embarrassed Lung San is nearly tricked into giving her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation by his little brothers, she cries and runs away. Her progression towards being more ‘womanly’ (as depicted within the cultural confines of this film) is obviously being shown by the filmmakers as favourable and necessary.
Some action in between the scenes mentioned in the paragraph above and the cave scene shows a Lion Dance sequence, and indicates this progression of Phoneix’s feelings towards Lung San, and an acceptance of his (old fashioned Chinese) masculine prerogative to come to her rescue. In this scene, Lung San and a brother are performing in a Lion Dance alongside Phoenix and her sister. When it becomes apparent that the girls can’t match the physical robustness of the boys, Phoenix regretfully accepts Lung San’s proposal to improvise some Lion type business to cover up the female lion’s collapse in front of the audience. Instead of competing in acrobatics, therefore, Lung San’s lion is shown snuffling and licking the stricken female Lion while it lies on the ground. In order to keep up the act, the girls’ cause their lion to wriggle and vibrate, supposedly with pleasure. These actions between the 2 Lions are every bit as playfully innocent as an act between 2 large (for want of a better word) muppets can be. But the canoodling between the 2 lions is also just the teensiest bit sexy in its sensual and animal way, and reminds us that during the course of a human life simple acts of play can become something more loaded as we grow from children to teenagers to adults.
The next age group up from these teenagers consists of Phoenix’s 2 older sisters, Lung San’s adoptive uncle and (slightly older) adoptive father. These characters are shown to be focused on one of the most pressing and absorbing happenings in a young adult’s life within the cultural setting of the film – namely that of getting married. Lung San’s uncle and father are (reciprocally) in love with and want to marry Phoenix’s older sisters. These 2 young women have evidently decided that they are ready for the Most Important Adventure of a Young Woman’s Life as they are constantly on the lookout for opportunities to steal away to bat their eyelashes at their suitors and to help their mother persuade their father to their marriage with the Shaolin men. The Shaolin men go about their shy courting in an honourable and traditional manner but leave us with no doubt that they have strong feelings for their intended wives. In fact, you get the impression that after 10 chaste years of hard work on the farm and raising 10 foundlings they are, in the nicest possible way, gagging for it. One couple even elopes; such is their desire for their marriage. Fortunately for these couples, the final scene of the movie depicts their wedding.
Finally, there are the Wudang parents who have been grimly procreating away and churning out baby after baby in their quest to GET A SON GODDAMMIT! The Wudang mother is an engaging character who is something of a gynecological miracle. She gives birth to a daughter and then, when this baby is only a few months old, falls pregnant again. Even though this foetus is only 3 months old the mother is already showing. As this marvel of fertility, she is an embodiment of an important aspect of sexuality within the culture in which this film is set. She and her husband’s sexuality are all about producing children.
In Kids from Shaolin the characters flirt, tease, propose marriage, elope, wed and give birth. The dialogue contains earnest discussions of childbearing, tonics for women’s gynecological health, dowries, and the feng shui significance of the phallic shaped mountains. Even the villains of the film, a group of bandits who attempt a raid, are motivated, in part, by wanting to carry off the Wudang daughters. Actually, I find the bandits’ slathering references to the Wudang daughters’ little waists and big bottoms and their attempts to carry these same girls off in the final fight as a bit creepy in this day and age – a lot of those girls are underage!
Sex is never graphically depicted in this film and, in fact, many kung fu movies I have seen have been very coy about dealing with intimate relations between adults. But I think that, as wholesome and family orientated as this film is, it is very much about sex. Sex gently pervades this film and quietly bubbles along under the surface of the narrative, providing one powerful motivation for its characters. I think it’s sweet. So many western movies depict sex as a dramatic and possibly dangerous force – a thing responsible for divorce, violence, despair and Fatal Attraction type creepiness. It is nice to watch a film where sex is seen as important – as a force for romantic bonding and the means to have a family – but is also seen as something that just happens alongside the other normal human activities of play, training and work.