Martial Arts of Shaolin
Why did I use kung fu to make movies – to display the art and aestheticize fist fighting. Lau Kar Leung. (Hong Kong Film Archive 1999:89).
As Trapata’s comments suggest, the celebration of male heroism was inextricable from the commodification of male beauty”. Leon Hunt, Kung Fu Cult Masters, p. 55
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. http://www.yesasia.com/global/martial-arts-of-shaolin/1003909792-0-0-0-en/info.html
This film is certainly an eye popping spectacle. I have read stories of tension between Jet Li and Lau Kar Leung and the producers of this film. (see http://jetli.com/jet/index.php?l=en&s=work&ss=essays&p=3 ). In light of this, Jet and the rest of the cast deserve kudos. Even if behind the scenes working life was filled with tension, they still turn in energised and exuberant performances and give you the impression that they are having fun. Indeed, the Shaolin Temple in this film comes across more as a holiday camp for beautiful young boys than the torturous training establishment that poor old Gordon Liu had to endure in The 36 Chambers of Shaolin.
Among the “kung fu cast of hundreds” are some of the actors from Jet Li’s earlier Shaolin Temple films. Pretty Wong Chau Yin elegantly kicks butt and stars once again as the love interest. Dishy Hu Jiang Qiang plays the part of Jet Li’s rival in love (what ever happened to this handsome and athletically talented performer – I have only ever seen him in these Shaolin Temple films). Hai Yu reprises his role as sifu / surrogate father, and it is gratifying to see that Lau Kar Leung has allowed this dynamic physical performer some terrific choroegraphy to show off his martial arts skills. Yu Cheng Hui, another favourite of mine from these films, gets a chance to show off his sinister manic laughing skills in his role as the main baddie. Where is Bey Logan when you need him? The final fight scene, picturesquely set under a trellis of vines, features some fascinating choreography and I would really love to hear some commentary on the styles they are using.
I find the ending of this final fight scene to be something of an enjoyable shock. As the yesasia review quoted above states, this film has rollled along giving us martial arts spectacle after spectacle. The film has an enormous sense of momentum and energy, and the plot, actors’ business and choreography have driven everything to this one last lavish and elaborately staged showdown between Hai Yu, Jet Li and Yu Cheng Hui. Suddenly up pops dainty Wong Chau Yin out of nowhere and, with an action suited to that of a baseball player, neatly and without fuss slices off the villain’s head with one smooth swing of her sword. The other combatants stop short, in evident shock. Hai Yu mutters a hasty “Amitabha” and an open mouthed Jet Li wipes some blood off his face(evidently spattered there by the villain’s sundered head as it whizzed past). After so much intricately detailed choreography this simple, abrupt and unequivocally brutal beheading is a surprise choreographic and dramatic resolution to the fight. If I could ask Lau Kar Leung just one thing it would be about his intentions with this ending. I like it, because while it fits in with the intentions of the characters (they have been trying to kill the villain for the whole film), it is also unpredictable and made me as a viewer sit up and really take notice.