Shaolin Review

Shaolin’s first third introduces us to a rather unpleasant character, Hou Chieh (Andy Lau), a warlord who is attempting to seize power through violent conquest. He’s pretty ruthless and is happy to sanction and participate in violent acts against even the peaceful monks who inhabit the Shaolin Temple that provides the film’s central location.

Following an unexpected turn of events though he is stripped of his power, his daughter dies, in a rather brutal but somewhat melodramatic scene, and his wife leaves him. Forced to question his life choices Hou Chieh spends the remainder of the film going through a ‘spiritual’ transformation, aided by his entry into the Shaolin Temple and his study of martial arts and Buddhism there.

With the endorsement of the actual Shaolin monastery, something that is now legally necessary in order to use the name, Shaolin is a film that certainly appears to be pushing a certain agenda but thankfully it is quite a positive one. The focus on the redemption of Hou Chieh is really at the heart of the film and the transformative power of the Shaolin Temple and its core beliefs are at the centre of his character’s journey.

The film never really comes across like flat propaganda though (there are the now very familiar hints at anti-British, pro-China sentiments though) and the redemption actually provides a satisfying dramatic backbone to what could have otherwise been another run-of-the-mill Chinese martial arts epic. The convincing performance by Lau really sells this difficult character arc too and his talents as an actor more than make up for his slight weaknesses in the area of martial arts.

The martial arts and general action sequences in Shaolin are mostly very enjoyable, well choreographed and reasonably well directed with action director Corey Yuen ensuring that the scenes are moderately inventive and satisfyingly executed. There is prominent use of wire work throughout but this is used to enhance some of the more impressive set pieces rather than as something that pulls the focus away from the action too much and looks glaringly out of place.

Although Lau is certainly an actor first and martial artist second, he is convincing in the more action heavy scenes and the supporting roles, including a small but significant turn from Jackie Chan, ensure that the film delivers to those hungry for impressive martial artistry. Perhaps the only issue with the action in Shaloin is its integration within the plot, leaving some of the action feeling separate from the rather touching drama that unfolds.

A slightly different version of this review was originally posted at HeyUGuys.