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Hard punches to kickstart wisdom

 | February 14, 2011

Meet Andy Lau who stars in a martial arts film, which is not exactly his cup of tea, but is still entertaining.


(Shaolin) Some diehard kung fu fans had an incredulous look on their faces when they found out that Andy Lau played the lead role in the latest Shaolin flick.

“You can’t be serious” was the usual reaction. Lau is an undeniably good actor and he has been around for decades but a martial arts film is not exactly up his street, let alone his back-alley.

But director Benny Chan obviously had more than one ace up his sleeves. Thus, Lau’s display of martial arts is confined to dazzling acrobatic moves engineered by some very thin, high tensile wires.

Seriously though, the story is above average. Once again, I am surprised by the quality of a Hong Kong movie. Hong Kong movie-makers have earned low marks from me for a long time.

Since those days when director Chang Cheh of Shaw Brothers Studios showed us all what he was capable of, kung fu movies from Hong Kong have fallen from its high pedestal to a deplorable and grimy bottom.

However in one word, Shaolin is entertaining. It is about an ambitious and suspicious warlord, general Hou Jie (Andy Lau) who is not content with eliminating other warlords but also sees compassion as a sign of weakness.

That is, until his right-hand man Cao Man (Nicholas Tse) decided to turn the tables on him and gave him a dose of his own medicine. In an ambush which was meant for Hou Jie’s “tai kor” (big brother in arms), Cao Man unleashed his band of assassins against both warlords and their families.

Despicable acts

Hou Jie barely escaped with his life but his young daughter is killed. Hou Jie’s wife is caught and imprisoned. The once all-powerful general Hou Jie is forced to take refuge at the Shaolin temple.

The chief abbot gave sanctuary to Hou Jie despite opposition from fellow monks because of the general’s past despicable acts of cruelty.

The message in Shaolin is clear. Mercy melts a cold heart faster than a thousand soothing words. Hou Jie began to realise his flawed past as Cao Man launched a manhunt for his former mentor.

The Shaolin plot is as transparent as the water from the temple well. It is simple and yet appealing. Somewhere in the labyrinth of walls comes the shaggy form of Jackie Chan who is the cook at the
Shaolin temple.

Lately, Chan has taken to playing vagabond or hobo roles. Perhaps it is the age factor, or maybe it’s just his propensity to humble himself before his legions of fans around the world but Chan seemed to wear the tattered robes of a simple peasant or a lowly kitchen cook rather well.

This is one of the few movies that Chan plays second fiddle to an actor whose reputation is not as noteworthy as his. But Chan does a proper job in fleshing out the whimsical character of a cook who lacks confidence in his own abilities.

The person who nearly stole the show from everyone else is Tse who came across as a convincing baddie whose blood-thirsty ways intensified as his power increased.

Tse won the Best Supporting Actor award last year for his role in Bodyguards and Assassins. He is proving to be a better actor than his dad, Patrick, who was the rage of the Cantonese film industry in
the 1950s and 1960s.

Scenic spots

Truth be told, the only character in Shaolin who is a true blue wushu exponent is Wu Jing (Jacky Wu) who plays a very competent monk called Jing Neng.

Wu Jing is an accomplished wushu exponent who has numerous national champion titles to his name. His martial arts forms in Shaolin reveal his fluidity and his indisputable prowess in the Chinese martial arts system.

The only pretty face in the crowded Shaolin hall of bland and tired-looking monks is Fan Bing Bing who plays Hou Jie’s wife. This talented actress from Qingdao, Shandong. has a long list of films in
her portfolio.

Her proficiency in a craft honed from an early age gives the movie the grit that it needed. Even though her role is minor, it is significant enough to add some weight to the story.

Some of the most memorable scenes in Shaolin are the breathtaking scenic spots in China. Director Chan has wisely added a number of lovely mountain scenes and courtyards of temples located in remote parts of China.

The Western faces were the “treacherous foreign devils” in this film are quite forgettable. In fact, it’s best we forget them. They not only looked wooden, they were downright awkward and oafish.
Still, the pyrotechnics gave Shaolin an explosive conclusion seldom seen in Hong Kong films.


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