A powerful man does horrible things, finds himself hoisted on his own petard, and must learn kung fu in order to atone for his ways and find peace. If the story sounds familiar, there’s a good reason — well, several good reasons, actually.
The 2011 Shaolin is a martial arts epic starring performer-of-all-trades Andy Lau as Hou Jie, a clever but hotheaded warlord whose ambitions get the better of him. After slaying a rival taking refuge at the Shaolin Monastery and mocking the monks before he leaves, he sets out to eliminate another enemy. But Cao Man, Hou’s second-in-command, double crosses him. And before long, Hou has nowhere to seek refuge but the very place he killed a man not long before.
Shaolin Monastery in Film
Shaolin is a big-budget re-imagining of a major film in the history of martial arts movies: 1982’s Shaolin Temple. Set in the 7th century, it starred Jet Li (in his debut role) as Jue Yuan — not a warlord, but the son of a deceased kung fu master. Like Hou, Jue has a bone to pick with the government; and like Hou, Jue goes to the Shaolin Monastery with other refugees. However, he wishes to train in order to kill their bloodthirsty Emperor, and must learn self-control and non-violence before the monastery’s Sifu will admit him as a monk.
Shaolin Temple was a huge hit, and fans all across China were hype for mainstream martial arts — both the flicks and the practice in general. Not only that, it created an interest in the Shaolin Monastery and its blend of Zen Buddhism and martial arts, leading to more Shaolin-centric films to be made in the following years.
A New Take
While it may not be a match in every way, Shaolin Temple and the 2011 Shaolin are based very much in similar philosophies: mainly, abandoning violence and vengeful aspirations and finding personal peace.
The modern re-imagining is set in China’s “warlord era,” which spanned from 1916-1928, and features B-story villains in the form of foreign soldiers looking to build a railway through refugee labor. The main conflict, though, is between Hou and Cao — or Hou and himself, in a way — as he comes to terms with the life he lived prior to the tragedy that kicks off the film. (Getting caught was not the only tragedy… parents of young ones, you may have a rough time with this one.)
While themes of self-awareness and inner peace are addressed in both, there are two major thematic differences between Shaolin Temple and Shaolin. The first is in the presentation of the martial arts. Both go back to the Shaolin Kung Fu style, but the modern film’s spectacle relies at least somewhat more on “wire-fu” than the original. The Jet Li starrer isn’t without it, but it does rely more on the innate talent of the wushu champions in the film (Li included) and their innate skills. The fighting in Shaolin is amazing to watch, but relies more on expert choreography and the occasional wire assist, making for more of a visual spectacle.
Secondly, Shaolin takes a far more consistent dramatic turn than Shaolin Temple did. Which isn’t to say there isn’t humor in the modern version. There definitely is. A subplot sees a group of monks deciding to Robin Hood some food to the nearby refugees. And then there’s the cook, whom most of you will recognize even if you’re not into kung fu flicks.
The Jackie Chan Effect
The minute Jackie Chan gets involved with a martial arts movie, you know things are going to go through the roof in the best of ways.
Chan’s role in the film is secondary: Wudao, the monastery cook who doesn’t know any kung fu and spends his evenings deciding whether or not to leave altogether. In the midst of all the stunning stunts, Wudao is mainly seen handing out food or advice. He’s Hou’s first friend at the monastery, but beyond that you’ll mainly see him making stir-fry and noodles. (Whether he ever goes beyond that… well, you’ll have to see for yourself!)
While the original Shaolin Temple was a history-making piece of film, Shaolin is a beautiful spectacle based on the same themes. It may have a little less by way of standard kung fu, but it’s stunning to watch and enthralling as a story. And if you’re not necessarily into action or martial arts, this might be what convinces you to dig deeper. Remember: if you like it, there’s always the Jet Li version to explore next!
Watch Shaolin on VRV Select.