A very un-Buddhist movie ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A very un-Buddhist movie

My rating:

Is it just me, or is this film being pretty damn ballsy calling itself Shaolin? As if it aims to be the definitive movie about Shaolin monks, their temple's storied history, their Buddhist philosophies as well as their martial arts. Which is a huge thing to tackle, more so than even, say, the definitive ninja movie. It's certainly got the budget and the prestige, being the biggest Hong Kong release this CNY (that isn't a star-studded comedy that I don't intend to watch because it'll have dozens of in-jokes about HK life and movies that I also didn't watch).

And yes, it's also got the ambition - but a very misguided one.

It is the Warlord era of pre-Republican China, when the common people suffered under the endless wars between the power-hungry, and only the compassionate Shaolin monks offered succour. One of these warlords is the arrogant Hou Jie (Andy Lau), who has conquered the city of Dengfeng and murdered its former commander at the very steps of the Shaolin temple. But the tables are turned when his own second-in-command Tsao Man (Nicolas Tse) betrays him and attempts to murder him and his family. They find themselves seeking refuge at the same Shaolin temple - but his daughter dies, and his wife (Fan Bingbing) abandons him. Now a broken and humbled man, Hou Jie stays at the temple and becomes an initiate, apprenticed to cook Wudao (Jackie Chan), studying Shaolin kungfu under its senior brother (Wu Jing) and Buddhist philosophy under its abbott (Yu Hai). But Tsao Man's depredations upon Dengfeng grow worse - and it isn't long before he learns where Hou Jie is hiding.

I'm basically pretty much non-religious, but my parents are Buddhist, and I sat through many a dinner table discourse on its tenets while young. So I knows me a thing or three about Buddhism. If there is one word that best describes the entire religion, it would be moderation; hence the reason why Buddha's teachings are often called "the middle path". I mention this because Shaolin, the film named after the most cinematically famous disciples of said religion, is a very immoderate film. It is cheesy. It is shamelessly manipulative. It is waaaayy over-the-top melodramatic and heavy-handed. And it looks like it cost an extravagant bucketload of yuan.

This is a graceless, artless, 200-pound anvil of a movie in which nothing that happens isn't immediately predictable within the first 20 minutes. When Hou Jie says to his protegé, "strike when you have the upper hand, or it will be you who will end up dead," you know Tsao Man will ironically echo the same words to him later. When Hou Jie defaces the temple's signboard in the beginning, you know he will shamefully wash it off later. When he rejects a British officer's proposal to build a railroad through his territory, you know the filthy traitor Tsao Man will take that same offer and sell out his country's interests. (And then run a side trade peddling historical treasures to the same officer, 'cos hey, why not?)

There is absolutely no string this movie won't pull in persuading you that 1) Hou Jie was an ass, 2) but then he totally found enlightenment and became good, 3) Tsao Man is an ass, 4) the Chinese peasantry are totally innocent and totally suffering, 5) white people are evil, 6) the Shaolin temple is a totally awesome place and Shaolin monks are totally awesome dudes. Not that there's anything wrong with any of this - but again, it's done with so little grace or subtlety that it becomes tiresome. It is ridiculously cheesy, which is also how I described another Hong Kong period action flick from last year. But 14 Blades aimed to be nothing more than an ass-kicking kungfu movie, whereas this one has pretensions of being all deep and shit.

At least there's some ass-kicking. It's what saves this movie from being a total failure; just when you start getting a migraine from all the eye-rolling, there's a decent action scene to break up the tedium. Cory Yuen's fight choreography is possibly the only thing that lives up to a movie titled Shaolin. Wu Jing and Xing Yu (in a minor role as one of the monks) are bona fide kungfu stars, as is veteran Hung Yan-yan (in a minor role as a villainous henchman, 'cos hey, why not have one of those?). Andy Lau and Nicolas Tse too acquit themselves well in their fight scenes. On the other hand, the all-out action climax isn't satisfied with mere martial arts - and so there's a veritable orgy of pyrotechnics, faceless extras getting slaughtered, and heroic sacrifices galore. And it just goes on and on.

It also features Buddhist monks straight-up killing dudes. Which, yeah, they're bad guys, but this isn't exactly what Buddha taught. How this movie tackles Shaolin philosophy is for various monks to say "Buddha be praised" every three sentences or so, and to spout pithy aphorisms and entreaties to put aside your anger, man, even to people who are at that very moment trying to kill them. Which makes them look like morons (not to mention really boring folks to hang out with) rather than wise and enlightened holy men. Until they start slashing people to ribbons with swords, that is, which may be more fun to watch - unless you're Buddhist, in which case having fun watching it is just wrong.

But such is this movie, so excessive and self-indulgent in telling its story that it ends up irreparably damaging the very things it's trying to say. I've often mentioned that what makes Asian films unique is that their default mode is to go broad; this is the downside of that. It's as if director Benny Chan's approach to making an Epic for the Ages is to toss an entire assortment of Epic into a stew pot and turn the oven on to max. The result is a movie with the occasional hint of Epic, but on the whole, is just overheated swill. Buddha is disappointed in you, Mr. Chan.

NEXT REVIEW: The Green Hornet
Expectations: I'm guessing 3-½ stars at best