Because of its place in the history of Chinese martial arts, the Shaolin Temple figures in innumerable Hong Kong and Mainland China movies. This particular tale is set after the Qing Dynasty (a.k.a. the Manchu Dynasty) fell in 1912. During the following years of the young Republic of China, the nation was beset with internecine fighting between rival warlords. As is so often the case in such circumstances, it was the masses who suffered the most.
After a massacre in the city of Tengfeng, Henan, soldiers of General Hou Chieh come to search the nearby temple, seeking the wounded warlord Huo. When General Hou (Andy Lau) arrives, Huo begs for his life, offering to turn over Tengfeng and a map of its treasures to Hou. He accepts the offer, but kills Huo anyway. As he leaves, Hou notices the temple’s fallen placard which proclaims it as being “The Birthplace of Martial Arts.” Hou picks up a brush and adds “is no big deal.”
Hou is concerned that his sworn brother General Sung, another warlord, plans to kill him and take all the spoils for himself. Hou hatches a plot of his own to kill Sung first when their two families dine together, and he takes Tsao Man (Nicholas Tse) into his confidence. But Tsao betrays Hou, who is left with no wife, no daughter, and no troops — only a price on his head.
As he wanders away from the temple, where he had brought his injured daughter for medical care, he falls into a pit dug as a bear trap by the temple cook Wudao (Jackie Chan in a substantial, but clearly supporting, role). Helping Wudao feed the many refugees who are living on the temple grounds, Hou begins his transformation from an arrogant, viscous warlord into a “free and pure” individual. He begins training with the monks, and their martial zen moves him further on the path of righteousness. Eventually he is accepted as a monk and given the religious name Chingchueh.
In the meanwhile, Tsao has become the most powerful warlord in the area. He has forged an alliance with foreigners (clearly the British) using railroad construction as a pretext for obtaining buried relics, which he exchanges for guns and ammunition. Nor has he forgotten about Hou, and he leads his troops to the temple for an all-out assault on Hou and his fellow monks.
The film has plenty enough good action, fine acting, and a surprisingly good story line, at least until the end. See, I was impressed that, for most of the film, the bad guys were mainly other Chinese, not foreigners. I found this rather refreshing. But at the end, the real devils tun out to be the foreigners, who destroy the Shaolin Temple in an artillery barrage!
In truth, the temple was destroyed many times. The most famous story is that the Qing Dynasty had it destroyed in the 15th or 16th century for anti-Qing activities. This is said to have resulted in the spread of Shaolin’s martial arts by fugitive monks. The warlord Shi Yousan had the monastery burned in 1928, destroying 90 percent of the buildings and many manuscripts of the temple library. The temple and its monks also suffered greatly under Mao’s Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966.
But I have found no basis whatsoever for the destruction of the temple by Westerners as depicted here. While the historical revisionism of the film’s ending may play well for the Mainland Chinese — and their Commie overlords in particular — it’s a bit much for anyone who cares at all about such a film as Shaolin having at least a reasonable basis in truth. (And please don’t try debunking my opinion by citing Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. That film is clearly an alternative historical fantasy, which Shaolin definitely is not.)
Still, if you can ignore or forgive the bullshit ending, the film is enjoyable enough. And definite kudos are due to Andy Lau, the veteran Hong Kong actor widely known here in the States for his roles in the Infernal Affairs films and House of Flying Daggers. He gives a fine performance as a man who loses everything he holds dear and true, and finds his way to a new, more spiritual life. Lau also has the title role in Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, which is also screening at the New York Asian Film Festival.
Shaolin will be shown at the Walter Reade Theater on Saturday, July 2nd at 7:30 PM and on Thursday July 7th at 8:45 PM. For tickets, visit the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s NYAFF website here.