I have 2 DVD versions of this movie and one of them is on a compilation disc of 10 Jet Li movies. It cost me $20. That’s $2 a movie, which may explain why the subtitles for Shaolin Temple , a rollicking martial arts adventure set in the Tang Dynasty, belong to a completely different film – apparently a schmaltzy melodrama about a young American couple called Tony and Joan. The subtitles are of the “But gosh, Joanie, what’s your father gonna say. He was dead set on you marryin’ a lawyer” type of bilge. The accompaniment of 1950s middle American declamation to a Chinese fable about a young fighting monk’s quest for vengeance and justice is actually quite hilarious. For example, when a bunch of villainous soldiers are about to search for Jet Li’s character in the Shaolin temple graveyard, according to the subtitles the instruction their commander furnishes them with is “Make him marry you”, which is almost certainly not what is being said in the actual soundtrack. I wonder if Tony and Joan’s movie is mystifying some DVD watcher somewhere with subtitles that say things like “What a wild girl – kill her sheep!” or an allusion to someone drinking ram’s penis soup as an aphrodisiac. This would cast quite a different pall over the doings of the psychologically stodgy Tony and Joan and no doubt disrupt the viewing pleasure of a fan of drawing room dramas. I have no pity for them. I think they deserve it.
But given the choice of watching either a movie about the dreary Joan and Tony or Shaolin Temple, I know which one I would rather pick. When I come trudging home from another grey day in my little grey life the last thing I want to do is to subject myself to 2 hours of turgid, middle class soap opera. The colour and dynamism of movies like Shaolin Temple are a shot in the arm for me.
And there is colour and dynamism aplenty in Shaolin Temple. To this old cougar’s delight, the temple seems to be populated by exquisitely toned, shiny young men. And the most exquisite and shiny of them all is, of course, a young and pretty Jet Li making his feature film debut.
Shaolin Temple: where it all began for Jet Li.
Image sourced from tomscinema.com
He acquits himself well. Naturally, his displays of wushu are superb and his dramatic performance is good – earnest and expressive. What his acting lacks in subtlety at this stage of his career (and, in my opinion, he would develop into a very subtle actor very quickly) he more than makes up for in high animal spirits and, of course, physical ability. And subtlety perhaps isn’t required here as this film, like so many chop sockies, has a melodramatic script and over the top physical antics that call for a big, demonstrative acting style.
Kudos to the supporting cast: those beautiful, shiny boys contribute really amazing displays of martial arts virtuosity. There are some fantastic performers among the older cast as well. Yue Hoi is endearing as the doughty Sifu, and his stocky body conveys a sense of refined power during his fight scenes. And Yue Sing Wai is wonderful to watch as the villain of the piece.
The physical virtuosity of the performers and the sense of energy that they invest in their performances (physical and dramatic) are important in this film as they compensate for a lack of choreographic cohesiveness that can be seen in other, more sophisticated martial arts films*. Displays of physical mastery are what drive this film along and, for me, give it its main appeal. Early in the film we see the monks training with various weapons. This adds little to plot or character explication and is really just an excuse to show us a lot of super fit lads doing loads of tricks. It’s still bloody amazing to watch, though, and, as such, is highly entertaining.
Shaolin Temple vibrates with an almost manic energy from beginning to end, as its characters bounce from one potboiling situation to another. It is packed with displays of physical prowess that couch potatoes like me can only marvel at. It is the perfect tonic for any grey day.
*Jet Li had this to say about the choreographic process for this film in the essay ‘We didn’t know how movies were made’ on www.jetli.com :
We didn’t know how movies were made. And there were no action choreographers. Instead, the director told us the basic story, and we took what we had learned in class to design our own fight scenes. …We didn’t know any better and we had no experience, so we made up most of it ourselves. It was a good learning experience.