Shaolin (Xin shao lin si) is a masterful Buddhist martial arts epic. That is a loaded sentence for sundry reasons that we shall explore in the coming paragraphs. Sufficed to say, this is a film unlike any other. From the cinematography to the choreography to the acting, the direction, and the setting, Shaolin is a movie to behold. Andy Lau and Jackie Chan, among other superb actors, have contributed to this special film. Audiences are treated to yet another struggle between tradition and modernity, righteousness versus villainy, and nationalism versus greed. In the end lives have crumbled, wars have been waged, and perhaps most importantly, lessons have been learned about selfishness and humility that will last for eternity.
General Hou Jie (Andy Lau) and his little brother Cao Man (Nicholas Tse) are conquering Chinese provinces. Their current target is Dengfeng, Henan. Anyone that stands in their way suffers swiftly and severely. The beginning of the film is fateful as two worlds collide. General Jie shoots his escaping opponent Huo Long who has take refuge in the arms of Buddhist martial artists sworn to repudiate violence. Jie threatens the monks and in a sense causes himself great shame due to his petulant demands and unnecessary overreaction. This sets the stage for a future confrontation that will change the lives of everyone involved.
Behind the scenes, Cao Man is busy coaxing his older brother into launching a preemptive strike against his sworn brother and future in-law, General Song Hu. Song Hu has arranged for Jie's daughter to be married to his son despite their extreme youth (they are only 6 years old). Fueling Jie's suspicions (aroused by Cao Man), General Hu has become demanding. He wants to share Dengfeng and the treasure recovered during the most recent military confrontation. Between all of the backdoor rigmarole and Hu's demands, General Jie orders his ally's assassination. Little does he realize Cao Man has plans of his own. Not only is General Hu killed, Jie himself along with his wife (played by Bingbing Fan) and precious daughter Shengnan (played by Xiaoliuna) are relentlessly pursued.
In the melee that follows General Jie's family escapes after crashing most of the horses in pursuit. This chase is action-packed and the choreography is daring. Jie and his daughter take a tumble over a steep cliff. Shengnan survives only because her father cradled her in his arms during the nasty tumble. After the enemy forces give up their search, Jie and his wife bring their daughter to the Buddhist Shaolin temple that they had in a sense desecrated before. They seek succor and medicine and ask for mercy and compassion. Shengnan dies a tragic death and in Jie's uproar his wife leaves him forlorn. This begins Jie's conversion to Buddhism and to the way of the monks.
Though reluctantly accepted by the Buddhists, they are hesitant on account of his past warlording, Jie begins a new life with the relatively pacifistic group. He learns how to balance his life, to ignore selfish impulses, to put avarice aside, and he comes to learn how to heal in order to survive the grief brought on by Shengnan's death. While learning Buddhist principles, Cao Man's nefarious activities antagonize the former general. Cao has allowed foreigners to build a railroad through Dengfeng, and in the process the wicked brother has conscripted innocent Buddhist villagers. Many of the villagers disappear because they have been executed or tortured. A showdown looms large on the horizon no matter how hard Jie tries to avoid further conflict or bloodshed. The question becomes: is Jie's story one of redemption and healing or one of tragedy and violence?
Shaolin tells the story of Buddhist devotion even in the face of death and mayhem. It is reminiscent of the Boxer Rebellion, a moment in Chinese history in which a band of Chinese traditionalists believed their martial arts to be more powerful than modern weaponry. The consequences in both cases were dire. Jackie Chan's role is rather limited but he is his usual hilarious self. His cooking inspired martial arts stunts add humor to a dreary film riddled with destruction. Meanwhile, Andy Lau continues to prove himself to be more than Chow Yun-fat's sidekick. Lau is more than an expert fighter, he is an actor in earnest. He is perfect for moving roles in epic-style pictures. The entire supporting cast of monks steal the show with their compassion and choreography. They pulled off some stunts with kendo sticks that I could never have imagined possible. They are truly innovative. It is prodigious that martial arts which has been around since the dawning of civilization continues to be adapted in visually dazzling ways. There are countless lessons to be derived from Shaolin about selflessness, morality, and inner peace. Buddhism is truly a fascinating religion and way of existence.