The grandeur remake of 1982's original that propelled Jet Li to stardom brings the famed martial arts away from superficial glorification to a whole new spiritual level. With the kungfu allowing the starstruck cast to take up centre stage, you can expect a lot more heart and soul from this Asian blockbuster as the characters move you with superb performance.
China is plunged into strife as feuding warlords try to expand their power by warring over neighboring lands. Fuelled by his success on the battlefield, young and arrogant warlord Hou Jie (Andy Lau) sneers at Shaolin masters when he beats Jing Neng (Wu Jing) in a duel. But the pride comes before a fall.
Soon, Hou Jie is betrayed by Cao Man (Nicholas Tse), who is the 2nd-in-command and his buddy, and walks right into a trap and gets waylaid by rival warlord Song Hu (Shi Xiong Hong). To make matter worse, his wife (Fan Bing Bing) deserts him, while his child is killed. The crestfallen and heartbroken Hou Jie seeks refuge at Shaolin.
Hou Jie is on the verge of giving up his life when he becomes acquainted with the cheery Shaolin cook (Jackie Chan) who helps him see through life. He also resolves his conflicts with fellow monks Jing Neng, Jing Hai (Yu Shao Qun) and Jing Kong (Xing Yu). After becoming enlightened, he takes the tonsure.
As the civil unrest spreads and the people suffer, Hou Jie and the Shaolin masters are forced to take a fiery stand against the treacherous warlord Cao Man and his collaborator Suo Xiang Tu (Xiong Xin Xin). Led by Hou Jie, they launch a daring operation.
Reportedly made with an estimated production budget of $29 million, Director Benny Chan shows us where it went with a high production value noticed throughout the entire film. From calvary and artillery cannons to exquisitely detailed military uniforms and robes, everything in this film has an overwhelming grandeur feel.
The classic tale of how a power-driven military general falls from grace and finds spiritual solace in the Shaolin temple might not be a novelty, but the rendition of fabulous A-listers' performance made the film so much more convincing and moving. Andy Lau and Nicholas Tse are two of the best actors from Hong Kong and they've proved it well enough to keep both fans elated and critics satisfied.
If I may, a personal bold prediction of award season nominations for them might follow.
Perhaps with a large share of screen time devoted to the both of them, other supporting cast like Fan Bing Bing and Wu Jing have been somewhat reduced to minimal involvement with the story. Nevertheless, they do their best with what's given and this clearly defines their status as competent film actors.
Surprising to most martial art fans, the physical feature of the martial art is somewhat subtle and is instead infused as a plot element to enhance the philosophical teachings of Shaolin. There are a couple of sparring duels in the film, but it's not a great deal besides intended as action dosages to the blockbuster. The essence of the film comes from the spiritualism that the film focuses and explores through Andy Lau's character, in hope of inspiring the audience with moving plot drama and Shaolin teachings of morality virtues.
This is how Andy Lau excels as a different leading role in contrast to the martial art apt Jet Li. Li has proven his agility and fists to the audience in the 1982 classic original while Lau will instead prove his veteran acting prowess in the 2011 Benny Chan's take.
Besides the cast, the entire production team should be applauded for offering so much quality in various aspects from cinematography (by Golden Horse winner Anthony Pun) to set location and props. This is an excellent example of how film works best in team synergy.
SHAOLIN has possibly one of the best production cast and crew I've seen in Asian films.
If it's all about star struck silver screen charisma, you've got a fair amount of it. If it's martial arts and action fix you're looking for, you've got some. If it's engaging drama and inspiring lessons in life, there's lots of it.
If there is only one Asian blockbuster that you'll catch this year,
This is it.