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The Tang emperor is betrayed by one of his generals, who installs himself as emperor in the East Capital. The son of one of his slave workers escapes to the Shaolin Temple, learns kung fu, and sets out to kill the traitor, who killed his father. The monks have to help him, and in the process, they save the true emperor, who rewards them greatly. Based on a true story from Shaolin folklore, but highly fictionalized. Written by
The impressive physical sequences cover the weaknesses in most of the other areas
The Tang Emperor is betrayed by one of his own generals, who installed himself as the new Emperor of the eastern region. The population of this area are the ones to suffer, with many forced into slavery to work at his demand. Chieh Yuan and his father are two such men but, one day Chieh and his father fight back and, although the two bravely hold off the guards, his father is killed as he instructs Chieh to flee to fight another day. Near-death, Chieh finds himself at a Shaolin monastery where he is taken in and nursed back to health. He takes up the teachings of the monks in particular the martial arts and prepares for the day he will meet his father's killer. In the meantime though, he has to worry about the many rules that his new life imposes on him.
On some levels this film is a terrible mess of a thing. The plot is quite basic and the writers really need to hit three stages of narrative which are 1) events before the monastery, 2) events at the monastery and 3) events around the conflict that closes out stage (1). These are all in place but it is up to them how they fill out these three stages and, in this case, it must be said the answer is "not that well". We get lots of things happening but not of them are that good. Chieh manages to kill a dog (which belongs to the daughter of his master), eat meat (and get the others eating meat) and do all manner of things that kinda go against the whole Buddhist monk vibe that he had been working on. The film has these come up and be laughed off by the others and after a while it just feels a bit weird. I'm not defending Buddha here and if these bits had been funny or engaging then I would not have cared one bit but, as it is, they don't work and even as time filler they are not that worth while.
In reality though, this doesn't matter because nobody has come to this film for the plot so much as they have to see Jet Li making his film debut and jumping right into film success. And jump he does (I'm not want to avoid rubbish linking puns) as almost all of the action in this film is impressive and engaging. Some of it is quite soft in regards the danger faced by our characters whereas some is pretty tough but whether it is a training demonstration or the final montage of fights, it is really impressive on physical and technical levels. It also helps that it is well short. Having just watched Transporter 3 recently, Shaolin Si comes over as a breath of fresh air in how it is willing to put the camera down and shoot action sequences where each take is longer than (gasp) 1 second and (brace yourselves) we get several moves in each take (no!). This lets us see that the cast can do their stuff and you can see why Li became a massive name because he is unbelievably skilled and has great physical control heck I've started to make a little grunting noise every time I stand up whereas he seems to do the impossible in his stride. Looking back (and even then) Li does get all the attention but everyone else is just as good, with lots of impressive moves. Not everyone has as good a screen presence (the daughter being a bit weak for example) but when it comes to the action everyone performs.
Shaolin Si doesn't have the greatest script and, by extension, the performances and also how much the viewer will care about the characters are also weakened. However in regards simple physical ability of those involved in the making it is very engaging indeed. There are consistent and enjoyable scenes of martial arts action a couple stand out above the rest but all of them are impressive and fun to watch. Ignore the narrative but definitely stay for the action.
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