“The Shaolin Temple (1982)”, directed by Chang Hsin Yen, is a masterwork of dazzling blows and extreme martial arts, set in a semi-fictional time of upheaval. Inspired by real murals in the temple, the movie is heavily credited for the reinvigoration of the real Shaolin Monastery. The story begins in the early seventh century, during a transition between the Sui and Tang dynasties. At this point in time, local warlords waged constant war across the countryside, uncontrolled by Imperial rule. Jue Yuan (Jet Li) and his father are prisoners of war under General Wang Shichong, who deposed the previous Emperor and named himself “Emperor of the East Capitol”. After his father is beaten to death to protect another prisoner, Jue Yuan is heavily injured in an attempt to get revenge. Unfortunately, he finds himself heavily outmatched by the Emperor and he barely makes his escape to the Shaolin Temple. The monks, seeing it as their holy duty to help, take pity on him and nurse him back to health. Upon seeing their martial arts, Jue Yuan becomes determined to join the temple and learn from them, in the hopes of one day avenging his father.
In a way, I would say this movie is about storytelling through martial arts. So much of “The Shaolin Temple” is beautifully choreographed action, and none of it feels redundant or there for the sake of being there. Even if there’s relatively little time between bouts, it never feels like the emotional aspect of the story is being overwhelmed. There are moments of excitement and tension; when, for example, Jue Yuan fights the Emperor to avenge his father. At the same time, they also use martial arts to push Jue Yuan’s emotional journey, like when he’s finally practicing with the other monks of the temple, only to realize it might not be the instant transformation he was hoping for. Jet Li does an amazing job of acting the slow realization and disappointment that overcomes Jue Yuan during that scene.
A lot of “The Shaolin Temple” is a clever combination of personal and martial growth. From the beginning, Jue Yuan has some knowledge of kung fu from his father, but he’s rough, emotional and unable to compete with more skilled fighters. Even after becoming a novice at the temple, he remains impatient and fails to truly learn anything. When he learns that learning the basics at the Shaolin Temple will take years of practice, he rushes off in a reckless attempt to assassinate the Emperor only to - very predictably- fail and be forced to return to the temple. It’s only after he sees past his emotions to the consequences of his actions - with a little help from the other monks - that he truly progresses as a martial artist.
Similarly, a large portion of the movie carries very deep moral themes surrounding violence and justice. Even before seeing Jue Yuan and his father as prisoners of war, we’re actually introduced to Jue Yuan as he’s taking his vows to become a full-fledged monk. When the abbot asks him whether he will abstain from killing, Jue Yuan is unable to answer immediately. Throughout the majority of the movie he fights out of anger or for revenge and he is beaten down or is narratively punished for it. It’s only when he realizes how he affects the temple as a whole, and how important they are to him, that he starts fighting to protect something. Coming from that place of protection makes him a much more resolute and effective fighter - essentially punishing him for violence out of malevolence, and rewarding it as a form of self-sacrifice and self-defense.
In contrast to this, we see two conflicting opinions from the monks of the Shaolin Temple. When attacked, the head abbot tries to avoid conflict and come to a peaceful resolution by whatever means necessary. Unfortunately, not all people can be reasoned with, and he can’t react when things go wrong. In contrast, Jue Yuan’s Sifu decides to do whatever he can to defend the temple, and is prepared when the abbot’s attempts at peace fall through. Even though there are sacrifices, it is only through violence that they defend the legacy of the Shaolin Temple and in the long run, they are rewarded for their bravery.
On the whole, “The Shaolin Temple” is an amazing martial arts movie. Its high-paced action sequences result in some very efficient storytelling and there’s never a dull moment. I highly recommend this movie to people looking for strong, unedited kung fu and a kick-ass female martial artist. By the way, there’s also a kick-ass female martial artist. She’s a shepherdess and beats people up for messing with her sheep - the movie’s worth watching if only for that scene alone. On the other hand, if you go into it expecting complex or nuanced dialogue or character interaction, - or even a satisfying romance - this might not be the movie for you.
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