Shaolin - DVD Review

'flows along with a stronger narrative drive that is easier to latch on to than the more stylised films we've seen from China during the last ten years or so'

In various places you can read about Shaolin as a 'martial arts film', which is true to an extent but really only tells half of the story. The Benny Chan-directed, Chinese film has martial arts in it but they aren't necessarily the focus here, nor are they a huge plot driver. Really this is an old-fashioned epic (although, shorter in length than the old-fashioned epics), with a character embarking on a long journey of enlightenment that will lead him from one place to another whilst doubt and turbulence lines his path. It's an action movie with heart and character and style and, yes, some martial arts.

The character Chan follows through this is Andy Lau's General Hou Jie who, at the end of the first act, is struck by a terrible tragedy which is perfectly played by all involved. Taken in by the monks of the Shaolin temple, Hou Jie begins to rebuild his life (with help from cook, Jackie Chan), choosing whether to follow the monk's path of righteousness or continue towards his own goals. It makes for a compelling tale. Lau is believable as both a benevolent general and a humble man with nothing but the ability to ask for help. Jackie Chan is his usual charming self - although the director does wisely tone his natural humour down - in a role which initially seems to be a cameo but eventually develops into something more.

The film flows along with a stronger narrative drive that is easier to latch on to than the more stylised films we've seen from China during the last ten years or so (Hero and House Of The Flying Daggers this is not). Benny Chan seems determined to direct the piece with more restraint than any of the countries recent popular exports, although he could have benefited from their colour palette, with some scenes looking drab and under-lit. The motivations of the characters are easy to understand and well portrayed and the martial arts, when it arrives, attempts to stick very much to reality, rather than the flying rooftops of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, although some of this creeps in occasionally.

The two hour-plus runtime is fine and appropriate for this sort of film although the balance is a touch off. Too much time is given over to the final act for example, where the director seems to want to give every character a heroic and noble end and therefore gives the impression of providing a sort of 'heroes showreel', rather than the poignancy he was searching for. This though, can't detract too much from the hours of fun that preceded it. Shaolin is a film with heart and a lot of talent - behind and in front of the camera - forming together to make one of the most approachable and enjoyable films the Chinese market has produced in quite some time.

Shaolin is out in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray on Monday 12th September 2011.

Look further...

'a gripping, well-paced and superbly choreographed martial arts film' - Front Row Reviews

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