Sunday, January 30, 2011


To round the weekend off in style, six of us went to the cinema to see Shaolin, a grand Chinese epic with Andy Lau (and his fine, fine hair), hundreds of beatific monks, and men on horses.

Aficionadoes of Hong Kong cinema of old would know Shaolin as a by-word for chop-socky slapfests of the highest order: whole albums of music have been constructed around such poorly dubbed efforts as Shaolin Buddha Finger or Nine Deadly Venoms. However, I was a bit disappointed that this is Shaolin as in "the Chinese Government is serious about protecting its heritage" Shaolin, rather than the "eight kinds of mentalness before breakfast" Shaolin of yore. It does have Jackie Chan in it, but now he's an elder statesman of Hong Kong cinema (known for comparing democracy to television set ownership) rather than a seemingly suicidal stuntman, he spends less time flying through the air and more making a salad. No, really.

The plot ... Oh, for the love of Buddha, there's no way anyone cares about the plot, just an excuse to have various monks run around doing kung fu, a cartoon villain in the shape of Sir Peter, a villainous general in a Welsh regiment, played by a Russian with an unconvincing beard and an English accent so bad it produced howls of derision when he finally stopped speaking Cantonese and spoke the immortal line "Kill them all. Ha. Ha. Ha."1, *another* cartoon villain called Tsao (although as he's Chinese there's some chance for him to redeem himself, unlike the Evil Brit), a bald man with a ponytail and huge boots, and a crowd of men with bloody big swords and silly hats.

There's a car chase which would have fitted right into a Sixties action flick, except it's between two horse-drawn carts, which ends (as all car chases do) with one vehicle falling off a cliff, although disappointingly, without any explosion, and there's the usual mawkishness whenever anyone dies (slow pan over the body, isn't it ever-so-sad this person is dead, then back to the 'plot'). Not as odiously pornographic as Bodyguards & Assassins, but quite bad. It does have a monk played by what I can only describe as a Chinese Ron Perlman (maybe it's his Enormous Nostrils) which mixes things up a bit, although all he does is one epic roundhouse kick on Ponytail Evil Man, and an earlier subplot about rice theivery that dwindles to nothing in comparison to Andy Lau having a redemptive hair cut.

It should be noted that a film like this, with all the gore, explosions and sundry other violence, seems suitable for one and all, whereas The Kids Are Alright is Category III (the sick, depraved evil stuff that Kids Must Not See) which makes me think somebody in Hong Kong believes violence is ok (as long as there's a political subtext) but you might catch being a lesbian from watching Julianne Moore and Annette Bening, and this would be a Very Bad Thing.

Anyway, the film trundles on for ages (135 minutes by my watch), ends with a satisfying dose of huge explosions, kung fu and sword fighting, then goes on for another five minutes of Andy Lau with an urn, and Jackie Chan going for a walk with five hundred of his closest friends. I'm not saying it could have done with an edit, but it could have done with an edit.

It is fairly spectacular, and there's some great use of colour (an early scene where everyone is drab grey, except for a shiny, gold encrusted Andy Lau is great), and in a nod to history everyone, Cantonese or Mandarin speaking, had their dialogue recorded in Mandarin and then redubbed to Cantonese, for that good old unlipsynced feel. But I was really hoping for ninety minutes of people being thrown through balsa wood walls and endless gratuitious fighting, not proper sets and big production values. How ungrateful do I feel?

What did we learn?

Buddhist monks are badass, even the really, really old ones with silly beards.
Don't take your children with you to an assassination party.
Englishmen in China spoke great Cantonese, had awful facial hair.
Giving people steamed buns to eat will provide you with calm and inner peace
And finally, the less hair on top of your head, the better a person you probably are: Buddhist Abbot, bald as a coot, jolly good chap; Tsao, hair combed over one eye, nasty bastard, unnamed bloke with ponytail and big boots, awkward sod who eventually has his comeuppance via his own sword.

1 Which was subtitled in English, suggesting even the director had no faith in this man's pronounciation.


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