On the crossroad between a martial arts epic and a spirituality-rich melodrama comes Benny Chan’s Shaolin (2011), starring Andy Lau, Nicholas Tse, Bingbing Fan and Jackie Chan. Lau and Tse go head-to-head in a story about one man’s redemption and journey to forgiveness through Zen philosophy during China’s age of feuding warlords.
Set in the 1920s, during the rise of the Chinese Republic – when the nation is ravaged by feuding warlords trying to expand their power – Shaolin takes the audience through the misery and sufferings of ordinary people rather subtly and takes focus on the journey of one man’s redemption through spiritualism. As lifeless bodies cover the battlefield and Shaolin monks walk through the carnage, sending the dead off to their next life and looking for the living, Chan creates the world of Hou Jie (Lau) – a power-hungry, ruthless warlord who has plunged the nation into poverty and hunger in his quest for conquering land, but whose love of violence will ultimately lead him to his downfall.
When Hou’s protégé and sworn brother Cao Man (Tse) becomes hungrier for power and destruction and his ambitions are more than Hou is willing to offer, Cao takes the opportunity to betray his leader in an attempt to take his life. To make matters worse, Hou’s wife (Bingbing) abandons him and his daughter is killed, which leaves his world shattered in pieces and Hou seeks shelter in the Shaolin temple, which until recently was only a subject to his persecution. After embarking on a journey of self-discovery through the teachings of the Shaolin monks, it isn’t long before Hou and his newfound brethren take up a fiery stand against the vengeful Cao.
Whilst Shaolin lacks originality, it makes up for being derivative through other aspects. Lau’s tormented portrayal of a man seeking redemption gives depth to his character and successfully takes the film deeper into the emotional torture of a man who has come to regret his ways. While Tse’s impressive acting as a tortured sufferer, both in The Beast Stalker (2008) and The Stool Pigeon (2010), have definitely put him on the map, his portrayal of a ruthless villain is a rather non one-dimensional one and he once again showcases his acting talents by carrying Cao quite well.
What Shaolin certainly doesn’t lack is production values, and Anthony Pun’s cinematography vividly captures the film’s artillery, gunfire and tortured soul-searching, with the underlying notion of peace and pacifism throughout. Despite a distinct change of speed from high-octane martial arts sequences to prolonged scenes of tiresome symbolism, Shaolin redeems itself through a combination of impressive acting, brilliant cinematography and a well-utilised script.