A Window into Life in the Suburbs

"Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these." Luke 12:27 (NIV)

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Shaolin (2011)

Shaolin is the martial arts film for the 21st century in the way the Coen Brothers' True Grit has been remade for a new generation. Dark, bleak and consistent use of greys and whites permeate the entire look of the film. This also sets the tone for an ominous, melancholic atmosphere that pervades the bittersweet story of one man's search for peace and enlightenment.
Stripped to its core elements, Shaolin is an unabashed Buddhist fantasy. In fact, it occurred to me that given another context, movieverse Shaolin monks could've been the monastic Jedi of pre-communist China. What is a light sabre but a neon lit, electrically generated fighting pole. And then there's the Force... a pantheistic worldview about some kind of amoral energy that governs the universe accessed to great effect by the initiated.

Due to time constraints, I don't watch as much martial arts cinema as I used to. But the otherworldly elegance of men and women performing acrobatic feats strung to wire rope in furious combat was a thrill to behold as a child. Despite the passage of years, it still is. The effect on me is not too dissimilar to the one I have watching Hollywood musicals during its heyday when the likes of Astaire, Rogers, Eleanor Powell, Gene Kelley, Donald O'Connor were tapping their way into our hearts.

Although a fantasy, this is a film with heart. It isn't merely about stunts, gimmickry and religious platitudes. (C'mon the stuff about evil being the result of fear and emotional tumult is cringeworthy.) Aside from the ridculously cheesy, villanous whiteys that make brief strategic appearances in the films, the main characters are generally well fleshed out.

A ruthless warlord, Hou Jie (Andy Lau), despite enjoying a series of successful campaigns against rivals, lives in fear that his hold over power is tenuous at best. To consolidate his position, he schemes to have his sworn blood brother assassinated. The attempt is successful but Hou himself falls victim to another assassination plot that sees him fighting for his own life.
With his dying daughter in his arms, Hou finds refuge in the legendary Shaolin Temple desperately seeking medical attention for her. Too late, she dies... and Hou's worldview is shattered.
While Andy Lau is not particularly known for his martial arts athleticism, he is terrific in the lead role, as we follow his journey to the bitter end.  Equally good is Nicholas Tse as his treacherous second-in-command, Cao Man.

Enlightenment pushes along quickly in movieverse. Read a few key Buddhist texts, empty yourself of all worldly desire... purge yourself of fear and all things that cloud your judgement and miscellaneous bad stuff. Find peace, do good, help the poor and maybe even die for a good cause.

Yup... a Buddhist-lite fantasy. And a deliciously weepy one at that.

(Photo Credit: Glamiva)

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