I have a confession to make.
I don’t consider myself a Jet Li fan.
Let me elaborate.
He’s an amazing performer. He’s starred in many, many great films. He always brings it, and he’s very likely one of the most physically gifted martial artists to ever appear in films.
I even find his personality likable, and as an actual person I both like and respect him. But as an actor I find that his performances are too mechanical. Too measured. I just don’t feel his passion like I do some of the other great martial artists who’ve been featured in this column,
Again, I still love many of his films. There are also many that I’ve yet to see, meaning I’m open to re-evaluating this opinion.
Of course, Li wasn’t always the worldwide star and phenomenon we’ve come to know him as. From the age of eight, the then Li Lianjie began training in Wushu (the often acrobatic sport derived from traditional Chinese Martial Arts) and would later join the renowned Beijing Wushu Team where he started racking up boatloads of medals starting at the age of 12. Yeah, Jet Li was a world class martial artist by age 12, and even performed for Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger as part of a Chinese delegation to the White House back in 1974. Don’t believe me? Check it out:
See. That’s what you get for being skeptical.
So, Jet Li was an incredibly accomplished and respected athlete and Wushu expert for years, before retiring at the ripe old age of 17 to find his fame in film. With his expertise in a variety of hand-to-hand combat forms, as well as proficiency in a multitude of weapons (always referred to by me as LEGENDARY WEAPONS OF CHINA) it was a natural jump, and he began his career in mainland China starring in Chang Hsin-yen’s THE SHAOLIN TEMPLE.
Now, most reference guides – including the IMDB – list THE SHAOLIN TEMPLE as being released in 1982, but that seems a bit confusing. Jet Li was born in 1963, and was definitely only 17 when he starred in the film, so I’m going to guess that it was actually made around 1979 (which is occasionally listed as its release date – including at the beginning of this verstion). It’s also possible that the film simply had a long production schedule, and its release was significantly delayed.
Either way, Jet Li looks impossibly young in the film, which is one of those films that are designed from the ground up to make the lead a star. The creators – filming in mainland China for the very first time – obviously knew that they had lightning in a bottle, and from the beginning the focus is entirely on Chieh Yuan (played by Li) and his slow journey through the Shaolin Temple grinder, and him helping the Shaolin monks discover that HEY! Violence is ok as long as it’s in support of a higher ideal. But we’ll get to that.
So, we’re between the end of the Sui Dynasty and the beginning of the Tang dynasty, about 618 AD, and Luoyang is being ruled with a dickish iron fist by the ruthless warlord Wang Shichong. Ol’ Wang is forcing a load of the townspeople to slave under him, which rubs Jet Li’s dad the wrong way – especially as he’s quite a capable fighter and doesn’t much like being chained up. Trying to fight back against oppression, he’s killed by Wang’s men which sends Chih Yuan (Jet Li, remember?) into a bit of a frenzy. He almost meets the same fate as his dad, but manages to escape – injured – and make his way to the Shaolin Temple.
Just like in THE 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN, there is some discussion about tossing Yuan out on his ass. I mean, the monks don’t want every wanted criminal attempting to find refuge in their temple, right? Still, Chih Yuan is a young guy, and the Abbot takes pity on him, much to the chagrin of his second in command. Yuan slowly recovers, taking in the sounds and sights of the temple, which includes a field where the monks practice all sorts of different and dangerous looking martial arts. Seriously. Yuan peeks over a fence, and it’s basically Barnum and Bailey’s circus on the other side. It’s not hard to see why he might buy into the whole Shaolin thing when he sees that.
And then something crazy happens. While he’s gleefully just barely avoiding getting murdered by flying Shaolin weapons, a dog starts barking. Not wanting the Abbot’s second to catch him, he takes the dog into a room and basically covers it with a blanket until the Abbot leaves. Good plan, right? Except the dog smothers to death! Yeah, Chih Yuan kills the dog, which just happens to belong to Bai, the daughter of one of his instructors – and his potential love interest.
Got all that? Well, to make his crime even MORE weird, Yuan cuts off the dog’s head and buries it, before roasting the rest of the canine on a spit and eating it. Yeah, he eats the dog. Chows down on it, actually, much to the delight of the instructor (and his fellow Shaolin youth) who all show up to eat some hot dog. I know it’s just a cultural thing, but JESUS! This leads into a really impressive exhibition of drunken staff by one of the monks whose wife had been murdered years earlier (Yuan’s subtitled response: “He has such smart kung-fu why don’t he revenge?”). Of course that killjoy Abbot shows up, sending the monks scurrying, and leading Yuan to run into Bai – who discovers that he was eating her dog. How awkward. Her dad shows up to confess that he ate some of the dog, too, which smooths over the whole situation. Let’s just get past this whole dog business..
Yuen decides to join the Shaolin Monks, shaving his head and honing his skills, but he finds himself having difficulty controlling his anger as he wants to gain revenge on Wang and his men for killing his father. Realizing that his heart is still full of anger, he decides to leave the temple and confront Wang himself, though discovers that Bai has been kidnapped by Wang’s flunkies (who also graphically murder her sheep. What is UP with this movie?). Yuan actually acquits himself quite well against Wang and his men, easily dispatching most of them with his staff skills and rescuing Bai in the process. However, the duo are eventually overwhelmed by the baddies and they run off – and Yuan eventually returns to the Shaolin school to be lightly mocked by his friends and continue his training.
We get an awesome (and very Shaw Brothers-like) montage of Yuan practicing a variety of weapons in diverse settings, implying the passage of time while showing that Yuan could probably kick everyone’s ass at this point in the game. But despite his return to the fold, his rebellious streak still exists – proven when he helps the rebel leader Li Shin Minh escape from Wang’s men and hide within the Shaolin Temple grounds. Wang’s men attempt to give chase, but the Shaolin monks refuse them entrance on horseback, which makes Wang a bit pissy – especially when Yuan and Li Shin Minh manage to get away.
The rest of the plot gets a little confusing. Wang rightfully believes the Shaolin Monks are hiding Yuan and the rebel leader, and decides to lead a full-on attack on the Temple. Yuan is ostracized by Bai’s father, while the head Abbot is set on fire as a show of faith and willingness to avoid violence of any kind. He changes his mind, though, because Wang is just too much of a jerk, and soon we have a HUGE battle between Wang’s men and the Shaolin monks. The fighting is just astounding, showing a huge number of styles and weaponry and at a ridiculous pace. However, it also feels a bit.. toothless. More like an exhibition than anything resembling an actual fight. It’s really the centerpiece of the film, and lives up to the promise of finally seeing the Monks unleashed, but it’s not very emotionally involving.
While all of this is going on, Li Shin Minh and his rebels are taking advantage of Wang’s distraction to attack his home base, which sends the entire fight back in that direction for one more seaside beat-em-up. This one has a bit more passion, and we get to see Jet Li really show off what he can do – eventually leading to a one-on-one confrontation with Wang the Warlord where Yuan finally gets his revenge. The film ends with Li Shin Minh taking control (and telling the monks that it’s now ok for them to drink. What a wacky guy), while a rousing Shaolin theme plays over footage of the monks doing exercises and a voiceover explains that the fame of Shaolin kung-fu was everlasting. No argument ere.
THE SHAOLIN TEMPLE was a massive success upon its release, launching Li Lianjie into stardom – he acquired his screen name in the Phillipines where a publicity company – having trouble pronouncing his real name – likened his career to that of a jet taking off. Needless to say, the name stuck. The film’s popularity led to a renewed interest in Shaolin Martial Arts and training practices, and – predictably – immediately led to dozens more films focusing on Shaolin monks and the Shaolin temple. Li would return in two sequels to the film: SHAOLIN TEMPLE 2: KIDS FROM SHAOLIN (1982) and SHAOLIN TEMPLE 3: MARTIAL ARTS OF SHAOLIN (1986) (which, unlike the first two, used a Shaw Brothers Hong Kong production crew and was directed by the great Lau Kar-leung). The first film was recently remade as SHAOLIN (2011) starring Andy Lau (and featuring a cameo by Jackie Chan).
It’s a fascinating film, filled with themes of nationalism and self sacrifice, but also feels a bit too political and without any of the pulp edge that the best Golden Harvest and Shaw Brothers films of the period brought. The choreography is incredible, and the fights are plentiful, but they tend to be passionless and left me feeling a bit empty despite the immensely entertaining physical displays. While it’s certainly far from boring, THE SHAOLIN TEMPLE feels like an exhibition of skills in search of a movie, which makes it wonderful to look at, but ultimately unsatisfying.
NEXT WEEK: THE KID WITH THE GOLDEN ARM (1979)