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Shaolin Temple
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by Jay Seaver

"The hub of 70s martial arts."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2005 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: Some of the shortest reviews I've written are for movies like "Shaolin Temple". In part, that's because they didn't really originate as reviews, but as blog entries - "saw 'Snake Deadly Act'; didn't suck" - but part is because there's really not a whole lot to say about them. People learn martial arts. They fight. Some die. Then, they make another movie. In which people learn martial arts, fight, and die.

Or so it appears to the non-fan, like me. There is, apparently, a continuity to the movies Cheh Chang directed for Shaw Brothers, with Shaolin Temple tying threads together and providing background to popular characters. I didn't realize that any of the Shaw Brothers movies had continuity before reading this in the festival program, which means that I perhaps lacked the proper context for enjoying this movie, since I haven't seen one since the Coolidge discontinued the Midnight Ass-Kickings last year. Still, I'm not sure how many notches my estimation of this movie would have gone up even if I was more familiar with the background.

Three young men come to the Shaolin Temple hoping to learn martial arts. They're not looking for new recruits, but are eventually impressed by the men's willingness to wait and endure without food and water. Besides, the balance of power in China is changing, with the hostile Machus driving the Tangs out, so the Masters could use some new blood to defend the temple and, if necessary, carry on the legacy. So these three get in, and eventually, more would-be disciples come. They, too, are forced to wait, and a few eventually get in. Once inside, the recruits are assigned repetitive, seemingly meaningless tasks, since as anyone who has seen The Karate Kid knows, this is the best way to learn kung fu moves so that they become instinctive. What is unknown to both masters and recruits is that there is a traitor in the ranks, just waiting to spring a trap on the elders.

There are, by my count, roughly two dozen characters who, at various times, the audience is expected to have some sort of investment in, either as heroes, villains, or people otherwise important to the plot, plus others who are mentioned but never appear. That's too many, quite frankly; I found myself identifying them by which primary color their costume featured most often ("it's the guy who wears blue pants and no shirt!") or or their method of training ("it's the guy who jumps with weights on his legs!"). The traitor was easily deduced by his facial hair - a dark beard is a pretty good indicator of evil, while a white beard generally indicates a wise old teacher.

However, these characters are not all important. Many of them pass in and out of the movie without contributing very much, while others are introduced late in order to give all the heroes we've seen in training "boss" villains to fight against. I suspect that this is because many other movies (or the legends upon which they were based) have mentioned the battle which serves as this film's climax, and thus Chang felt the need to get all these characters in there, even if the story could have benefitted from the odd bit of streamlining. It's an almost inevitable side-effect of inter-story continuity - you almost always wind up with more than you really need.

Still, it gets you to that last action sequence, which is what you might call big. It starts with some pretty dodgy plotting to keep the masters out of it, and has a couple "what the hell?" moments even when you take the foot soldiers more or less standing back as the guys with the really good martial arts skills fight. Still, the film ends with what seems like a solid twenty minute battle, as all the students get to use their skills to kick some butt. Everyone gets to use their special moves, along with a lot of high-energy punching and kicking. It's paced just right to not wear the audience out while still being pretty much non-stop action.

To be honest, I'm not really a fan of Shaw Brothers stuff; they all seem to run together for me. If you are, you probably see that this movie as a big deal. If you're not, it's better than many.

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originally posted: 07/30/05 10:43:18
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Fantasia Festival For more in the 2005 Fantasia Festival series, click here.

User Comments

8/03/05 Eric Rollins Big fan of the genre and this is extremely well done. 4 stars
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Directed by
  Cheh Chang

Written by
  Cheh Chang
  Kuang Ni

  Sheng Fu
  Kuan-Chun Chi
  Lung Ti
  David Chiang
  Philip Kwok
  Lung Wei Wang

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