26 Sep A SENSE OF PURPOSE: LESSONS BEYOND KUNG FU WITH SHAOLIN TEMPLE
My last article for this site was dedicated to Executioners from Shaolin, so I felt it was fitting that I follow it up with a brief look and discussion about the themes of Chang Cheh’s 1976 overlooked classic, Shaolin Temple. While the former film looked at the aftermath of the burning of the Shaolin temples, as many Shaw Brothers films dedicated their time to, this one spins that around and looks at the period leading up to the iconic event as Shaolin begins to open its doors to outsiders and becomes a threat to the regime. They fear the power of the Shaolin temple and Shaolin fears them. Featuring an all-star cast of some of Shaw Brothers studio’s biggest names at the time and a who’s who of upcoming talent, Shaolin Temple has a lot going for it and takes some uniquely dramatic ways of telling its story.
Initially, the selling point of Shaolin Temple is its very, very impressive cast list. Dynamic A-listers like Ti Lung, David Chiang and Alexander Fu Sheng, recognizable talent like Ku Feng and Johnny Wang, and even some early roles for various members of the Venom Mob (almost a year and a half prior to their cemented celebrity starts to truly take shape) all garner the attention of its audience for such a list. Like other epics that feature this kind of insane casting, their talent and screen presence is key to selling the entire narrative because there simply isn’t enough time for all of them to get the true character development needed. This is the double-edged sword of the film, a similar problem in films like The Water Margin for example, and fans are quick to point out that the film does not spend nearly enough time with any one character to drive its story and, due to its more layered plot, does not spend nearly enough time with fight work before the finale. While these are indeed legitimate points, Shaolin Temple is a film where the narrative and themes come first and it’s there that the film soars.
As a kind of anchor for the film, Alexander Fu Sheng could be called the main protagonist as he serves as the audience connection and the main force in many of the major transitions in plot points. It’s his journey that exemplifies the major narrative structure for the film and drives the plot. Yet, the film is hardly about his character singularly. Instead, Shaolin Temple opts for the major theme of ‘finding purpose.’ This is established by Fu Sheng’s character Fang Shih Yu and a few friends, desperate to get into Shaolin. While not initially explained, as the film progresses there are more and more men desperate to be accepted and it’s through the subtext of the film that this ‘finding purpose’ is the reason. The world outside of Shaolin is in turmoil as the government starts coming down on the everyday people and it’s this friction between the powerful government and the influential Shaolin temple that forces the hand of the latter to open its doors to outsiders. The head master of the temple expresses the decision as a way to preserve Shaolin in the wake of the government, which gives the monks a sense of purpose in training those accepted and a sense of purpose to those students that’s more than just finding a way to escape the outside world. It’s this major theme about finding purpose that drives the narrative more than any one single character and it’s one that an audience should be able to hook into as a core human emotion and obstacle.
This theme is what drives a significant part of the development of its massive cast in smaller ways. We see Fu Sheng’s character stuck tending fire in the kitchen or Li Yi-Min’s friendly joker stuck stirring rice all day. And while any kung fu fan will automatically hone in on the use of everyday tasks as a way of building strength and learning kung fu, it’s the characters that have to find the purpose to bridge the gap between the mundane and the lesson learned. This happens through most of the characters, including the rebel group who find themselves hiding at Shaolin (lead by David Chiang and Ti Lung), as they connect with one another and form the brotherly bonds that would become the anchor to so many other films about the aftermath of the Shaolin temple fires. And while fan concerns about the lack of action in the first three-quarters of Shaolin Temple are not dismissible as nitpicking, it’s this kind of clever thematic focus and character bonding that makes the film work in underappreciated ways. Shaolin Temple works as a spiritual guide for its characters just as much as a humane way of exploring their growth and purpose for the audience.
Naturally, this all builds itself around a loosely fitted plot about the government’s conspiracy to infiltrate the Shaolin temple with spies and double agents to bring it down. Many of the actual plot progressions can be a tad ill-fitting in the overall film, including a poisoning twist that seems much too convenient for the sake of the third act, but it’s the invested interest in the cast and narrative that ultimately pulls it off even if the plot itself seems thin. It takes a substantial part of the film to bring all of the various subplots together for the finale, but the final fight – which roughly comes in just under a half hour – is impressive. Here is where the film truly shines as it nimbly leaps from various fight to fight featuring our heroes and villains of the film brawling it out using the techniques learned and their new-found sense of purpose to drive them. It’s a kung fu smorgasbord for fans and is the one reason that any self-respecting Shaw Brothers fan should see the film. The pacing is perfection, the emotion is high, and, in a true Chang Cheh manner, no character is safe from death. It’s dynamic and it works with the character builds from the first portion to bound its way to the end.
Shaolin Temple is hardly perfect as a whole and it suffers occasionally from its thin plotting and immense casting that it can’t truly develop, but between its thematic strength, impressive fight work (particularly in the finale), and cast that use all of their screen presence to keep up the narrative pace, it’s a film that often gets overlooked by fans when there is plenty to love here. If anything, the film itself has a very distinct sense of purpose with its epic tale leading to the iconic burning of the Shaolin temples and while the paths there are not easy, this parallel to the character’s and setting’s own attempts to find purpose makes it a film worthy of the view.
With the recent theme of the Shaw Brothers site about “getting schooled,” it’s always fun to look beyond the kung fu for that next lesson and Shaolin Temple offers that up quite nicely.
Watch Shaolin Temple with Prime Video: http://amzn.to/2xH6lsB