Shaolin posterDespite a brief renaissance in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Chinese film (and in particular, martial arts) has been strangely absent from Australian cinema screens over the last few years. Not since the world’s love affair with Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – which in turn led to wide releases of Hero and House of Flying Daggers – have audiences had many chances to see Asia’s stars on the big screen outside of Hollywood cameos. Case in point is Jackie Chan, who despite having made a number of acclaimed films in his native Hong Kong over the last few years, has been largely seen in US takes on China, such as The Karate Kid. Indeed, viewers seeking out any more treasures would be forced to resort to annual festivals, imports or direct-to-DVD releases. Thankfully, Shaolin (新少林寺 aka The New Shaolin Temple) is enjoying a slightly wider release this season, simultaneously with the Chinese release and ahead of the Hong Kong release no less!

Set in the early years of the republic, feuding warlords threaten to rip apart China in their struggle for power. Young army leader Hou Jie (Andy Lau, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame) and his sworn brother Cao Man (Nicholas Tse, The Stool Pigeon) have carved up the land with little resistance, including the town of Dengfeng. The esteemed local Shaolin Temple – the birthplace of martial arts – takes in some of the wounded, and Hou Jie acts swiftly against Shaolin to make an example of them. However, when Cao Man betrays Hou Jie, wiping out his entire family, he must turn to the temple for assistance and a shot at redemption.

A loose reworking of 1982’s Shaolin Temple, the debut film of superstar Jet Li, this lavish production comes to us from director Benny Chan (City Under Siege, New Police Story). So as to not to damage the real Shaolin Temple, Chan and his company built a 10 million yuan (US$1.47 million) temple to stage the production, and create an endless series of explosions. Yet being the birthplace of martial arts, one would expect a certain level of fisticuffs throughout proceedings, and on this level the film delivers in spades, although none of the fight sequences seem to go on nearly near long enough. Yet what these fights lack in length they make up for in volume, with a seemingly endless series of fists flying back and forth between the factions. The climactic battle sequences are indeed impressive, although they take up much of the latter part of the film.

It is this length that is the biggest gripe of the piece, with the back-half of the film drawn out unnecessarily. Yet Shaolin is fast and furious in all other aspects. The concentration on action barely allows seasoned actor Andy Lau to flex his dramatic muscle, yet his casting was clearly a conscious one given his lack of a martial arts background.  Indeed, international superstar Jackie Chan is given a minor, yet pivotal, role as a comedic Cook. Yet given that recent years have seen Benny Chan slum it with the likes of Rob-B-Hood, this is a much-needed return to form for the director and an epic martial arts film of the kind audiences outside of Asian have been missing for several years.

The Reel Bits: Despite a drawn-out series of exploding temples, and a simple morality play that only scrapes the surface, this is the kind of martial arts epic that works best on the big screen.

Shaolin was released in Australia from Hopscotch and Dream Movie (Australia) on January 20, 2011. It premieres in Hong Kong on January 27, 2011.

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