Judged by its plot, this 1979 China-Hong Kong co production is tired and hackneyed. But judged by its exquisitely choreographed fighting, it's a thrilling and truly monumental achievement, with a terrific Jet Li in his film debut.
In early seventh-century China, the population suffers under a despotic Sui ruler. After being badly injured in a fight with the evil Wang Ren Ze (Yu Cheng Hui) and seeing his father killed, Jue Yuan (Jet Li) flees, collapsing at the gates of the Shaolin Temple. There, the mischievous youngster is
taken in by the kindly monk Shi Fu (Yu Hai) and trained in the rudimentary martial arts. When Shi Fu's daughter Bai Wu Xia (Ding Lan) is captured by Wang, Jue Yuan rescues her. Later, with Bai's help, he helps prisoner Li Shi Min (Wang Guang Kuan) escape his Sui captors.
Knowing that Wang will be furious when he hears that Shaolin has aided Li, Shi Fu expels his daughter and Jue Yuan for their own safety. Wang does attack the temple and a heated battle ensues, with Shi Fu killed. But Jue Yuan and Bai return to help, as do rebel troops led by Li, wiping out the
enemy soldiers and chasing Wang to the river where, after a terrific brawl, Jue Yuan kills him.
Chairman Mao's death in 1976 was followed by a gradual liberalization in the arts, with this the first martial arts film shot in China since he nationalized the cinema. The Shaw Brothers had enjoyed great success with a popular film series about the legendary temple and its heroes, filmed on
backlots; the producers of THE SHAOLIN TEMPLE spent a reported three years and ten million US dollars to capture the epic vistas and spectacular architecture of real China. Interiors and some of the fights were actually filmed in Hong Kong, on stages rented from Shaw studios, with advice and
encouragement from Shaw directors. Cinematically, the film is less advanced than many of those made concurrently in Hong Kong, which contained unimaginative camera setups and a preponderance of cheap zooms. Nonetheless, it was a huge hit in Asia.
Impish Jue Yuan is quickly forgiven by Bai for (accidentally) killing her dog and (maybe) eating it. The bad guys, on the other hand, are so mean they intentionally kill Bai's defenseless little lambs. Bai, portrayed by skilled Peking Opera performer Ding Lan, instantly becomes a whirlwind of
eye-popping action, taking on the enemy troops singlehandedly and only succumbing to superior numbers. Also starring are an array of outstanding martial artists from Beijing's acclaimed wu shu (martial arts) team. Hu Jian Qiang, China's 1981 national champion, is a particular standout, as is Li's
main nemesis Yu Cheng Hui; "Iron Fist" Pan Qingfu, who portrayed himself in Mark Salzman's spiritual paean IRON & SILK (1991) has a villainous role and helped design the action. The boyish and charming Li, still a teen when this was released, went on to make two official sequels, receiving only a
paltry state subsidy for his work. (Violence, adult situations.)
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- Released: 1979
- Rating: NR
- Review: Judged by its plot, this 1979 China-Hong Kong co production is tired and hackneyed. But judged by its exquisitely choreographed fighting, it's a thrilling and truly monumental achievement, with a terrific Jet Li in his film debut. In early seventh-century… (more)