All four of the kung fu films shown on SBS ONE this month draw on the idea that martial arts is a means of mental and spiritual development, not just a form of combat or sport, but none so much as this Saturday's film Shaolin, the last in the season. That's because Benny Chan's wonderfully dramatic action-packed film is utterly underpinned by the notion that martial arts is just one aspect of an overall philosophy of life aimed at, in Chan's words, “guiding the heart towards good”.
January is the month when many struggle to reverse the effects of over indulging during the Christmas/New Year period and resolve to put in place certain goals for the year ahead. Shaolin is perfectly timed because it is all about implementing personal discipline, mending wicked ways and seeking redemption, as personified by Andy Lau's character.
The constant refrain is that good deeds have great value, something expressed often by the cook, played with much humour by Jackie Chan. Rather ironically, this character is not skilled in martial arts but he can certainly hold his own in a fight with the help of a giant wok and dough.
“The simplest solution, whether or not you study martial arts, is to understand yourself,” Chan has said in relation to the film. “When you do, all your goals will exceed your imagination.”
Shaolin is one of many examples of how the fighting monks of Shaolin Temple, located on Mount Song in the Henan Province of China, have infiltrated popular culture; other films include the Shaw Brothers' Shaolin Temple and The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, both of which were released in the late 1970s, and the Jet Li film The Shaolin Temple, released in 1982.
This monastery was established more than 1,500 years ago and is famous for both kung fu and Buddhism, although whether Chinese martial arts actually originated there is in dispute. More information about the live-in kung fu training available at this popular tourist destination can be found here.
Shaolin Temple is a key setting in the film and many real monks are on screen during the fight scenes. A ceremony was held there to celebrate Shaolin going into production in October 2009 but a replica was built for the purpose of filming, at a reputed cost of $1.5 million.
While watching Shaolin, I was struck by just how risky kung fu films are to make from an injury point of view, particularly because of the number of horses that must have been on set and how they must have undermined safety practices to some extent. At the time of the film's release, Chan talked about the expense and danger behind the cliff-top chase sequences that involved 30 horse-drawn carriages and really were shot in perilous terrain.
The credits don't say the usual 'No animals were killed during the making of this film'; rather, they say “The animal actors were trained and properly taken care of… and no death or serious injury was sustained.” Let's hope they tell the truth.
Shaolin opened at number one in cinemas in at least three countries in Asia and I recommend it heartily, particularly if you've done very bad things and need to believe that redemption is possible.