As you may know, I’m currently researching Chinese history for a new project (don’t worry–there’s plenty more Dark Apostle to come as well!). I made a list of topics to research and one of them was the Shaolin Monastery school of martial arts, leading to the book American Shaolin, which was a fun read, and now to a Hong Kong martial arts film, “Shaolin” or “The New Shaolin Temple.“
Definitely, I love me some action films, and this one delivers exciting chase scenes, extraordinary fights and tense emotional moments. It was very enjoyable. I had been lead to expect something very violent, however, and was initially surprised by the grim, but rather distant opening. The film starts with the aftermath of a battle, horsemen riding down the survivors, and the shooting of a wounded enemy who seeks sanctuary with the monks of the eponymous temple. Yes, okay, it sounds violent, but it was also nearly bloodless. The violence wasn’t visceral, failed to startle much less to dismay. So I’m thinking the violence of the movie had been overstated, and that the “R” rating might even be exaggerated as I haven’t seen anything that wouldn’t fly on prime-time TV.
But the story of the movie is about Hou Jie, the shooter of that wounded enemy, who is later forced to seek refuge with the same monks. He’s a man of violence, through and through. His daughter even draws him looking angry with words saying that he likes shooting people. Over the course of the movie, as Hou Jie learns about compassion from the monks, the presentation of violence changes, and by the end, the blood flows, the blows have impact, the shots bring fear: the violence held at a distance in the beginning is now up close, personal–because our protagonist has come to a new understanding of violence, what it means to those it affects, how its ripples spread throughout a family or a culture.
I was reminded of a paper I heard at Kalamazoo a few years ago about the use of blood in the Mort’d'Artur. The author of the paper had found that the level of blood described in the text increased dramatically when the combatants were brother knights, when the conflict was personal and abhorrent to the laws of chivalry. It struck me that director Benny Chan was doing something similar on screen, using the language of cinema to suggest the change in his character, and, perhaps, to send a message to his viewers. Action films are fun. Martial arts is exciting to watch, challenging to learn. But violence is real. It has an impact on those who suffer it, and those who inflict it–and needs to encourage deeper thought in those who watch it happen, even at the distance of a screen.