The Shaolin Temple (1982)
A young man must learn martial arts from a kung fu master at the Shaolin Temple.
Director: Hsin-Yen Chang
Writers: Hau Sit (screenplay by) (as Shih Hou), Shau-Chang Lu (screenplay by)
Stars: Jet Li, Hai Yu, Chenghui Yu
Jet Li until then a real-life wushu fighter burst onto film screens as a 19-year old with his debut role in Shaolin Temple - and martial arts movies received the jumpstart they needed. Reportedly, it was the first martial arts movie to be a mainland China co-production (with Hong Kong). Even the famous 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978) wasn’t filmed in the mainland whereas Shaolin Temple (or Shaolin Lin Si, 1982) was one of the first to be actually shot on location in the Temple and Li’s movie was largely behind the Temple going on to become a major global tourist attraction.
The movie begins by paying a cinematically “prayerful” homage to Shaolin as a centre of learning, teaching and spiritual and physical excellence, manifested through the mastery of martial arts: candles, incense, the Buddha and prayer chants at the mighty altar. A young Li escaping torture finds refuge in the Temple where the monks nurture him back to health. Those early sequences as he trains as a young martial artist, pay tribute to the years of quiet dedication and discipline that go into the making of an expert. No pain, no gain.
One sequence has a young Li tasked with filling water in the outer-yard well, stealing time to peep over a wall at the inner courtyard where young monks practise with sword, broadsword, spear, cord-whip knife, bare hands and full body. A nearly two-minute unashamed tribute to the martial arts.
Those early sequences as he trains as a young martial artist, pay tribute to the years of quiet dedication and discipline that go into the making of an expert. No pain, no gain.
Then a two and a half minute sequence with Li alone practising in the wilderness with an explosive speed, power, energy that movie-goers at the time had never seen. That scene where an unbelievably young Li is practising by himself in the forest leaping high into the air with no wires, swinging the multi-non chuks like a giant blade into a whirl above his head and around his body, thrusting the spear this way and that with his feet moving like a ballet dancer's, then turning that shining sword into a blur. Martial arts heaven.
The movie is packed with a series of tightly-choreographed fights. No wires, no CGI. The jumps and falls you see are real jumps, real falls. It’s a pity the movie was denied the masterful stunt and action-choreography and direction that later movies benefited from. It would take years for film-makers to more precisely, more imaginatively, more aesthetically portray martial-arts sequences but even with those primitive cinematic tools Shaolin Temple holds up, even today.