Rating: 3/4 (Classic kung fu fun!)
The Shaolin Temple (少林寺) released in 1982, was the first martial arts movie to be shot in China. It was the movie debut for Jet Li, who back then was the wushu champion of China. The movie begins with an introduction of the real Shaolin Temple located in the Henan province of China. At this Buddhist monastery, monks have been practicing a form of martial arts (now popularly known as Shaolin Kung Fu) rigorously for centuries. The murals at this temple are filled with kung fu stances and legends of the kung fu monks of Shaolin. The rest of the movie is loosely based on one of these tales in which 13 Shaolin monks help save an emperor.
Chueh Yuan (Jet Li) has witnessed the death of his father, a famous fighter at the hands of Wang Jen-Tse, a cruel general. Wang betrays the emperor of the Tang Dynasty and takes control of the East Capital. Gravely injured Chueh Yuan escapes to the Shaolin Temple, where he is nursed back to health by the kind Shaolin master and his 12 disciples. In time, the master and disciples become good friends of Chueh Yuan, who works odd jobs at the temple. One day he runs away to confront Wang, wanting to extract revenge for his father’s death. But, he is defeated badly and is saved by Li Shi Min, who is opposing Wang’s atrocities. Chueh Yuan also saves a beautiful girl Ding Laam, who turns out to be his master’s daughter.
After returning to the temple, Chueh Yuan embraces monkhood, starts learning kung fu and in time masters it. When Li Shi Min escapes imprisonment from Wang, Chueh Yuan helps him get away to build an army. Angered by this, Wang turns his ire on the Shaolin Temple, where he arrives with his army to destroy and burn it to the ground. This sets up a culminating showdown between the 13 monks, their master and Li Shi Min’s army against the evil Wang and his army.
Though pretty dated, The Shaolin Temple is an enjoyable experience. Jet Li in his movie debut looks young and his action is fluid. All the monks in the movie are real kung fu practitioners and it shows in the excellent action scenes. There are no special effects, wires or stunt doubles in this movie. It is refreshing to see such high quality martial arts performances flowing from real performers! Most of the scenes are shot at the actual Shaolin Temple, the gorgeous Pagoda Forest (the cemetery for the Shaolin masters) and some breathtaking rural Chinese landscapes, which is a big plus. Even the room where the monks practice is the real Shaolin practice room, whose floor is broken due to the centuries of foot pounding it has endured. The abbot’s minister and the master, both provide the typical martial-arts-movie-comic-relief. The story is cliched all right, but this is one heck of a good martial arts movie!