Sunday, 5 February 2012

Jetruary #1: Shaolin Temple (1982)

Jet Li makes his feature film debut as a young fighter out to avenge the murder of his father at the hands of an evil warlord. After escaping captivity he is nursed to health by a group of monks and once he recovers he decides to train and enhance his skills in order to defeat the warlord and free an oppressed people.

Jet Li is arguably one of the biggest stars to come out of China. Following in the foot steps of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, Jet was able to achieve success in the west with his role as the villain Wah Sing Ku in Richard Donner's Lethal Weapon 4. Western audiences instantly went crazy for Jet and soon he was making english language movies for big money. The interesting thing is before he appeared in Lethal Weapon 4, Jet had already been enjoying a hugely successful career in Hong Kong since the early 80's and his first film is the one in which I'll be talking about today.

Having watched the film it's easy to see why local audiences warmed to Jet right away. His fresh faced exuberance and expert martial arts skills make him a very likable leading man. Here his acting isn't particularly good but it was his first film and he had no prior acting experience so expecting him to be able to create a compelling performance would have been too much to ask. Instead the film concentrates on being able to showcase his talent for Wu Shu. For those unfamiliar, Wu Shu is an exhibition and full-contact martial art practiced primarily in Mainland China. When he turned 8, Jet was put into a Wu Shu class and by the time he was 16 had competed in over 40 countries. Most famously in 1974 when he performed in front of then American president Richard Nixon.

So with an affinity for Chinese martial arts it wasn't long before he was asked to star in Shaolin Temple. Unlike a lot of Hong Kong martial arts stars who started out as bit players and stunt men before going onto bigger and better things, in Mainland China a lot of young performers were given lead roles with varying degrees of success. Jet was the latest in a long line of martial artists who had come before him but Jet was fortunate enough to capture the attention of local film goers. Shaolin Temple is a wonderful example of his skills and it's understandable why the film created such a sensation upon release.

Moving on from our leading man to his fellow co-stars. All of them fulfill the roles they are given. Nothing special about them. Those who need to fight on screen do an absolute cracking job of it. Particularly Yu Hai who plays the part of Jet's master. Along side him making his film debut. Master Yu is a real-life martial arts master. Having invented his own form of Mantis Style martial arts. For someone who had never acted before he gives a very credible performance and after appearing in the film he went on to be a widely recognized celebrity in his native China. Everyone else on the other hand isn't really worth talking about. Kung Fu villain Ji Chun Hua appears as a warlord's henchman but doesn't do much except scowl and fight people.

The bland characters also happen to deal with an incredibly by the numbers plot. Even by this time in the 80's film makers were moving away from the more traditional martial arts films and making contemporary action films. It seems China was a little slow on the uptake with this and kept on with the old school. Which isn't bad because even if the story is predictable, the action is incredibly well done. China is never short of good Kung Fu practitioners and Mainland film were always known for it's incredibly fast, acrobatic and intricately choreographed action. Shaolin Temple doesn't jeopardize that in anyway. You can just tell hours were spent preparing and filming each scene. 

Jet by far is the most impressive of the bunch. With his precision kicks and blistering punching combinations it's no wonder the man ended up with the nickname Jet. There's a rather stand out brawl between a group of the warlord's soldiers and a group of monks led by Yu Hai that come to the aide of Jet's character. This is some of the best martial arts weapons fighting I've seen done in the 80's that wasn't choreographed by either Sammo Hung or Lau Kar-Leung. Everyone involved does fantastic work. Weapons fans who have yet to see this will be more then pleased by this fight as it packs in plenty of different traditional weapons such as staffs, swords and spears.

That is by far the most enjoyable thing about this film. There is a lot of diverse and plentiful action. The finale which sees Jet take on the warlord who murdered his father is one of Jet's best. That says a lot considering some of the instant classics that he's starred in such as Once Upon A Time In China II and Fist of Legend. Both Jet and his opponent played by Yu Chen Hui throw in just about everything they can think of the make it one hell of a fight. It starts out with weapons before moving to some incredible empty handed combat then quickly goes back to more weapons fighting. A truly classic bout that should not be missed by anyone.

So concludes the first review for Jetruary. Hope you enjoyed this brief review and hope you join me next time when I'll be taking a look at another Jet's early films in his career.

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