Ye Jianwei, Chen Ke, Liu Ruicheng
US DVD: 31 Dec 2013
The proliferation of cheap digital video cameras and video editing software has led to just about everyone believing they can be, or already are, a filmmaker. Couple this with direct-to-DVD distributors who spend very little to pick up these already cheap films and quite a few of these aspiring filmmakers have been proven “right”, as their hardly stellar little movies hit the racks of retail chains all across the USA.
However, this is hardly a phenomenon relegated to the US alone, as Shaolin Warrior gleefully clarifies for us. True, 2013’s Bonnie & Clyde: Justified does show us how ineptly a story of Americana can truly be told, but Shaolin Warrior (which was also domestically distributed by Lionsgate Home Entertainment) reaches back into Chinese history and tells its tale even more poorly than did Bonnie & Clyde: Justified but with the extra, added ingredient of cartoonish silliness.
The cover of Shaolin Warrior looks impressive enough with a Jackie Chan-esque fighter posed skillfully in front of a temple. The tagline “Courage Made Him a Hero” promises an exciting “Kung Fu Theater” style motion picture, imperfect, but fun. However, when the actual feature unspools on the home screen, the audience is greeted with an image somewhere between an inexpensive digital video camera and a VHS camcorder. This is a shame, because once you get in it Shaolin Warrior showcases some beautiful countryside and architecture—which is lost on the poor video transfer.
The story revolves around a brash young martial artist who proves to be too inept and obnoxious to become a Shaolin warrior (clearly he is a microcosm of and stand-in for the film itself). Thus the kid (after a few laughable “second chances”) seeks employment at the palace of the King of Chu, where he runs into some horrifying discoveries as well as a lot more trouble.
Up until this part of the film, whether watching with the original Mandarin dialogue or the English dubbing, any member of the audience could be easily fooled into believing that Shaolin Warrior was intended to be an ironic comedy or even live-action cartoon. Every actor over-exaggerates every movement and facial expression to the point of appearing to be in some kind of Hanna-Barbera television short in which someone just exclaimed “Zoinks!” The plot is dull, plodding and simplistic, and the editing somehow still manages to make the movie confusing.
Any member of the audience could also be forgiven for mistaking this as a film for children for these exact same reasons. That is until the repugnant cannibalism subplot begins. This horrifying story thread is initially treated as a dark revelation, but soon, like the rest of the film’s plot points, it ineptly devolves into an excuse for more slapstick and cheesy one liners. “I’ll eat you!” one powerful character often threatens during the last quarter of this overlong and under-plotted martial arts movie.
Martial Arts should be the key to this film. It is, after all, a Kung Fu-centric movie, so the question is: How are the Martial Arts in Shaolin Warrior? They are “ok”. Surely should one encounter such skills in a local Kung Fu school, one would be impressed. However, this isn’t a local Kung Fu school, this is an international movie release that purports to showcase some of the best trained “warriors” in the world of martial arts and Shaolin Warrior quite simply does not fulfill this promise.
Not every film can feature the talents of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan or Chuck Norris, sure, but with the freeze frames, sped up camera work, slow motion and other camera tricks (many of which look like they were shot with Instagram), the impression is given that director Dou Xiao intended to cover up, not showcase, the martial arts talent in this film.
All of this put together would make for a poor viewing experience anyway, but the ending could potentially have wrecked any remaining potential this film had. Humorously, after this non-ending takes place, a title card appears to fill us in on what we just saw happen, in case the audience might get confused by the complexity of the final act. It is uncertain, at best, what audience would find this ending (or the rest of the film) terribly complex, but the filmmakers clearly believed it needed a recap. For those audience members who were confused or might have clamored for more, there are no real extras on this disc, aside from subtitles, an English Language Dub and the theatrical trailer.
Do not judge this flashy-looking DVD by its cover. Shaolin Warrior is low-rent all the way.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times.