Shaolin on DVD and Blu-ray

Monday, 12 September 2011 00:00

Asian film makers churn out action-packed period epics at an alarming rate of knots, and Cine Asia's new release "Shaolin" is up there with the best of them. The star-studded cast includes Andy Lau, Nicholas Tse, Jackie Chan and Wu Jing, with director Benny Chan bravely but successfully moving outside his comfort zone of modern-day crime thrillers such as "Connected" and "New Police Story".

Lau plays General Hou, a power-hungry yet fearful warlord who accrues massive wealth, suspects everyone and plots the death of a fellow general. Objecting to a lack of recognition and disagreeing with the General's handling of diplomacy with the British, his right-hand man called Cao (Tse) betrays his boss. Hou is forced to flee his luxuriant compound, leaving his beloved wife's fate unknown and in possession of his seriously injured young daughter.

Shaolin on DVD and Blu-rayHou seeks sanctuary in the very Shaolin temple he formerly invaded in pursuit of a desperate rival warlord. Mercifully, the monks forgive him of his sins and endeavour to bring him round to their ways, ultimately hoping he will repent for his grave misdeeds. The bad news is that the newly instated General Cao is every bit as obsessive and bloody-thirsty as his former leader, and as such his evil gaze is bound to fall on the temple before too long, with terrible consequences for all concerned.

"Shaolin" is another of those movies that pays obsessive attention to some aspects of the period in which it is set, but in other regards is happy to disregard realism in favour of entertainment. Fortunately, this is not really a problem as the film establishes its style very quickly and then sticks to it. The sets are stupendous both in terms of scale and painstaking detail (for example, they 'made' trees from moulds of suitable samples located elsewhere!). The costumes and props are lavish.

The action is thrilling and varied in terms of set pieces, fight scenes, direction and choreography. There is a fair amount of wirework and this does occasionally go a bit too far in my view, momentarily shaking your suspension of disbelief, but it is so fluidly executed that again you are readily prepared to forgive it. Two standout action scenes include Hou's flight from his home, which includes a thrilling roof-top battle, leading on to a horse-and-cart race through city streets and along a perilous cliff top pass, and secondly a mesmerising fight between numerous monks on one side and jailers and armed guards on the other, the former band trying to free hundreds of caged slaves awaiting imminent execution.

This is a martial arts movie that is not afraid to let the blood flow (hence the ‘15’ certificate), and the body count is immense. Battles vary between intense one-on-one encounters and zoomed-out scenes where literally dozens if not hundreds of people are fighting for their lives. The monks' collective wish to lead peaceful, contemplative lives is literally shattered thanks to the constant warmongering going on on their doorstep.

As suggested above, the story covers standard themes such as greed, betrayal, anger and sacrifice, and most of the time "Shaolin" portrays them clearly and succinctly. Once or twice it does break this rule and dwells a little too long on a more cloying moment, becoming overly sentimental when you wish it would just get on with the show.

The acting and kung fu are of a high standard, and Lau in particular brilliantly captures General Hou's journey from evil, cold-hearted military dictator to selfless, courageous monk. It is refreshing to see Wu Jing playing a goody (one of the senior monks), though he gets ample opportunity to show off his martial arts prowess once more, and consequently is not straying too far from his normal role! Nicholas Tse is probably the weakest of the major players, though by no means a failure. His Cao is largely a pantomime villain, ably assisted by his lop-sided fringe that covers one eye like a pirate's eye patch.

The special effects and CGI are of a familiarly high standard for Cine Asia releases, helping to breathe life and credibility into panoramic shots, and special mention must go to the explosions. The sneaky, back-stabbing British army let loose with their high-tech weaponry (read: cannons) at one point, and with stunning effect as buildings erupt in a mass of fireballs, wooden shrapnel and stone fragments. Much of this destruction was shot using real explosions in real-scale buildings rather than CGI or miniatures, and it is genuinely impressive.

The two disc DVD release reviewed here and the Blu-ray single disc edition both come with a frankly overwhelming array of special features, bumping the total running time up from 125 minutes to 370 on the DVD, and an incredible 445 on the Blu-ray. Both versions include sizeable galleries of trailers, interviews, making-of and behind-the-scenes featurettes, along with an optional 5.1 English audio dub (which is excellently voice-acted) and an audio commentary by expert Bey Logan.

The added bonus features on the Blu-ray include an exclusive 'Shaolin Wushu in Action' feature and 10 deleted scenes. Mercifully, the special features are of a higher quality than the slightly rough-edged items witnessed in some recent Cine Asia releases. The one caveat is that a few of the interviews curiously feature jumping visuals (crew members working in the background spontaneously disappear as a cast member chats away  in the foreground), and some of them are subject to frustrating editing where a star briefly answers a question, the screen fades to black, they do the same again, rinse and repeat. Not very elegant but thankfully the rest of the bonus content is more professionally put together.

“Shaolin” (2011) is out now on DVD (reviewed) and Blu-ray, courtesy of Cine Asia. The main feature has a running time of 125 minutes approx, carries a ‘15’ certificate and retails for £17.99 on DVD, £24.99 on Blu-ray, or less from www.culttvstore.com

Last modified on Thursday, 10 May 2012 16:37

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