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The Power of Basics: Bonnie Reviews Shaolin Monks in The Wheel of Life

20 Jan

Even though at one point I walked out of this movie, it still deserves a rose. How many movies can you say THAT about?

The plot of The Wheel of Life is simple. The Shaolin monks are invited to demonstrate their amazingly beautiful art for the Emperor. He then invites them to help defend the country as it is invaded. They oblige, but when the Emperor asks them to stay on after the war is over, they refuse, insisting that they must get back to training at the monastery. Vindictively, the Emperor arranges to smuggle a gas-filled statue into the temple, the gas knocks out the monks, and the Emperor sneaks in and murders all but five of them, and their teacher, as they sleep. But the five young monks who survive continue to train with their teacher, develop strong spirits, and continue the work of the temple.

JPFMovies doesn’t usually structure his reviews in the format of an old-fashioned theme. In fact my usage of the word “theme” in the last sentence is so archaic that I wonder how many of you out there even know what I am talking about. It’s what the generation born around the turn of the century – the turn of the 20th century, I mean – called essays that they wrote for school. To use the term “theme” this way makes me feel like I am about 90! However, this movie calls for a theme. Those old-fashioned themes took their nomenclature from the fact that they were structured around a theme. It was what we might nowadays classify as modern, pre-deconstructionist literary analysis. It was even pre-structuralist in some ways. An old-fashioned theme essay, though, is what The Wheel of Life calls out for in spades (well, not in spades – in swords? In staffs? In nuchakus?).

This movie, in fact, has a theme, and it’s pounded into us from start to finish. Most moviegoers, though, will miss that theme – they can’t help it because the martial art presented in The Wheel of Life is so jaw-droppingly awesome. The theme is an old-fashioned, traditional martial arts lesson (yet another reason why my old-fashioned, traditional approach is called for here): basics. More specifically, the power of basics. Fundamentals. The few simple, core techniques that are at the center of this wheel as it spins so brilliantly. It is rare to see basics presented so elegantly and without extraneous adornment – but that is what makes their presentation here so powerful.

Without further ado, in a nutshell, here is the theme of The Wheel of Life: even the most basic movements, even the most basic actions, can be surprisingly powerful. What basics are presented to us as powerful in The Wheel of Life?

o   To begin with, breathing. What could be more basic? Yet wise people from all religions and spiritual backgrounds recognize concentrating on the breath as a powerful and easily accessible path to enlightenment. If you watched The Wheel of Life and were too caught up in the exquisite movements and miraculous feats of these martial artists to notice their breathwork, go back and check out what happens before those movements and feats begin. You’ll find that the more difficult the action, the more meditation and breathwork occurs first. Pay attention to this.

o   Next, the martial arts movements themselves. Watch the following scene from the monks’ demonstration before the Emperor.

You can see that the martial techniques used are fairly simple and basic – kicks, punches, blocks, stance work. You could see these same techniques (except for the breathtaking gymnastics and smattering of yoga that accompanies them) demonstrated in thousands of beginning martial arts classes all over the world. But these are not beginners. What makes them different? These basic movements that all beginners learn are executed here with such fluidity, grace and power that a layperson would not even recognize them as the same movements. What makes them advanced? The addition of exciting complex elements? No. What makes them advanced is the masterful juxtaposition of relaxation and focus, yin and yang, push and pull that is at the foundation of all martial arts. That, and the most basic – yet ironically the most advanced – technique of all – total and utter commitment. Utter commitment to relaxation when it is time to relax. Total and absolute throwing one’s whole body into the movement when it is time to move. Watch an older monk teach this utter commitment to a young student in the clip below. See the difference? Same movements. Different body commitments.

If you are interested in martial arts, take note as well of the use of dynamic tension (slow speed, seeming to resist an invisible force) in some of the movements. I haven’t watched as many martial arts films as the rest of you and certainly not as many as JPFMovies, but I’ve never seen dynamic tension in a martial arts movie before.

o   The theme of basics is carried through theatrically as well. Do we need an expensive movie set and weeks of filming to make a movie? No, it turns out all that is needed is the London Apollo, a willing audience, a few simple adornments for the set, and an amazing group of martial artists. Do we need a complex plot? Not really. Do we need a lot of characters? No. We essentially have three main characters in this movie: the head of the temple, the monks collectively acting as a unit, and the evil Emperor. Do we even need a script? Not really, only a little short narration here and there. No need for dialogue when we have the most basic method of communication in existence at our disposal: body language!

But there is another reason for the simplicity of the set and film method, in addition to the joy of pounding into our heads the beauty and power of basics. That reason is what got me to walk out at one point. The latter third of the movie is dedicated to a series of spirit challenges – challenges so amazing that they had to be filmed in precisely this way, or moviegoers would likely think they were just special effects. I refuse to choose a clip of any of the spirit challenges. But I want you to see the meditation that precedes them (see below). Why won’t I show the spirit challenges? Frankly, they are intense (I couldn’t watch the whole section myself, as noted at the beginning of this review), and I don’t want to be responsible for some idiot going out and trying some of this stuff…these challenges go a few steps beyond simple board breaking.

I didn’t research the making of this movie. JPFMovies says this review is long enough already! Let me just say that this movie is as simple as Red Cliff is lavish – and yet both movies are exquisite. They define the range.

 
25 Comments

Posted by on January 20, 2011 in Movie Reviews

 

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25 responses to “The Power of Basics: Bonnie Reviews Shaolin Monks in The Wheel of Life

  1. Jude Finestra

    January 20, 2011 at 2:03 pm

    Awesome review, dude! Best review I’ve seen on this site in a long time! But this is not just a movie, dude — I saw it live. That’s right, live. These guys went on tour. And that second half of the show, the part you wouldn’t show here, was unbelievable. Unreal. Even when I saw it with my own eyes. Even after meditating, I’m not about to try that spear trick or the one with the bed of nails. No way. But these guys are great. I have their screensaver on my computer, dude!

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  2. dangerousmeredith

    January 20, 2011 at 6:26 pm

    Well I for one thought that your theme based essay was fantastic. I really enjoyed your commentary on the basics of martial arts technique and if I ever watch this movie (and thanks to your essay I will if I come across it) I think I will find your comments to be most useful in helping me to appreciate this movie on another level.

    I do not come from a martial arts background (which is why I find your comments on technique to be so enlightening) but I did used to work as a dancer and choreographer. I am always interested in how martial arts can be used as a performative device, especially when it comes to explicating the principles behind martial arts technique or ideology. I was very interested to note that this film is a filmed live performance. Have you ever seen any martial arts shows as a live performance? How do you think it compares with seeing martial arts movies?

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  3. Bonnie

    January 20, 2011 at 10:58 pm

    Hi Dangerous and Jude,

    Thank you both very much for your comments! I am so glad that you enjoyed my review.

    Dangerous, the only martial arts shows that I have seen live were performances of Thousand Waves in Chicago, where I used to train (and wish I still did! but I live too far away now). (Anyone who is reading this, if you live in Chicago and are looking for a martial arts school, check out Thousand Waves, which is having a buy one/get one month free member drive right now, meaning as of 1/20/2011, at http://www.thousandwaves.org). Based on that experience, I have to say that live performances are much more inspiring than movies…and always well worth seeing. One thing I forgot to mention in this review is that seeing Wheel of Life is also a lavish opportunity to enjoy the beauty of martial movements (and for the squeamish, like me, it’s a chance to enjoy seeing martial movement on a big screen without any fear of gore). We often don’t think in terms of martial arts being beautiful in the same way that dance is beautiful, but, Dangerous, with your dance background, I’ll bet that you do appreciate it on that level as well. It’s also wonderful to see martial arts in a film without having the art and aesthetic interrupted by plot. But I think I’m probably in the minority with that opinion!

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    • dangerousmeredith

      January 22, 2011 at 2:05 am

      Bonnie I actually hate gore as well. I can tolerate it in MA movies because it is so obviously what I call ‘cartoon violence’ but, outside of kung fu movies, I can’t watch violence – no Reservoir Dogs or SAW movies for me! The reason why I watch kung fu movies is because of the dance like grace and virtuosity, and because the choreography is so beauitful (and because they’re a lot of fun). I hope you write more reviews about martial arts shows with more of your ‘theme based’ insights.

      Jude – you are very lucky to have seen this live. It must indeed have been awesome.

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      • Bonnie

        January 25, 2011 at 4:45 am

        Thanks, Dangerous! JPFMovies is always after me to write more reviews — I will when I can find the time. I’m glad you liked this one so much — your opinion means a lot since I suspect you’ve seen more of these than I have! :-)

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  4. jpfmovies

    January 22, 2011 at 9:58 pm

    Dr H says hi and he is glad to hear from Jude and Dangerous. He is working on something exciting and we will hear from him shortly.

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    • Person

      January 22, 2011 at 11:32 pm

      What’s the exciting project? Is it a non-martial arts film (I hope)?

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      • dangerousmeredith

        January 23, 2011 at 4:41 pm

        JP please say Hi back to Dr H and tell him I am looking forward to his upcoming exciting blog.

        I am just about to post a blog in which I ask for some movie viewing selections to fit a certain theme – I am hoping that you guys will read it and draw on your extensive viewing experience to make some suggestions. Martial arts AND non-martial arts movie suggestions are welcome.

        (Although shame on you Person – what’s wrong with martial arts movies?)

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      • JPFmovies

        January 25, 2011 at 9:55 am

        I sure will relay your message dangerous!

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  5. Person

    January 23, 2011 at 5:20 pm

    Hi Dangerous:
    I’d love to make movie suggestions. What’s the theme, and what’s the URL for your site?
    As for martial arts, I just find these films uninteresting . . . I prefer more brain and less brawn, with the exception of dance-related films. (I can watch the worst-acted of these and still love the artistry – I dance and know what goes into making it look so breathtaking, yet easy.)

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    • dangerousmeredith

      January 24, 2011 at 5:23 pm

      Person, here is the URL: http://dangerousmeredith.wordpress.com/2011/01/24/suggestions-please/#comment-319

      And the theme is to do with the use of the body / physicality in films that is unusual in some way. I want people to suggest films they have seen that might fit into this theme in any way they feel is relevant. Because I am a martial arts movie freak I have a few films from that genre in mind, but I also welcome suggestions to do with films from any other genre.

      As a dancer you would indeed have a heightened sensitivity to physicality so any suggestions you have to make would be most welcome.

      But that goes to any of you guys who might be reading this…

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      • Person

        January 24, 2011 at 8:12 pm

        Thank you for providing the site’s URL and further details. I’ll be sending my suggestions to you directly at your site.

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    • Bonnie

      January 25, 2011 at 4:52 am

      Person, since you say you dance, consider the possibility that what goes into the making of a martial arts performance is analogous — there is a reason why martial art is classified as an art. I also used to dance, by the way (lots of former dancers are drawn to the martial arts), so I feel qualified to say that just as much thinking goes into martial as into dance choreography — and as you may know, sometimes the line between dance and fighting is blurred.

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      • dangerousmeredith

        January 25, 2011 at 11:03 pm

        The more that line is blurred the better for me. When the martial arts in the movies becomes more dance like that’s when I like it – more emphasis on the beauty of the movement and less on actual gore

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  6. dr H

    January 25, 2011 at 10:05 am

    PERSON, JUDE , DANGEROUS AND SILVER EMULSION
    I was planning to keep it a secret but really its no big deal. I am toying with the idea to have a special Oscars review just like the pros, who should win and who most likely will win, you know the drill but to keep it exciting we will create a format where you guys can choose yourself and win dvds based on correct guesses for all major categories. Now hows that for an idea? Man, its hard to be modest when you are so smart.

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    • jpfmovies

      January 25, 2011 at 10:07 am

      Dr. H–I am about to post the review for Punishment Park. Take a look!.

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  7. dangerousmeredith

    October 5, 2011 at 2:55 am

    Hi Bonnie, are you on Facebook? I gather that JP thinks it’s the work of the devil. I subscribe to a page called Heroic Sisterhood which, although it welcomes the presence of fellas as kind of honorary sisters, is basically for ladies to share their thoughts about martial arts movies. If it’s OK with you I thought I might link this review to this page as they are always looking for input (and I can mention all of JP’s samurai film reviews too!)

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  8. Bonnie

    October 8, 2011 at 11:34 pm

    Hi Dangerous, yes, I am on Facebook–I’ll look for Heroic Sisterhood. I suspect JPFMovies would love to have links there to any of the reviews here–he’ll be thrilled to get more page views for the site, even though you are right that he is totally against FB on general principles… :-)

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  9. Bonnie

    October 8, 2011 at 11:43 pm

    Hi again Dangerous, I looked but can’t find it–I’ll ask JPFMovies to send you my FB information in case you want to try sending me a link to it that way…thanks again for the suggestion!

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    • dangerousmeredith

      October 15, 2011 at 6:26 pm

      Do that, Bonnie. Or you are welcome to track me down – Meredith Lewis – and you can get onto it that way? But some way we can start linking the Asian action movie reviews / articles you guys write onto the page

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      • jpfmovies

        October 17, 2011 at 4:36 pm

        That is a really good idea dangerous I am not sure how to do it but maybe silver knows. BTY I acquired about 10 old school Chambra films a couple of which I’ll review after I get through the Judge- MacFarlane debate.

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        • dangerousmeredith

          October 18, 2011 at 2:01 am

          Great. When you write your Chambara reviews I can link them in

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          • jpfmovies

            November 5, 2011 at 2:37 am

            Ok Dangerous got up A Cruel Story for you. P.S. Bonnie Says Hi.

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            • dangerousmeredith

              November 13, 2011 at 6:06 pm

              And hi back to Bonnie. Please disregard a question I just left on the A cruel Story blog – you answered it in the comment above.

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