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

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.

 
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Posted by on January 20, 2011 in Movie Reviews

 

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Our Winner Silver E Picks: Tai Chi Master a/k/a Twin Warriors!

The winner of the first of two JPFmovies give away contests picked Jet Li’s 1993 classic: Tai Chi Master a/k/a Twin Warriors.  Good choice Silver E–there are those who say Twin Warriors is without a doubt Jet’s Li’s finest Shaolin movie and I don’t necessarily disagree with them.  Li does some of his finest martial arts sequences in this flick and manages to make them look effortless.  Twin Warriors also turns what could be a depressing film about two friends who take opposite paths and lightens it up with a segment where Li goes crazy and partakes in some hilarious shenanigans.  First he believes he is a duck and hides underwater in a fountain.  Then he believes a pillar that holds up a building is his long-lost Shaolin master. He even get mad when at a weeble-wobble `Mr. Tao’ doll when it will not answer his questions.

But I shall say no more since Silver has tentatively agreed to review the movie for us after he gets a chance to watch his new DVD.  I know we are all looking forward to it.

 
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Posted by on August 21, 2010 in Movie Reviews

 

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Kung Fu: One of The Great T.V. Series of All Time

Kung Fu: One of The Great T.V. Series of All Time

Kung Fu starring the late David Carradine

Given the recent and unusual circumstances surrounding David Carradine’s death, I thought it only appropriate to let some time pass between his untimely demise and reviewing his trademark character Kwai Chang Kaine in one of the greatest T.V. series ever made: Kung Fu.

Kung Fu lore has it that Bruce Lee originally conceived of the idea for the show and had wanted it to feature Lee as the star.  Carradine, however, pulls it off and would be known for the rest of his life as Kaine.  Kaine, an orphan who was raised by Shaolin monks, was forced to flee China after killing the emperor’s nephew in retaliation for the murder of his kung fu master Po (played by Keye Luke).  Constantly on the run from bounty hunters and assassins from China, Kaine wanders the American West in search of his half-brother Danny.  His conscience forces him to fight injustice wherever he encounters it, fueled by flashbacks of training during which his master famously referred to him as “Grasshopper.” Also dispensing wisdom is the head monk Master Kahn (played by Phillip Ahn).  This show has a very mystical quality and when combined with the eerie music of Jim Helms, that mystic quality is even more fully fleshed-out.

It’s detestable that anyone who hasn’t seen the show often lumps it in with the group of old, campy television shows like “The A-Team” or “Charlie’s Angels” or others similar shows of that ilk. To those Philistines I would like to say that any given, hour-long episode of “Kung Fu” probably contained only about 45 to 60 seconds of actual action–if not less even less. The fact is, David Carradine was as good a leading man and true actor as any TV drama has ever featured.

Caine was a true iconoclast (in the best sense of the word) within the world of mainstream network television–a complete reversal of nearly every American screen hero who came before.  He was not just peaceful–but passive and serene.  As Caine described it–“Kung Fu” was an “anti-revenge television show”–an astonishing premise for a show given the norm of the day.

It certainly could be argued that T.V. was just as much of a wasteland in the ’70s as it is today, but I long for the day when we will be able to view something as good as this again on broadcast television.

As Martin Scorsese (who gave Carradine’s eulogy) said, and with whom I completely agree, “We’re going to miss you Kawai Chang Kaine.”

 
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Posted by on March 21, 2010 in Movie Reviews

 

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