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Capsule Reviews

Shaolin Wooden Men    (1976)
Anyone who follows the martial arts film genre would have already seen countless films set in or around Shaolin with an array of temples and monks. What could any film propose that was new in this setting? And what dramatic elements or eccentric plot devices could be imagined to breathe life into this over-crowded sub-genre, where the dynastic architecture has already been worn smooth by innumerable film crews?

Well, director Lo Wei’s answer to this is Shaolin Wooden Men - an early Jackie Chan film that is somewhat of a stand-out moment between Lo’s and Chan’s lengthy collaboration, (or contractual obligation!). So, with a reasonably routine back-story and setting, could Shaolin Wooden Men do anything progressive for the genre?

The film makes use of most conventions of the genre, but they are never painful and mostly enjoyable. Chan is used liberally, and his versatility is more than a vague suggestion, as if everyone on board were just beginning to wake up to just what he was capable of. Throughout the first reel, we see him, as Dumb Boy, take on teachings from any one who offers. His open-minded and dedicated characteristics are admirable; the silent, sensitive and respectful character he plays really does draw a note of empathy.

This is at odds to some of his more playful roles, yet it no less pleasurable to watch, and it’s certainly refreshing at times. Also, we see true rivals for Dumb Boy throughout the film in the shape of delinquent gangs and hardened criminals. Often, he is pitted against older and more experienced fighters, and the idea of Dumb Boy playing a victimised underdog is presented. Interestingly enough, real-life opera school colleague Yuen Biao is featured fleetingly in one of these clashes, and has the pleasure of delivering a single line of dialogue in a later scene!

Director Lo, (and presumably Chan Chi Hwa) may not be innovators of cinema, but his film is shot well, and edited with much tighter control and attention to the martial arts rhythm than most kung fu flicks from this era. The film is less susceptible to the common loss of momentum that occurs to so many of these films (typically around the second act), but we are asked to sit through some initially confusing moments regardless. Sudden costume changes and leaps in continuity do occur occasionally.

Nevertheless, there is a good distinction between the dialogue/plot-driven scenes and the action sequences in the film. And there are even some creatively framed scenes that showcase a natural symmetry: one in particular shows a nice pull-back shot of Dumb Boy practising on top of a waterfall. There are some syncopated and rushed-through moments however, and the common speed-of-light dramatic plot changes of this genre do occur – these may pass over your head if you blink!

Certainly, it has the cast, locales and at least the standard ingredients for a promising film, including a provocative title. Considering the mixed quality that Lo is renowned for, this turned out to be one of his more well-rounded and cohesive productions. Compare this film to say, Fearless Hyena 2 - a troubled production and study in maniacal editing; this film might be close to Lo’s Citizen Kane.

It could be said that yes, the action and choreography itself is fairly traditional, and Chan purists may be displeased with his action sequences; but you must admit that they are solid and fairly snappy, and more importantly they are framed and shot pretty well – nothing important is missed. Fighting in the film is typically two opponents exchanging techniques on fairly even ground sans weapons as Chan’s trademark action sequences were yet to be unearthed. Occasionally spears and poles are used is some of the sequences, but never by Chan and they are not that memorable anyway.

In this respect, Shaolin Wooden Men is no ground-breaker. However it has something else to offer. Instead of the routine plot of two rival factions competing for dominance of their respective styles/schools, we have a master and student, youth and age, humility and arrogance pitched against one another. In this sense, the film makes a comment to me about flexibility of mind and body. What will triumph, the old, tested and rigid, or the new, unknown and adaptable?

The Shaolin Wooden Men themselves represent rigidity in their movement, physicality and purpose, but their fate is sealed early on in the film. Interestingly, the films draw-card, its soulless, mechanised and brutal wooden men, turn out to be much less threatening than a human man. Could this be a comment on human nature itself?
Ryan Gobbe 5/28/2009 - top

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 5/28/2009 Ryan Gobbe

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