April 03, 2007

RETURN TO THE SHAOLIN TEMPLE: Meeting two unsung martial heroes.

Beijing is a long way from Hunan, but, to my happy surprise, I had a Shaolin encounter in the Chinese capital. I was invited to a dinner at which two of my fellow guests were Simmon Xu and Ji Chun-hua, both veterans of the original Shaolin Temple. This was the film that brought to the cinema real Shaolin, modern Wu Shu and a young martial arts champion named Jet Li.

Prior to this 1982 production, Shaolin had always been a wooden backdrop on the Shaw Brothers backlot or, on the old Kung Fu TV series, sets left over from the film version of Camelot. The original film saw the actual monastery filmed for the first time, though scenes set at Shaolin were also shot at various other scenic temples.

The bearded, charming Simmon (aka Chui Heung-tung) speaks Mandarin (naturally), decent English and excellent French. He picked up this last when he spent two and a half years teaching Wu Shu in Paris. It was fun to flex my Gallic language skills, such as they are, for the first time in ages. Simmon revealed that the first Shaolin Temple movie actually began production with actors, rather than wu shu experts, in the lead roles. Some of the performers were Chinese Opera players, but none were actual fighters. Half-way through, the producers realized it wasn’t working, junked the existing footage and recast the film with real champions. If not for this decision, perhaps the movie world might never have been graced with Jet Li.

After Shaolin Temple was released, the film was such a huge success that hundreds of youngsters left their homes and, seeking to emulate the film’s hero, embarked on a journey to distant Hunan, and the legendary birthplace of kung fu. The situation was taken sufficiently seriously that the government issued a decree. In the People’s Republic, it intoned, everyone was protected by the state, and therefore learning self-defence was unnecessary. Regardless, the previously moribund temple got a new lease of life, and a thriving community grew up around Shaolin.

After the success of Shaolin Temple, Simmon also worked on such cult kung fu classics as Holy Robe Of Shaolin, Wing Chun (wherein he dueled Michelle Yeoh) and the debut film of Jacky Wu AKA Wu Jing, Tai Chi 2 AKA Tai Chi Boxer.

Simmon was also involved in the early stages of a popular Dragon Dynasty release, Seven Swords. Shaolin Temple director Zhang Xinyan (Cheung Sing-yim), who has been a relatively obscure figure since that film’s release, brought the concept of a movie based on ‘Seven Swordsmen Of Mount Tian’ to Tsui Hark. (Tsui mentions this in his interview on our Seven Swords disc.) In the end, Tsui elected to direct the movie himself. Simmon worked on the Seven Swords TV series shot back-to-back with the film. He also has a major role in the Wing Chun TV series, which stars Nicholas Tse (from Dragon Tiger Gate) and the Prodigal Son team of Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao. He is about to start work on a second kung fu TV series starring Tse.

The Mainland Chinese TV industry is enormously more lucrative than is movie business. This explains why martial arts movie actors including Chiu Man-chuk (Zhou Wing Zhou), Wu Jing and Fan Siu-wong have been absent from the big screen for great lengths of time.

Ji Chun-hua cuts a striking figure. Due to a childhood illness, he is completely bald, even by the standards of a Shaolin monk! Like most screen villains, he is enormously charming off camera, with a quick smile and ready laugh. He just returned from a trio to the US, and sports on his cap, rather incongruously, a pin from the Bill Clinton centre. (This alone indicates he has a sense of humour.) Ji also had a key role in the Lau Kar-leung (Liu Chia-liang) directed Martial Arts Of Shaolin, which, though not as ground-breaking, is overall a better made film than Shaolin Temple. He would work with fellow former Wu Shu champion Jet Li again in Fong Sai-yuk 2 and New Legend Of Shaolin. Ji is about to start work on the film Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon, which stars Andy Lau, Sammo Hung and my sister-in-arms Maggie Q.

Since the first Shaolin Temple movie was shot, there have been great changes to the actual Shaolin site. After an uncontrolled expansion and commercialization of the area, there came a very controversial ‘clean sweep’, with the temple’s new abbot forcibly removing unauthorized vendors and kung fu schools from the area immediately surrounding the temple. He went on to copyright the word ‘Shaolin’. The temple authorities are now working with various production companies to develop ‘official’ Shaolin projects, including a TV series, videogame and even a remake of the original Shaolin Temple movie.

As we emerged from the restaurant, there was a full moon over Beijing, a suitable setting to bid farewell, for now, to these martial heroes. Shaolin Temple will be a forthcoming Dragon Dynasty release, and these veterans of the movie promised to put me in contact with the rest of the cast and crew. It’ll be great to finally give this ground-breaking classic the DVD release it deserves.


Hi! How r u? nice site!
- shadowman, MESSAGE | 2007-04-29 00:29:12
Yeah, I'm excited to see Shaolin Temple released!
- Jeff, | 2007-04-10 14:14:51
Wow, a remastered Shaolin Temple? That's superb news. I actually bought a region free player specifically for DD releases - looks like it was a good decision ha!
- Gino Rossetti, South Wales, UK | 2007-04-10 09:24:21
Oh, by the way Bey (great phrase) does this bring back memories?
- Gino Rossetti, South Wales, UK | 2007-04-10 09:27:55


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