Benny Chan’s ‘Shaolin’ combines martial arts tropes and explosive effects

San Francisco Film Society/Courtesy

Between the wattage generated by the mega-star cast and their velvety complexions glowing in high-definition perfection, the viewer’s eyes might be on the verge of shorting out on contact with Benny Chan’s drama “Shaolin.” By pandering to our animalistic affinity for  explosive and shiny things, the film’s sensory stimulus snares the audience in to investigate its soul-searching core.

Andy Lau stars as the militant Hou Jie. He takes pleasure from ruthlessness, and fortunately for Hou, it’s in his job description as a general. Unfortunate, however, is the strain it puts on his relationship with his wife, as well as his young daughter’s artistic development. Rushing out from behind the silken brocade of her mother’s gown, the child presents Hou with an original crayon creation. She loving draws a picture of Hou and innocently scrawls beside it, “Daddy likes to fight.”

Indeed, even in his downtime he embraces violent action. In one scene, Hou relaxes by sipping his tea in a courtyard that boasts the richness of a bygone era while Cao Man (Nicholas Tse) unwinds by maniacally blowing a concrete wall to bits in front of him with automatic weapons. The eye is drawn alternately to the delicateness of the teacup’s porcelain and the dust of the recently demolished ceramic blocks. The tension between the images makes it increasingly evident that calm can’t simultaneously exist with the urge for violence.

When Hou brings his passion for cruelty from the battlegrounds into the family home and prepares to kill the man he regards as a brother for political gain, karmic retribution begins to kick in. His conscience follows when his actions lead to his beloved daughter’s death. Before this spiritual realization, Chan manages to sneak in a wagon chase scene that gets more adrenaline pumping than any Hollywood car chase, as well as countless explosions of sacred temples and impossibly powerful kung fu demonstrations.

These pyrotechnic-powered events provide pulpy entertainment, but the calculated, contemplative moments are when Chan shines most and he invites the viewer to meditate on the struggle between opposing forces: military versus religion, innovation versus tradition, violence versus peace.

Poignant sequences like this are all too frequently cut off. Stop-and-go pacing make the movie thrilling at times and unbearably drawn out at others. Gratuitous slow motion is more of an invitation to seasickness rather than thoughtfulness. Karl Robert Eislen, who plays the role of invasive foreigner as “Sir Peter,” also detracts with stilted laughs and a vocal quality that has as much resonance as cardboard. His ability to express emotion would leave Keanu Reeves with an Oscar if they were in competition.

However In the scheme of things, these transgressions are distracting but forgivable, leaving a mark of purposeful beauty. Carefully planned images reinforce symbols of enlightenment as Hou embarks on his quest to be spiritually sound. One of the opening shots shows a paper-thin flower that rests in the furled, waxen hand of a dead child. The dull gray palette in which the pile-up of bodies becomes indistinguishable from the ashen earth heightens the tragedy of the boy’s fate, his end wrought by war.

Hou’s death is not so senseless as the child’s. He once attempted to destroy the Shaolin temple in hate, but at the end he dies defending it out of love. A peaceful Hou lays in the hands of a Buddha statue, recalling the image of the flower in the child’s hand. This time around, however, the scene is saturated in rich gold and a blaze of orange — warm colors of power — as Hou balances on the precipice of rebirth. The overall effect makes “Shaolin” a painstakingly packaged moral tale.