Legend of Shaolin Kungfu series is a trilogy consisting of Heroes in Troubled Times, Thirteen Warrior Monks, and Eighteen Arhats. The first, Heroes in Troubled Times, consisting of 42 episodes, is now airing in China to great success, with very high viewership ratings. It seems that the DVD has not been officially released in China yet. So far, the full length DVD appears to be available only in Singapore. Picture quality of this DVD set, except for the last disc, is the not the best since it's compressed quite a bit, with slightly fuzzy images when the camera zooms about, with 8 episodes being packed onto a single DVD-9 disc.Legend of Shaolin Kungfu I comes in six short stories telling the daring exploits of the 5 disciples of Abbot Zhiyuan. The last is a vagrant who tags along with the 5 monks after he meets them; a smart-aleck character of great annoyance who breaks all rules as a monk, yet remains faithful to Shaolin Temple. The stories are independent of each other, except for the relationships, ties and backgrounds of the characters who appear throughout the series. Being independent stories, it seems that the 5 disciples of abbot Zhiyuan rarely make much progress in martial arts skills, and training sequences are notably absent.
The Neurotic Prince - Our favourite baddie Ji Chun Hua plays a bloodthirsty, aggressive, vile general serving under psychotic and maniacal Prince Anthony Wong. Second and third disciples Li Yuan and Ye Jian Wei have some superb sequences against Ji Chun Hua here. Li Yuan is simply amazing.
The Brigands - Yu Cheng Hui and his gang of brigands are posing a big threat to the region, robbing caravans, killing and kidnapping the people. Some of them even dress as monks, thereby implicating Shaolin Temple. Yu Cheng Hui is someone who looks more radiant, commanding as he ages. He's doubled frequently (possibly by the fantastic Guo Hui who also appears in this portion as Yu Cheng Hui's right-hand man) - for crazy stunts that someone nearing/around 70 years old wouldn't be able to pull off anyway. But it's still a delight to watch when he is doing his own martial arts - double-handed sword - even if the weapon used is a variation.
Contention for the Kasaya - Despite his present status as the High Priest, enjoying immense power and prestige, expelled Shaolin monk Wu Ma is still not satisfied. He is still sore over not being named the successor to Shaolin Temple and covets Bodhidharma's Kayasa. A slow-moving story. Yawning not included - provide your own.
The Bodhi Sword - The 5 Shaolin disciples are now assigned to guarding The Bodhi Sword that everyone, including Chen Jia Jia and Tsui Siu Ming, are eying on. This is my favourite; finally some training sequences here but still not enough of them. Somewhat wuxia-esque, dance-like flavour for Chen Jia Jia's action scenes. Very touching scene on how the monks would rather transfer the pain to themselves than let the deer come to further harm.
Princess' Love - Lovely Princess
Fatima Yaqi runs away from arranged marriage to Shaolin Temple to look for her missing lover Xie Miao. Finally, Xie Miao gets to shine here with weapon work and fisticuffs. The exchanges between the monks themselves during the trials represent some of the best martial arts sequences ever.
Return of the Prince - The brother of present emperor of Qi sees the royal family from the previous dynasty a prime threat to his ascendency. Having found out that the former prince is hiding in Shaolin Temple, he sends general Li Qi Long to capture him. Just as the first, the final segment of the series contains lots of fightings.
The scrīpt is excellent, compelling, with good pace. All characters are well-written, each having distinct personalities, strengths, and weaknesses - except for the abbot, who is practically enlightened, flawless, above all worldly desires. He's after all, modelled after 2nd Zen Patriarch Hui Ke. Each story usually opens with a simple, typical setting. Yet as it progresses, there unfolds layer after layer of complexity, and involves something of an even bigger scope and/or twist. Fair amount of philosophies are dished out too, often by abbot Bao Guo An while his six disciples, who are selfless and kind by nature, are practitioners who have to overcome obstacles along the way, not yielding to temptations, and learning to let go, to forgive their enemies. It's a faithful production revolving around Shaolin Temple that tries its best not to distort Buddhist doctrines, by having monks eating meat and such.
I've never seen such an impressive ensemble of martial artists in one single TV series since Master of Taichi. The production advertises having 16 wushu champions and they're not joking. Each of the six stories comes with a number of different opponents, all with strong martial arts background, for the 5 monks to fight. In other words, those who fight, must have the capacity to do so well. And those who don't fight, are veteran actors who provide convincing acting. This is the best kungfu series I've seen since 36th Chamber of Southern Shaolin - I'd have gone with Seven Swordsmen if it's not wuxia.
Not only does Legend of Shaolin Kungfu contains three to four times the amount of martial arts scenes compared to a regular series, they are executed mostly to utmost perfection, with no resort to camera tricks. It's a wonder they are able to film such a large quantity of martial arts sequences, all reasonably long, ranging from 1 to 3 minutes, without sacrificing quality in just 4 months (Correction: They spent almost 6 months in filming). Moreover, the fights are not thrown in haphazardly for the sake of having fights - they blend seamlessly with the plot. There's always a motivation behind each fight.
All martial arts sequences are of exceptional quality, on the realistic side, with occasional use of pseudo bullet time, used to good effects. The one to one exchanges are especially great. However, when the 5 Shaolin monks team up to fight one impossibly strong opponent at the end of each story, the choreography gets rather shoddy implementation, with weak formations, quick cuts, and rather chaotic, over-the-top choreography. Maybe Ching Siu Tung can't handle formation fighting, or maybe they're short of time. And it's odd that the monks still need to team up even up to the final story. Haven't they made any progress at all? Are Shaolin martial arts so weak that they can't face an opponent single-handedly, or it's simply for the sake of ensemble casting? Or maybe I need to watch this from the perspective of the guy being surrounded, since when the 5 Shaolin monks fight individually against many opponents, the action remains good. Otherwise, the editing of the action is good, with wide shots and long cuts, showing everything clearly. However, sometimes, they love chopping up a martial arts sequences into parts, inserting a drama scene in between. This is bad. Big disruption, and they've even eaten up bits of the action in the process, such that when it switches back to the martial arts sequence, it doesn't always connect to the previous part.
Among the five Shaolin disciples, each using an unique skill or two, Li Yuan (above) stands out the most. He's certainly one to watch out for. He has a very good potential. His moves exhibit a combination of athleticism, effortlessness, potentency, and gracefulness. He is simply amazing and highly convincing. While he uses fist almost exclusively, he is no less conversant in swordplay, though only employed once. His fortes are Taichi, Sword, Sabre, Drunken Sword, Praying Mantis Fist; Tae Kwan Do; and Sanda. Ching Siu Tung must have been impressed by him to invite him for An Empress and the Warriors. He'll be playing the antagonist in Legend of Bruce Lee series. Ye Jian Wei and Xie Miao put up very good performances too, handling complex manoeuvres with ease. Wang Xiao Long is still young and is there mostly for adding a touch of cuteness. Li Chong is perhaps the only monk not known to have martial arts background. His actions are of more simplistic, straight-foward, brute force type, something suitable for one of his size and weight.
Legend of Shaolin Kungfu shows that China has no shortage of fresh martial arts talent, it just depends on whether the producer, director are willing to take the risk and cast them when they shoot a kungfu series/film, in which only professional martial artists are capable of bringing out the authentic flavour of and doing true justice to martial arts. Many kudos to Du Xiao for daring to make such an bold investment in bringing fresh martial arts talent to the screen. Definitely looking forward to Legend of Shaolin Kungfu 2, where most of 5 disciples are back.
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