Friday, December 18, 2009


What is the real Shaolin?

Is it running up and down a mountain carrying increasingly heavy buckets of water with straight outstretched arms to the sides as the exercise teaches strength, balance and endurance as one looks like a floundering airplane about to crash into said mountain.

Maybe it is about training eight hours a day, for years on end to become a champion of martial arts or even a great kung fu master, where with such attainment doors will open for riches, glory and success?

Perhaps one wants to emulate their various icons and heroes, find a new philosophical or spiritual path, or follow a dream of a better life.

Depending on who you are, it could be none of the above, all of the above or some of the above.

Set in Deng Feng, Henan province, and shot over an 18-month period, one of the major highlights at this year’s 2009 San Diego Asian Film Festival was the documentary THE REAL SHAOLIN, directed by Korean-American Alexander S. Lee.

The film subliminally and overtly investigates these notions as Lee follows these various real Shaolin lives as via the adventures of four real Shaolin wannabe disciples with differing expectations.

Abandoned at the Shaolin Temple, nine-year old, orphaned Chinese boy Yuan Peng is adopted by a Shaolin monk. When the government wants to remodel the grounds, he is kicked out of the temple and ends up living in the countryside and learns the 5,000 year-old discipline qigong (breathing exercises used to strengthen one’s health and body).

His gruff teacher emphasizes the painful and grueling practice of Iron Shirt kung fu, something fabled Shaolin legend Fang Shi-yu was forced to learn. Yuan Peng wants to become a Shaolin monk like Jet Li’s character in the film SHAOLIN TIEMPLE (1982).

19-year old American Orion Lee enters the Shaolin Temple determined to emulate the martial arts life of his inspiration Bruce Lee.

Similar to his other namesake, Orion the hunter, Orion pursues and aims to capture the spirit of something first hand he thinks he knows but will find that the something he is seeking doesn’t exist in book or films, but it is something inside that only time can teach.

Orion’s Chinese counterpart is 19-year old Zhu Hao-shan, son of a countryside farmer, whose goal is to be the Sanda (modernized Chinese martial arts combat sport) King of China, in hopes that it will lead to a better life away from the poverty he has become accustomed to.

The final member of the fledgling four followers of Shaolin is Frenchman Eric Guillou whose dream of becoming the first non-Chinese Shaolin monk begins to fade as a close friend and fellow kung fu brother becomes a major labyrinth for Eric’s uncertainty, where his European pride and high expectations of grandeur may be lead to his undoing.

Director Lee keenly and intelligently dispels the romanticized hardships of Shaolin cinema and shows the harsh reality of the conditions training at today’s version of Shaolin, where traditional Shaolin training still demands that a student must have blind reverence and trust in one’s teacher if one is going to be successful in their martial arts path, whatever that path may be.

The path of a true or traditional martial artist is to learn not to fight and to learn to heal rather than hurt. We may never know if the four subjects of this film will ever attain this higher goal, yet Lee’s innovative film offers us a window into the possibilities of what each might accomplish during their martial arts path.

If one chooses their own path in martial arts, then one has no place in complaining about it, because it was their choice and no one forced them to take it.

What is engaging about REAL SHAOLIN, is that Lee does not judge his subjects, reflect on their weaknesses and strengths, or predispose an opinion of what is right or wrong with Shaolin.

He merely shows the reality of the Shaolin angst of the 2000s and lets the four stories of the subjects unfold to reveal what is real amid the unreal preconceived notions that the average person in the East and West believes what Shaolin is all about.

Although one can’t possibly understand Shaolin martial arts or even martial arts in general unless you live it, Lee’s film offers a “day in the life” so to speak, to at least give someone a glimpse of what it takes to be a real martial artist, and that it is the pursuit of the martial art that is more important than the thought of it.

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