As I was watching Shaolin, I couldn't help thinking of the villagers constantly running back and forth towards one tragedy or another. Their lives are seriously wretched, consuming all the mantou buns the Shaolin temple can provide them from an ever-dwindling rice store, yet not really contributing anything useful in return. Every time the villagers raise a lament (which is quite often) the monks risk life and limb to make them happy again (which isn't for long).
That Shaolin stars Andy Lau, Nicholas Tse and Jackie Chan, but I'm thinking more about the plights of the nameless extras makes this movie quite extraordinary. Lau, Tse and Chan do play very strong and compelling characters, however as this movie is an ensemble piece, they and their supporting cast play very integral roles and no one star pulls attention away from another -- not even Tse with his whimsical pseudo-European military garb and manga-inspired hairdo.
If not for the villagers, there would be no point to the wars fought over them, no opportunity for the monks to display compassion and heroism towards their fellow human beings. The Generals fight each other for the power to exploit the seemingly inexhaustible human resource before them, the monks are bound to protect the flock and feed its insatiable hunger gathered outside its gates.
Lau's character, General Huo, experiences both sides. His reversal of fortunes brings him down from a warlord with everything to an outcast with a price on his head. But this reduction to zero is also the beginning of his redemption as a person when he learns to stop thinking of himself and instead start placing others's needs before his own -- even if they are the unending needs of the hopeless, hapless and practically useless villagers.
There is also wisdom in discerning what can be helped and what can not. Times may call for first aid, others for last rites, and sometimes no action at all can help a situation. Fortunately for the cinema audience there are lots of opportunities where kung fu fighting is the order of the day for the monks to show off their close-up hand-to-hand skills against gun wielding enemies.
But kicks, punches and chops cannot save the day. Though destruction and sacrifice are inevitable and constant, they are also a necessary starting point for reconstruction and transformation. The other constant is the people and their continued suffering but, as Huo learns, compassion and charity are the key to transcending the common mass, thus finding peace.
So much philosophy resonating ideas from Eastern religion, Socratic thought and the Sith-Jedi conflict neatly packaged in great cinematography; each shot lovingly, occasionally indulgently crafted, rich with an emotionally powerful aesthetic. My first movie viewing of 2011 was quite a mind-blowing experience. Hope it's a sign of more movie greatness to come.