Even though at one point I walked out of this movie, it still deserves a rose. How many movies can you say THAT about?
The plot of The Wheel of Life is simple. The Shaolin monks are invited to demonstrate their amazingly beautiful art for the Emperor. He then invites them to help defend the country as it is invaded. They oblige, but when the Emperor asks them to stay on after the war is over, they refuse, insisting that they must get back to training at the monastery. Vindictively, the Emperor arranges to smuggle a gas-filled statue into the temple, the gas knocks out the monks, and the Emperor sneaks in and murders all but five of them, and their teacher, as they sleep. But the five young monks who survive continue to train with their teacher, develop strong spirits, and continue the work of the temple.
JPFMovies doesn’t usually structure his reviews in the format of an old-fashioned theme. In fact my usage of the word “theme” in the last sentence is so archaic that I wonder how many of you out there even know what I am talking about. It’s what the generation born around the turn of the century – the turn of the 20th century, I mean – called essays that they wrote for school. To use the term “theme” this way makes me feel like I am about 90! However, this movie calls for a theme. Those old-fashioned themes took their nomenclature from the fact that they were structured around a theme. It was what we might nowadays classify as modern, pre-deconstructionist literary analysis. It was even pre-structuralist in some ways. An old-fashioned theme essay, though, is what The Wheel of Life calls out for in spades (well, not in spades – in swords? In staffs? In nuchakus?).
This movie, in fact, has a theme, and it’s pounded into us from start to finish. Most moviegoers, though, will miss that theme – they can’t help it because the martial art presented in The Wheel of Life is so jaw-droppingly awesome. The theme is an old-fashioned, traditional martial arts lesson (yet another reason why my old-fashioned, traditional approach is called for here): basics. More specifically, the power of basics. Fundamentals. The few simple, core techniques that are at the center of this wheel as it spins so brilliantly. It is rare to see basics presented so elegantly and without extraneous adornment – but that is what makes their presentation here so powerful.
Without further ado, in a nutshell, here is the theme of The Wheel of Life: even the most basic movements, even the most basic actions, can be surprisingly powerful. What basics are presented to us as powerful in The Wheel of Life?
o To begin with, breathing. What could be more basic? Yet wise people from all religions and spiritual backgrounds recognize concentrating on the breath as a powerful and easily accessible path to enlightenment. If you watched The Wheel of Life and were too caught up in the exquisite movements and miraculous feats of these martial artists to notice their breathwork, go back and check out what happens before those movements and feats begin. You’ll find that the more difficult the action, the more meditation and breathwork occurs first. Pay attention to this.
o Next, the martial arts movements themselves. Watch the following scene from the monks’ demonstration before the Emperor.
You can see that the martial techniques used are fairly simple and basic – kicks, punches, blocks, stance work. You could see these same techniques (except for the breathtaking gymnastics and smattering of yoga that accompanies them) demonstrated in thousands of beginning martial arts classes all over the world. But these are not beginners. What makes them different? These basic movements that all beginners learn are executed here with such fluidity, grace and power that a layperson would not even recognize them as the same movements. What makes them advanced? The addition of exciting complex elements? No. What makes them advanced is the masterful juxtaposition of relaxation and focus, yin and yang, push and pull that is at the foundation of all martial arts. That, and the most basic – yet ironically the most advanced – technique of all – total and utter commitment. Utter commitment to relaxation when it is time to relax. Total and absolute throwing one’s whole body into the movement when it is time to move. Watch an older monk teach this utter commitment to a young student in the clip below. See the difference? Same movements. Different body commitments.
If you are interested in martial arts, take note as well of the use of dynamic tension (slow speed, seeming to resist an invisible force) in some of the movements. I haven’t watched as many martial arts films as the rest of you and certainly not as many as JPFMovies, but I’ve never seen dynamic tension in a martial arts movie before.
o The theme of basics is carried through theatrically as well. Do we need an expensive movie set and weeks of filming to make a movie? No, it turns out all that is needed is the London Apollo, a willing audience, a few simple adornments for the set, and an amazing group of martial artists. Do we need a complex plot? Not really. Do we need a lot of characters? No. We essentially have three main characters in this movie: the head of the temple, the monks collectively acting as a unit, and the evil Emperor. Do we even need a script? Not really, only a little short narration here and there. No need for dialogue when we have the most basic method of communication in existence at our disposal: body language!
But there is another reason for the simplicity of the set and film method, in addition to the joy of pounding into our heads the beauty and power of basics. That reason is what got me to walk out at one point. The latter third of the movie is dedicated to a series of spirit challenges – challenges so amazing that they had to be filmed in precisely this way, or moviegoers would likely think they were just special effects. I refuse to choose a clip of any of the spirit challenges. But I want you to see the meditation that precedes them (see below). Why won’t I show the spirit challenges? Frankly, they are intense (I couldn’t watch the whole section myself, as noted at the beginning of this review), and I don’t want to be responsible for some idiot going out and trying some of this stuff…these challenges go a few steps beyond simple board breaking.
I didn’t research the making of this movie. JPFMovies says this review is long enough already! Let me just say that this movie is as simple as Red Cliff is lavish – and yet both movies are exquisite. They define the range.