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The Power of Basics: Bonnie Reviews Shaolin Monks in The Wheel of Life

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.

 
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Posted by on January 20, 2011 in Movie Reviews

 

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A Little Woo Goes a Long Way: Red Cliff Parts 1 & 2.

Debbie and I have always said “a little Woo goes a long way.”  Well this time John Woo has outdone himself with Red Cliff Parts 1 & 2.

Simply put, John Woo’s film, Red Cliff , Parts 1 & 2, in which he re-creates (at an $80 million dollar price tag, I might add) the oh so legendary battle of Red Cliff  in 208 A.D., which ultimately led to the demise and fall of the notorious Han Dynasty, can only be described as a breathtaking war epic, edge of your seat cinematic masterpiece!!!

From the Prime Minister waging war against the western kingdom, in hopes of eliminating opposition and placing himself as sole ruler of his envisioned unified China, to the ironic friendships which flourished among an unlikely alliance, not to mention, the strategic genius of Infantry verses Naval wits, that culminate into one of the most famous battles in history.

Even for those of us who are not familiar with famous battles in history, though, this is a film to be cherished. The music alone is uplifting and invigorating. It could almost be described as Star Wars-like. The characters are much more finely drawn than you usually see in any blockbuster film and certainly more well developed than you would usually find in a war movie. And, although Red Cliff is about a famous battle, Woo does more, much much more, than cast this one battle in broad strokes. He goes beyond even Kurosawa in this respect. Kurosawa’s films are visually beautiful, painfully beautiful even, and every frame could be frozen and hung on the wall in a museum, quite frankly. But Woo takes time to savor the moment. I guess that’s why this film is broken up into two parts, each of which is two hours long…but they’re well worth it. They’re what make this film three-dimensional and human–more than just art but something that can touch the spirit.

For example: consider the moment when the army is ordered to stop the demonstration it is putting on for visiting dignitaries, all because the chief of defense has heard a flute playing out of tune in the hill over the training grounds. The chief of defense climbs the hill, while the entire army waits, frozen in place. He finds a boy and his grandfather. The boy is playing the flute. The chief of defense looks at him sternly, demands that he turn over the flute, takes a knife out of the boy’s belt, and fixes the flute. He then hands it back to the boy who finds that it is in much better tune now. He plays again and the army and visiting dignitaries all smile…and, as happens all the time in Red Cliff, this moment, which is carried out so sweetly, immediately gives way to another, in which–well, I won’t give away what happens this time, but the entire army ends up spontaneously kneeling in response to the boy’s grandfather suddenly kneeling. For a rag-tag army, many of whom we are told used to be pirates, such a spontaneous show of respect for the elderly is very touching.

Having said all of that, I have still only scratched the surface of what is so wonderful about this movie. There are the brilliantly creative tactics devised by the army’s chief strategist, when the army is running out of arrows, for instance. There is the chief strategist himself–if you haven’t seen the movie yet, I suggest you read the subtitles carefully whenever he has anything to say! There is the princess who refuses to play the role of a subservient woman–she responds to a proposal of marriage by punching her suitor and knocking him out, and then she proceeds to find her own way to defend her kingdom, leaving to become a spy on the other side, taking along pigeons to use in sending intelligence back across the Yangtze River. There is the general who saves his lord’s baby son, and proceeds to tie the baby on his back and ride into battle with him. There is the other general who manages to escape after being cornered by 30 or 40 men all pointing spears at him–he takes his own spear and flings it at the prime minister, then grabs one of the spears being pointed at his own throat, uses it to knock down the men in front of him (killing at least one along the way), runs straight at the prime minister and knocks his horse onto its side, then grabs his side’s flag from the ground, jumps on the horse as it stands up, grabs his spear (still standing up where he threw it) and rides off. The prime minister, at that point, lost in admiration, refuses to allow his men to counterattack…I have to stop here because Red Cliff is full of moments such as this. You’ll just have to watch the movie!

On a side note, I personally loved the fact that this film had sub-titles and was not dubbed.  I found it to be more realistic and authentic to its true form and it did not come across as a watered down, been there and done that Hollywood Blockbuster. If you are a John Woo fan and are waiting to feast your eyes, ears and mind on a juicy mind-blowing, smack that A$$, who’s your daddy flick, then this is a MUST SEE EPIC! WHOA!!!!

 
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Posted by on October 21, 2009 in Movie Reviews

 

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