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Mute fitness
A UK region 2 DVD review of SHAOLIN WOODEN MEN by Slarek
 

Shaolin Wooden Men (Shao Lin mu ren xiang, aka 36 Wooden Men, aka Shaolin Chamber of Death) is one of those early Jackie Chan films that many fans are discovering retrospectively. Made before his considerable credentials as Hong Kong cinema's leading comic acrobat had even been established, let alone reached the West, this is Jackie Chan the emerging kung-fu star and potential Bruce Lee successor. Chan had yet to take full control of his own projects at this time and his films from this period have thus proved uneven in quality, to say the least. Shaolin Wooden Men was certainly a title new to me when its DVD release was first announced, and researching the film I encountered some rather negative reaction, as well as a few hearty shouts of support.

It's not hard to see why some would complain – martial arts cinema runs largely to a formula and fiddle with that in any significant way and you're asking for trouble. Let's be clear on this, in terms of plot, Shaolin Wooden Men follows genre expectations to the letter. Chan plays a young mute trainee at a Shaolin temple. He's slower and weaker than his fellow students, who mock him at every turn but, driven by determination and the memory of his father's murder, he perseveres. After learning a bit of drunken kung fu by watching a monk who's a bit too fond of his wine, he one night follows two other monks into a forbidden area in the monastery and discovers a man who has clearly been in chains for some time, although that hasn't dampened his contempt for his captors. Chan brings him food and wine, and the man repays him by helping to develop his fighting skills, skills that a woman named Five Plumbs, a friend of the Shaolin who lives nearby, helps him to perfect. When his training is complete, he is ready to fight the Shaolin Wooden Men of the title.

OK, these guys have taken more flack than anything else in the film, even from fans. They are supposed to be the ultimate test of a student's skill, and anyone who foolishly takes them on before he is ready is brought back into the monastery a broken and bleeding man. The Wooden Men are exactly that, constructed fighters that line a corridor and, operated by levers and chains, bash the crap out of anyone not fast enough to avoid their blows. Except their movements and speed are limited and I have a feeling even I could give them the slip on a good day. But stylistically this is a memorable and inventive sequence and should find particular favour with video game fans – the Wooden Men were the direct inspiration for the Mokijin character in Tekken 3, while Chan's step-by-step approach to navigating the corridor has a distinctly Tomb Raider ring. There are more flashback thrills at the end of the corridor, when Chan has to lift a cauldron that burns the Shaolin Temple emblems into his forearms, a sight that will be familiar to anyone who remembers Kwai Chang Caine's identical departure from his own monastery in the 1972 TV series Kung Fu (there's also a blind monk to offer special training tips to Chan, the film's equivalent of Kung Fu's famed Master Po).

But it's this first half that is likely to give the impatient the most problems – there's no real fighting, the training sequences are brief and unspectacular, and there's certainly nothing to laugh about. It's fair to say that until Chan leaves the monastery, Shaolin Wooden Men is less a martial arts film than a straight drama. Which is fine, except this occupies almost the first hour of the film, over half the running time. You can see why the action junkies get fidgety. But if you've a little patience and are prepared to accept this shift from the expected formula then you should be able to appreciate this first half for its very real qualities, for its stylised theatrical opening, its dramatic intrigue, its inventive lighting and camera placement, its lively editing, and especially for Chan himself, who delivers another of those nicely low-key performances that make his early work so interesting, showing the sort of controlled subtlety here that you'd be pushed to find in his later work. And I'm not knocking the later work. No sir.

Once Chan is on the streets we're in more familiar territory, as he makes friends and sorts out the bullies at the local eatery, helps the prisoner who trained him, has a change of heart about who his friends really are and locates the bastard who killed his father, setting the film up for an energetically choreographed final fight. The pace is particularly brisk in part 2, and in that final fight Jackie finally gets to show what he's made of, both as martial arts star and action director.

Shaolin Wooden Men may try the patience of genre fans looking for non-stop action or those who prefer their Chan films for have a comic edge, and this is probably not the best film to illustrate to non-martial arts fans the genre's particular and peculiar appeal. But it's still a stylish, engaging and nicely made film that has been singled out by some as one of the best of Chan's early works. Despite the shortage of the sort of eye-popping action usually associated with the star, I see no reason to disagree.

sound and vision

Another title in Hong Kong Legends' Ultrabit series, but one that thankfully improves a great deal on the Magnificent Bodyguards DVD, by far the weakest transfer released under the Ultrabit banner. The main casualty to age appears to be colour, which wanders from pretty good to seriously drained, but in other respects the picture quality is very impressive, with detail and contrast the equal of many a more recent release and black levels – notably in the stylised opening sequence – absolutely rock solid (there are a couple of shots where blacks slip to grey, but not enough to worry about). I'll wager that this is easily as good as the film has ever looked since it's first cinema release. Small instances of dirt and damage are occasionally visible, but are infrequent. Framing is 2.35:1 and the picture is anamorphically enhanced.

The original Chinese mono is joined by Chinese and English 5.1 remixes. The mono track is a little primitive with some dialogue distortion and the 5.1 certainly improves this a bit, although the surrounds are only used by accident. One problem with the 5.1 track is that a few of the contact sound effects appear to be very slightly out of sync – running the same sequence with the mono track reveals no such problem. It's not all of the way through or every sound effect, but it does notice. The English dub is, in sound quality at least, somewhere between the Chinese mono and 5.1 tracks, better than the former but not as good (if that's the word) as the latter.

extra features

Just 3 Trailers for other HKL Chan releases. All rather disappointing again, although the lack of an Andrew Staton commentary on this one has caused me no lost sleep.

summary

A nice rediscovery for genre fans and a decent restoration job. The lack of extra features is once again a disappointment, but collectors will be happy to get the film in good condition, minor sync issues notwithstanding.

Shaolin Wooden Men
Shao Lin mu ren xiang
36 Wooden Men
Shaolin Chamber of Death

Hong Kong 1976
99 mins
director
Chen Chi-Hwa
starring
Jackie Chan
Kam Chiang
Her Du Wei
Yeun Biao

DVD details
region 2
video
2.35:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 5.1 surround
Dolby 2.0 mono
languages
English
Chinese
subtitles .
English
extras
Trailers
distributor
Hong Kong Legends
release date
23 April 2007
review posted
22 April 2007

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Magnificent Bodyguards
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The Protector
New Police Story
The Spy Next Door

See all of Slarek's reviews