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Shaolin: Wheel of Life

Sure, Bruce Lee kicked evildoer ass, Jackie Chan is kung-fu's answer to Buster Keaton, and David Carradine's Kane continues to prove his staying power. But it's no surprise to hear that the arts and disciplines of the venerated Shaolin Temple are a good deal more than Hollywood's notion of chop-socky acrobatics. For 1,500 years the soldier monks of China's Shaolin Temple have developed a kung fu tradition that incorporates almost superhuman physical fighting skills — while also quite literally embodying stunning mental discipline, religious devotion, and philosophical beauty.

Presenting all of that plus sumptuous music, choreography, and theatricality is Shaolin: Wheel of Life, a recording of a live theater event featuring 20 ordained Buddhist Shaolin monks supported by international actors, artistic directors, composers, and advanced contemporary stagecraft. Wheel of Life was filmed at London's Hammersmith Apollo theater, and Universal's DVD is released hand-in-hand with the show's 2002 North American tour. This dramatic interpretation of a Shaolin legend draws on the rich vocabulary of Chinese theater, modern design, and "rock and roll show" technology. Operatic in nature and scope yet with no dialogue beyond the occasional line of voice-over narration, the story is told through grandmaster exhibitions of kung fu feats — including an epic battle, solo and ensemble work with weaponry (swords, spears, sickles, staffs, and so on), stones and iron bars broken across body parts, beds of nails, and enough bodily contortions combined with grace, speed, and dexterity to wow a Kryptonian. The performances are enhanced with balletic choreography, a lush musical score, gorgeous costumes and stage effects, and (for the video) mindful camerawork that never detracts from the staged experience. It makes Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon look like a discarded CGI test reel.

Along the way, the monks — some under 10 years old — offer an enlightening and celebratory look into the daily rituals, deep spirituality, and unwavering conviction that are part of everyday life to this order of peaceful warriors. Of the stage show, The Times of London said that Wheel of Life might "do for kung fu what Riverdance did for Irish dancing." Perhaps. A closer comparison might be to Cirque du Soleil, the French Canadian circus troupe (incarnated in various performance companies worldwide) that blends physics-defying human physicality with a mythic artistry and theatricality that deepens the experience into a dimension beyond mere display of physical prowess. Compared to these performers, "extreme sports" enthusiasts are so many pantywaist posers. Wheel of Life is the only show to feature ordained soldier monks of the Shaolin Temple and, as such, is the only production authorized by the Venerable Shi Yong Xin (abbot of the temple) and by the provincial government of Henan (Central China).

When the aliens land and demand examples of the best humanity has to show for itself, we'll take them to the Louvre, the Smithsonian, Chuck Jones' house, and to the latest tour stop of Shaolin: Wheel of Life.

*          *          *

For this DVD, Universal delivers the goods in a splendid package. The anamorphic transfer (1.78:1) is a new recording using modern equipment, and it looks great. The strong Dolby Digital 5.0 audio is crystal clear, with a "you are there" ambient soundstage that's open and full without gimmickry.

For extras, there's a click-through picture gallery of Shaolin Positions and Animal Positions, and seven click-through pages of textual history on Shaolin. The showcase supplement is a 46-minute documentary, Enter the Shaolin: The Making of Wheel of Life, which by itself is an engrossing piece of work. Promotional DVD-ROM bonuses are also on hand, along with subtitles in English and French. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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