The Surreal Structure of the Shaolin

Modern action cinema has an Übermensch problem. It’s not just the colossal physique of genre stalwarts like The Rock, or the literal gods and super beings in your average Marvel movies. Sure you could complain about how an everyman character like Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy has to look more like an underwear model than an actual everyman, but those are largely aesthetic quibbles. Sure I can see why some are frustrated by the shifting in standard physique, but that’s more a reflection of changing societal values than a specifically cinematic change. Sean Connery is not the physical standard anymore, and Daniel Craig is. That’s a windmill someone who cares way more than me can tilt at. Sorry could you hear the eye-roll in that sentence? I suppose my concerns are more about the art then the abs of the art’s leading man. My scorn is because the bigger flaw, in my mind, is the structural trend of the Übermensch. Even a legitimately physical everyman in an action movie, like Matt Damon, is instantly and perpetually capable. In the average action movie now the protagonist is cool, at the expense of drama. Humanity is traded in for invulnerability and set pieces.

Lets think back to some of the greatest action heroes of all time. There’s John McClane, obviously. Die Hard sees a legitimate everyman trying his hardest to be a good guy and save people. When people reference Die Hard one of the more commonly mentioned moments is the broken glass. The reason for that is readily apparent when you consider what it ends up representing. John McClane is vulnerable. That’s what makes watching him fight his way through a batch of dangerous criminals so compelling. Glass cuts him, so it follows that bullets would kill him. He’s not some titanic badass blowing his way through waves of guys. He’s just some cop. Sure, that makes him slightly more competent than you or I would be, but it’s still relatively lack-a-day compared to, say, super-assassin John Wick. What makes John McClane special in the movie is that he’s more invested emotionally in the outcome which, coupled with his human vulnerability, makes him more relatable than any Übermensch could be. Not only that but it dramatizes his plight and goal in a way that most action movies only dream of doing.

Another fabulous example is Indiana Jones. Jones is occasionally touted as the ultimate action hero, and it’s easy to see why once you start to pick away at his fabric. He’s a brilliant blend of wish fulfillment badass and human hero. He wears a dope costume, can kick-ass, wields a unique weapon, explores the world, is cuttingly intelligent, he fights Nazis, and women seem to fall for him with alarming regularity. He also gets the shit kicked out of him and messes up constantly. It’s become increasingly common to point out that Indy honestly doesn’t affect the course of the film’s plot, but that’s sort of the point of the character. He just sort of blunders his way in and out of the events of the film, doing his best but not actually accomplishing much. Indiana Jones gets battered and bruised and never even manages to get much of anything done. Indiana Jones responds to impending danger in a relatable way. He’s how we’d like to imagine we’d handle a life threatening situation. It would be hard, but we’re capable, tougher than we seem, and pretty cool when you get right down to it. I mean, we’d get beaten up, but Indy helps us forget that.

Luke Skywalker also deserves to be considered when it comes to this sort of list. That might not seem like a great example, but, once you ignore the destruction of the Death Star, what exactly does Luke do in the film? He’s one of a group of five that rescue Leia, and he does get some action moments in there, but there’s no skill to much of what he does. He points and shoots, with a whole lot of back up. He does swing across a chasm, which is probably the first thing you thought of. Jeez I’m conversing with my fictitious audience a lot this article. There’s a reason that stands out, and why Luke’s ultimate destruction of the Death Star feels so satisfying. It’s because it’s earned, it’s pay-off, it’s the satisfying conclusion to the arc of a character who spends the whole rest of the movie passively tagging along and whinging. Luke’s a farmer, with zero capabilities other than some special genes and a willingness to believe things mysterious old men tell him. When he actually does something cool it’s satisfying because of the wet-blanket display beforehand.

Now let’s take a look at some of the good recent action movies. These are movies I like, mind you, great movies even, just movies that are reflective of current trends. There are the two Raid movies. The protagonist is a cop, with superhuman martial arts skills. When we meet him he’s an incredibly capable badass. He meets other skilled fighters that test his abilities, but there’s nothing relatable about his abilities. The movie makes up for it by ramping up the exterior resistance and personal stakes, which essentially creates the same effect that ramping up the character’s abilities would. This is the problem when your brain ejects bad films – examples get tricky.

John Wick is maybe even a better example. John Wick is an unstoppable juggernaut throughout the course of the movie, sure he takes a beating, but there’s never any question of his success. It’s clear that a screenwriter’s contrivance will kill him. He’s a character envisioned as invulnerable. He pulls off a series of spectacular kills one after another with godly accuracy and determination. It’s great, because everything about it is so well crafted, the world building is gripping, and the inciting incidence is relatable. It makes up for an unstoppable character with craft in other areas.

Perhaps Red is a better example, although I must admit my memories of that film are mainly a few key moments of stylization and the complete lack of a scene with Bruce Willis driving an arrow through a thug’s head by hand. However as I recall Bruce Willis plays a retired ultimate badass, at which point he gets embroiled in a threat and a movie that slowly becomes more and more generic as it goes along. The thing is Bruce Willis is an invulnerable badass all the way through, completely removing any threat. The generic bad guys completely fail to make up for this like they do in the Raid films.

Modern action movies have all but given up on everyday heroes. No one has to endure a learning curve, no one has to risk anything. This clearly can be effective, I’ve written about it before, but the lack of an alternative is what’s disappointing. A good example of a recent property that actually presents a nice alternative is, of all things, Far Cry 3. The response to that game, character-wise, was mainly focused on the compelling villain, but I’d argue the real reason that game connected was the protagonist, who starts as a weak, panicked frat-boy and evolves (through story moments, unlockables, and player experience) into an unstoppable badass. It’s so much more relatable than a Jason Bourne, who starts a movie injured and suffering from amnesia but never wavers in his capabilities. Action movie heroes now have to be experts. They have to be the best at what they do, without fail. The only recent character to not fit this mould might be Mark Wahlberg in Trans4mers, but that script is too wildly inconsistent and terrible to actually stick to his everyman characterization.

The thing is as great as your Raids and your John Wicks are this default choice is robbing audiences of one of the more satisfying character arcs ever. Look at Mad Max in Fury Road, he knows what he’s doing all the way through, but the glimmers of humanization are some of the most notable moments in the film. But more importantly than that Max starts off as purely driven by self-preservation, but by the end of the film he’s a legitimate hero. Blending this with a character who has to work at his skill set can lead to some of the best action movies.

John McClane has to figure out the best way to proceed throughout Die Hard. Indy shoots someone rather than having a big fight scene. Neo has to learn how to ascend to the god-like heights of abilities he later displays. In fact Neo was the example I really wanted to save till the end. He starts The Matrix as some guy, then gets forced into an insane situation, and by the end he’s a supremely capable nouveau deity. It’s the chosen one story dramatized and used to create some of the most iconic moments in the whole film. “You think that’s air you’re breathing?” Can you imagine if The Matrix had told roughly the same story, during the same time, but removed Neo and instead focused on, say, a semi-retired Morpheus rejoining the cause and beating up Smiths? You’d be cleanly cutting out the heart of the film, it might still lead to a cool movie with some fun action, but without Neo training and mastering his abilities the movie might fall flat. The complete avoidance of this sort of arc is leading to a bunch of homogenous action movies with over-similar experts.

Which, sixteen hundred words in, brings us to an interesting counterpoint to this structure – The 36th Chamber of the Shaolin. Yes it’s that Chinese martial arts movie Wu-Tang referenced that one time. You know the time. The film came out in 1978 and starred Chia-Hui Liu. It was directed by Chia-Liang Liu, who also choreographed the film’s many excellent martial arts fights and training sequences. It’s an iconic movie, or at least an iconic title. It has a charismatic star, great action, and one of the weirdest structures in an action movie.

The first twenty minutes of the film, which clocks in at 115 minutes total, establishes the characters, world, political situation, and villains. It’s a pretty dense opening, filled with a large number of characters. We meet something like three incidental villagers who align with the protagonists’ cause, the three protagonists, and one rebel who attacks the tyrannical leader. We see this leader dispatch his would be assassin and send his best man to crush the burgeoning rebellion. This man is quickly established as horribly cruel and vicious. Next the three protagonists start working with one of the villagers, now revealed to be a supporter of the rebellion. They help him smuggle messages before they’re caught. Then everyone dies. Well, not quite everyone. One of the three protagonists gets captured and questioned, and kills himself rather than reveal any secrets. The villager kills himself as the guards descend on his house. The two remaining protagonists go into hiding, and the main one’s family is killed off-screen. They flee the city and head for the mountains, running into their nemesis along the way. By the time the first twenty minutes or so are over everyone but the main character, Sun Te, is dead. Sun Te arrives wounded at the Shaolin temple to learn kung fu.

Sun Te wants to learn kung fu as a means of arming the commoner and helping combat the tyrannical rule torturing his people. So he has to convince the Shaolin to take him in, and convince them to train him. They agree and he cockily skips to the final training chamber. This chamber appears to involve psychic power and Sun Te is so out of his element he leaves without learning anything. He realizes his mistake and decides to start with the first chamber, Chamber 35.

This Chamber is devoted to a dining hall with a small moat interrupting the path to the hall. In order to get to the food you have to leap onto and off of a floating bundle of wood in the water. Everyone but Sun Te does this without hesitation or fault. They leap confidently and go eat. Sun Te falls in immediately, and is forced to dry out his clothes before he can eat. He misses all the food. The next day he tries to scale the wall between this pathway and the water-free path taken by the advanced monks. The Chamber’s overseer knocks him into the water. “Wall is low, power of Buddha is strong.” Later he tries to steal food from the advanced monks side. After a few embarrassing tumbles into the water and a few nights washing dishes Sun Te stays up all night training by rolling around on metal pots. The next day the other novices gather expectantly, waiting for him to fall. He jumps, lands on one foot, leaps into the air passing one foot under the other in midair, and lands on the other side. The other novices are blown away and the Chamber overseer looks impressed.

Then Sun Te gets to move on and try to clear the watery break in the path, except now the bundle of logs has been replaced with a series of loose floating pieces that sink when jumped upon. After a few more spills Sun Te again wakes up in the middle of the night, this time just practicing with the real test and not some facsimile. He spends the entire night leaping back and forth and falling in the water before eventually landing the nimble motion. When he lands it the chamber supervisor emerges from the shadows and sends him on.

The next chamber is all about arm strength. The monks have to wash clothes, but to do that they need running water. So monks training in martial arts get fitted with knives attached to their elbows (making it impossible to bring your arms flat against your sides) and are tasked with carrying buckets of water, two at a time, up a slope and dumping them down a tube. This is hard for Sun Te, and then it’s not and he’s practically skipping up the slope and helping his fellow students. Guess he’s a fit guy. He gets told not and told to move on.

The next chamber is pretty simple. One monk sits up front and knocks a hammer. When the hammer hits Sun Te has to strike a bell with a hammer at the end of an incredibly long bamboo pole. It tests wrist strength, and by the end of his first day Sun Te’s wrists are bruised and battered. But he perseveres and moves on to a chamber that sees him chasing lights around a room as a test of his reflexes. This training goes through a few stages but eventually he moves on again.

The next chamber is especially brutal. Sun Te has to run an obstacle course and then perform a simple task. The only wrinkle is that the obstacle course is just a bunch of hanging sandbags that the monk in training has to head-butt. So naturally by the time he reaches the task, he’s dazed and mildly concussed. When the chamber’s supervisor, who has brutal calluses all over his head, tells Sun Te that he gets to move on to proper combat training after this test, he’s reinvigorated and tackles the task with a new aplomb, getting to move on swiftly.

The next few chambers contain a variety of different Chinese weapons. Sun Te first learns basic weaponless moves from a book, then gets to practice boxing with his fellow students. He’s racing through the chambers with such remarkable speed that the abbot keeps granting Sun Te higher and higher positions, much to the dismay of the corrections officer type monk. The weapons rooms are relegated to a fairly swift series of montages. Sun Te gets to train his legs and train with swords, before moving on to the staff chamber, the weapons room we see the longest.

The staff room consists of three components. One is a series of hanging bags that the trainees have to strike in swift succession. The next is a massive chunk of rock on a wet rail with a loop. The trainees have to stick their staffs through the loop and move the heavy rock with some speed. Then there’s a gap between two wooden rails that the trainees have to stick their arms through. Away from the rails are circular saws that have to be spun with the tips of the staffs. The trick is the rails are lined with spikes that cut up the wrists of anyone moving their arms too dramatically. Sun Te manages to whip through this room. He spins the blades with nary a cut, knock all the bags around, slides the stone a great distance, and then spars with the chamber’s supervisor. Sun Te actually spars with all the chamber’s supervisors when he finishes their tests, like some final evaluation. But with martial arts. After completing the last chamber Sun Te stands before the abbot, who offers Sun Te his choice of job. He can supervise any chamber he wants. However the corrections officer interjects the caveat that Sun Te must defeat him at armed combat before making the choice.

It’s around here that I first looked at the time that had passed. There was only about thirty minutes of movie left. Huh, I said to myself.

Sun Te and his challenger duel. The challenger sports two swords and manages to neatly beat Sun Te’s staff. Then he manages to beat Sun Te’s mace. Then Sun Te invents a weapon. In truth the movie merely credits him with the invention of the three-linked staff. Using his newly invented weapon he defeats his challengers and asks to create his own chamber.

Sun Te proposes the creation of a 36th chamber. The idea is that the chamber would be open to commoners and layman, training them in the ways of kung fu without teaching them Buddhism. The abbot is furious. The Shaolin don’t involve themselves in political turmoil, and this proposition goes against their core beliefs. Sun Te gets sent to make a certain number of collections as punishment and penance for his blasphemous proposition, and for arguing with the abbot. Now dressed in full Shaolin robes and a Japa Mala, Sun Te descends upon the town he left years ago.

There are about twenty minutes left in the movie at this time. Sun Te defeats the man who killed his parents almost right away. The rest of the movie is devoted to a plot that could’ve been a whole film in itself. He assembles a rag-tag bunch of rebellious locals with potential, plans a dangerous heist, pulls it off, then challenges the tyrannical leader at combat. Each rebel he meets gets a little scene, one of which includes the death of his parents’ murderer, then there’s a little scene for the plan, another for the heist and final fight.

It’s a break-neck climax that routinely harkens back to Sun Te’s training, showing scenes where he head-butts things, balances on a precarious object, uses his wrist strength, uses his speedy reflexes, and uses his invented weapon in the final fight. It’s almost the exact opposite of the structure commonly employed by current blockbusters. The vast majority of the film is training to complete a task, and then the climax sees our hero using his training to become the unstoppable badass of modern action cinema. It’s interesting because it both dramatizes the arc, yet gives us a movie with low stakes training and no real threat in the final moments.

It’s hardly a perfect structure. As satisfying as the pay off in the final fight is, it feels weird that the villain we’ve had more exposure to is offed so quickly. It’s also a lot packed into what almost could’ve been half of a film in and of itself. Perhaps the half and half ratio would’ve worked better, although it’s easy to see the climax wearing thin in contrast to the shockingly entertaining training scenes. It’s an interesting and effective structure, and there’s something so much more earned about a martial arts show down where we understand the years of training that had to go in to it.

It’s an interesting contrast when compared to the perpetually and flawlessly skilled protagonists of most current action movies. The whole film could almost be the prequel to another film featuring a badass action star that doesn’t exist. Like if there was a John Wick prequel that sees him practicing how to quickly reload a gun for years. It’s an interesting and entertaining film with great action that manages to make up for a few key flaws.

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Harry Edmundson-Cornell is obsessed with comics and film and writing, and he fancies himself a bit of an artist. He's dabbled in freelance video production, writing, design, 3D modelling, and artistic commissions. He mainly uses Tumblr to keep track of what he's watching and reading and listening to. Occasionally he uses it to post original works. You can find his email and junk there too, if you want to hire him or send him hate-mail.

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  1. Bruno Franco says:

    But If the structure is directed at perfecting the character´s skills, wouldnt that hurt certain kinds of stories? I mean, action movies are fun because their characters are vulnerable, but i whould argue that superheroes are in a category of their own. In my opinion, the structure of their story doesnt depend necessarily on their human traits, but rather on what aspect of humanity they stand for. I dont like to think of superheroes as people with powers, but forces of nature and abstract ideas or archetypes in human guise.
    Action heroes, on the other hand, depend solely on themselves and that’s what makes them interesting. Many movies tried to make these types of protagonists into ubermensch, and that mostly only managed to hurt themselves in the process, but superheroes work as ubermensch, they work as mythical figures, because that’s when they shine the most: When they do the impossible.

    • I think that’s a fine thought, except that we haven’t had a good übermensch film yet. All the best superhero films feature falliable protagonists. The good
      Marvel movies, Batman Begins, etc. Like I said the übermensch thing can work, and has done in some action films, not sure it has in a superhero film yet, but surely someone wil get it right sometime.

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