Into The Shaolin

***

Reviewed by: Sergiu Inizian

Into The Shaolin
"The purely descriptive editing undercuts the otherwise engaging narrative, leaving the impression of an ambitious but fragmented look at monastic life." | Photo: Courtesy of DOC NYC

Exploring the peaceful life of Buddhist monks at a renowned Chinese temple, Hongyun Sun's cinematic eye reveals a rich spiritual tradition that translates into culturally relevant outward experiences. The camera follows how they interact with their hopes, surroundings and a surprising visitor: a Serbian woman studying their teaching for her PhD thesis. Their spiritual journey is meditative and presented through stunning visuals. But the purely descriptive editing undercuts the otherwise engaging narrative, leaving the impression of an ambitious but fragmented look at monastic life.

Quietly observing the spiritual and physical preparation of the monks, the director captures a divergence between the attitudes of seasoned elders and novices. Those who have been at the temple the longest celebrate sacrifice and peace, telling stories of improbable physical feats and mythical characters. Naturally, the youngest retain a childish demeanour towards their training, often laughing at the exercise their masters order them to complete.

As the camera focuses on the teens, a compelling picture of troubled youth begins to form. The temple acts as a shelter for them, whether it's from marginalised status, dysfunctional families or society as a whole. The sequence of the boy returning to his impoverished grandparents is especially impactful. Telling them about his decision to remain at the temple indefinitely takes a toll on the elderly couple, as they hoped he would pursue a business career. Their interaction examines how Buddhist ideals are perceived when material needs are imperative and explores the boy's need for spiritual guidance.

As a visitor and sole feminine presence, Serbian student Marta, adds nuance to the story. Unlike the young monks, who enrolled with a romanticised view of Kung Fu, she seems comfortable with the strenuous nature of the training. She conducts her research quietly and her interviews provide insight both into the practice of Buddhism and the meaning behind Kung Fu training. But, as the story progresses, questions remain unanswered about her motivations, and the woman becomes an episodic character with an unexplored background.

The collage of meditative shots, training scenes and stunning natural landscapes expressively paints an image of life at the temple but often feels uneven. The rushed editing only briefly acquaints the viewer with the characters, neglecting to take a closer look at the ideals that mould their lives. Individual characters often shine, but the link between them and the sacredness of their surroundings is dissolved, allowing a feeling of an incomplete story to set in.

Despite renouncing modern consumerism, the monks strive to keep in touch with society through worldwide theatre tours. Their goal is to make an impact even after they leave the temple. Presenting their journey truthfully and candidly to the camera, their personalities grab the viewer's attention. Even rising above the muddled pacing, their level of sacrifice manages to keep the audience engaged.

Reviewed on: 23 Nov 2023
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Portrait of the Shaolin Monastery, where Buddhist peace and enlightenment are pursued through the practice of martial arts.

Director: Hongyun Sun

Year: 2023

Runtime: 92 minutes

Country: China

Festivals:

DOC NYC 2023

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