Welcome back ladies, gentlemen, children and were-terriers! How is everybody doing in the club tonight? Let's hear a round of sound for those of you joining us from the Des Moines chapter of The Jackie Chan Enthusiast Society! Whoo! Yeah!
All right, whoa. Tone it down. That's way too much sound. We got a noise complaint just last week for bringing in that goddamn snow blower. Remember that? Thanks a lot, Barb.
Let's see, where were we? Oh that's right, looks like we're on Day 2 of our 7 Days of Jackie Chan challenge. And you know what that means...
Oh, wait, you don't? That...sucks, actually. I don't either, so, uh...
Let's just keep on reading before this gets any more awkward. Ready? Okay. Go.
Today we're watching a little secret slap happy gem called Shaolin Wooden Men, from all the way back in 1976. So don't be worried: the legit points for this one are quite legitimate.
After the pleasantly surprising Dragon Fist, which was my first exposure to Kung Fu noir, Shaolin Wooden Men is 100% what the chopsockey genre is all about. This movie's up to its sweaty armpits with just about every standard trope you’d expect from a martial arts flick and then some, just because you might want some later when you're back home.
Does this mean SWM is cliche? I wouldn’t go as far as to say that. But, sure, okay. You might have a point there. Maybe it is. I mean, if you were to watch it after seeing a bunch of other more notable films in the genre, it would probably definitely seem trite, yeah.
But if you were to watch it on its own without having a highly sophisticated palette for Kung Fu cinema developed, it’d make a pretty strong impression. Kinda like it did on me.
Part of the fun of Shaolin Wooden Men is that its plot plays out like a video game. A pretty rad video game. One in which the player must run around, completing random tasks while training under several different quirky Shaolin masters in order to level up. After those training levels are over, the player gets to venture out into the world, complete more side quests, and take down the major boss - one that just so happened to have killed the main character's father.
So yeah. This movie is basically a funner Shenmue.
Jackie Chan plays Little Mute, a student of a Shaolin academy hidden in the grand mountains of China. He’s the kind of chap that everyone wails on and makes fun of because he’s slow. He’s also not very good at chopping wood or carrying water up impossibly long stairs, so his teachers don't quite adore him. (And, just as his name suggests, he's not the best conversationalist.)
However, Little Mute is good at sitting down and having scary sepia-colored flashbacks from his traumatic childhood in which his father gets beat to death by a masked man who kinda looks like Nolan’s version of Scarecrow. (This also means that he’s really good at getting yelled at for being lazy by his superiors.)
Because of his difficulty relating to his peers and the whole not talking thing, Little Mute hasn’t progressed much during his years at the very strict (yet somehow loosely structured) Shaolin school. He’s just, y'know, misunderstood. Which I can totally relate to, by the way. Not that I went to a mystical Kung Fu school or anything. But if I had when I was oh, say, 15, I would probably be like Little Mute (except way more vocal).
Tired of how slow he's progressing as a martial artist compared to his peers, Little Mute starts to look elsewhere for guidance in his Kung Fu journey. Because carrying buckets of water back and forth up huge stone steps in the middle of nowhere can only get you so far in life. Right?
Our hero begins by observing the movements of a particular teacher whom we will refer to as the Drunk Monk for the purpose of this article. The Drunk Monk spends most of his time (surprise) drinking a shit ton of rice wine. He wanders around the Kung Fu campus (?) bobbing, weaving and stumbling. Little Mute mimics this, since he notices that its pretty effective for dodging punches and kicks and hadoukens and stuff.
(Is it just me, or do you think this part of the movie could have been inspiration for Drunken Master? Just a thought.)
The next teacher that Mute turns to - and actually "studies" with - is a more interesting one. He's this a bedraggled, delirious old dude who’s inexplicably chained up in a nearby cave.
So, naturally, we're going to call him the Cave Man.
Little Mute helps our new favorite Neanderthal out by bringing him food and booze that he steals from the Drunk Monk. In turn, the enigmatic Cave Man instructs Mute in the way of true, not-fucking-around Kung Fu fighting. Which is a little difficult for him since he’s, y’know, chained to rock wall. He’s good with giving verbal directions, though. So that's something.
Our third and final master that Little Mute trains under is the Pensive Nun. You can think of her as the movie's fairy godmother. She steps in to give our hero some old school wisdom every now and again. And she might throw a rock at him once or twice. Whatever. It's all good.
The Pensive Nun spies on Mute as practices the moves he’s learned from the Cave Man and disapproves. She comments that the style is too aggressive and violent, since it consists mostly of eye pokes and nut shots. So she takes it upon herself balances out this hardcore technique with the more honorable and compassionate Way of the Gliding Snake.
What's the training like for this? Sliding around in a pit full of grease that kind of resembles poo, mostly. But hey, it’s good for the soul. Yeah?
As Little Mute mashes up these different styles into his own unique technique, he gets much better at that carrying water thing. Hell to the yes. Carry on, Little Mute, carry on.
What he’s really working towards here is to beat the titular Shaolin Wooden Men. Fighting them is part of secret rite of passage held in the middle of the night for those who are deemed ready by the Masters.
This ceremony involves the pupil walking through two long hallways full of big scary Rock’em Sock’em Robots made out of seriously huge Lincoln Logs. If the student manages to hold their own by the time a stick of incense burns out, they’ve officially graduated. (There's no cap and gown and no class ring so don’t even ask.)
Does Little Mute beat the Wooden Men? Well duh. No, that’s not a big spoiler, because it happens midway through the movie. So don’t get all bent out of shape. Please maintain your current formation. It is pleasant. Thank you.
The rest of Shaolin Wooden Men’s story plays out like a classic revenge film, much like yesterday’s Dragon Fist wanted to be. Little Mute wanders back down to the village below with a few missions to accomplish. What he learns as he completes these completely changes the way you see the first half of the movie, so don't be surprised if you feel an immediate re-watch coming on.
I'd love to tell you more about it. Believe me. I really would. I think we both know that doing so would be a dick move on my part.
Here's the moral of the story, kids: Shaolin Wooden Men is a movie you should watch for yourself. It hits all the sweet G-spots any fulfilling Kung-Fu film needs to. True, it may not be big on spectacle or choreography like most others, and it may not be a testament to legend the way a Bruce Lee picture would be. That doesn't stop it from having an unforgettable story and sense of power that you feel long after the final blow of the last fight is delivered.
If reading about Dragon Fist made you feel on the fence about actually watching it, I sincerely hope that the time you just spent reading about Shaolin Wooden Men made you want to see it. Because it’s totally worth it. And so are you.
Tune in tomorrow for Day 3: Drunken Master. And don't forget to BYOB because my roomie invited her coworkers so there might be a lot of people and I don't want to buy alcohol for everyone. K, thx, bye!