Docurama // 2003 // 56 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // July 27th, 2004
Two words: Iron Crotch.
With this documentary, filmmakers Mei-Juin Chen and Martha Burr explore the small culture of Shaolin kung-fu monks in the United States. Over the course of 56 minutes, the documentary connects with a handful of monks who emigrated from China to bring a little Shaolin/Buddhist sumpin' sumpin' to America. Spread throughout the country, from New York City to Houston, these monks promote their beliefs through everything from street performances to full-scale temples and training facilities.
But more often than not, life for these elite masters isn't all hero-worship and flying through the air with spears like Jet Li movies (though one of the monks does mention the gratitude Shaolin has for Li's publicity of the art).
The monks work very hard to showcase their life's dedication, while streamlining with the culture of their new country. Even if the best exhibition is a simple street performance, in their eyes, every little bit helps.
Li Peng is a monk who has landed in New York City. He loves the city, and loves the fact that he can blend in, no matter how diverse his beliefs are. He has opened his doors to train students in the art of Shaolin, and on the weekends relaxes with his American wife, a devout Catholic who appreciates Peng's heritage but is unwilling to relinquish her own faith.
Further away, we meet Le Shan, a Texan kung-fu monk who spreads his Shaolin boogie by teaching out-of-shape police officers submission moves. We also learn that he has mastered, among other moves, the incredible "Iron Crotch."
The Iron Crotch!!! How awesome is that?! Included is actual footage of the Iron Crotch in action, with one guy relentlessly kicking another guy squarely in his groin.
Overall, Shaolin Ulysses wasn't what I was expecting, but it was certainly interesting. I was thinking a nonstop display of cool-ass martial artistry, bolstered with some history of the temple, awaited me.
The filmmakers pursued a different tack, opting instead to focus on how the monks have assimilated into their new culture, and what they're doing to promote the ancient arts. It's a more personal focus, and it works.
At times, however, I felt that maybe the filmmakers were looking to pursue a specific thesis; that the monks can fall prey to modern American culture and forgo their Shaolin upbringing. As such, they forced the issue a bit.
Take, for example, Peng's Catholic wife, a character who gets a decent amount of screen time, and repeatedly drives home the fact that she's Catholic and she wants to keep it that way. But it's not done in a combative "I-hate-Shaolin" tone. She's just a girl who married this badass kung fu monk, who doesn't happen to buy Buddhism. I felt this was a conflict that really wasn't a conflict.
But don't worry. If it's cool Shaolin stuff you want to see, Shaolin Ulysses will give it to you, in limited doses. To be fair, there is a ton of unused footage in the deleted scenes featuring extended, uncut moves performed by some of the monks. An animated short about the Shaolin temples and some biographical information about the filmmakers round out the bonuses.
The picture quality is crisp and clear and, sigh, full-frame. The stereo mix is adequate. The interface is well done as well, with an attractive and very user-friendly menu system.
Shaolin Ulysses is a neat little documentary that treats its subjects with reverence. I would have liked a little more history and a few more cool moves (thought the youth kung fu is pretty great), but in general a fine little film.
Not guilty. Now go get monkdified.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 56 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted scenes
* Filmmakers statement
* Animated Short