Review: The Real Shaolin

August 22, 2010

Directed by Alexander Sebastien Lee 

This debut documentary, which artfully removes the Hollywood veneer from the ancient art of kung fu, highlights the lives of four students  — Yuan Peng, a 9-year-old orphan; Zhu, a son of farmers; Orion, an American teenager; and Eric, a Frenchman — training at the Shaolin Temple in Henan, China. The storyline diverges, with one track following the Chinese students and another following the Western students: Peng and Zhu see kung fu as a path out of poverty, while Orion and Eric wrestle with feelings of inferiority as they compete with Chinese students who have superior skills and more opportunities to train. There are cheeky moments — such as when students cheer “Foreigner!” during Orion’s forms exam — but the narrative stays focused on each student’s dreams and personal struggles. The physical rigors of training, the unrelenting instruction of teachers and the desolate surroundings of the schools are juxtaposed with picturesque images (such as Shaolin Temple), revealing the disparity between what it actually means to master kung fu and what we see on the silver screen. The diversity of the subjects and the classic underdog story will appeal to a wide audience, kung fu aficionados or not.

Magazine Section: 

Sylvie Kim

contributing editor & blogger

Sylvie Kim is a contributing editor at Hyphen. She previously served as Hyphen's blog coeditor with erin Khue Ninh, film editor, and blog columnist.

She writes about gender, race, class and privilege in pop culture and media (fun fun fun!) at and at SF Weekly's The Exhibitionist blog. Her work has also appeared on Racialicious and Salon.