SOUTHERN SHAOLIN (2021) short review

The eternally underrated Fan Siu Wong keeps plugging away in Chinese straight-to-VOD films, not having appeared in a theatrically-released film since 2016’s Bounty Hunters. It’s a crying shame, but at least some of these online movies utilize him well, like the fight-heavy The Bravest Escort Group or last year’s solid fantasy adventure Taoist Master diptych. A riff on the well-trodden ‘Shaolin-assisted redemption’ subgenre of martial arts cinema, Dong Wei’s Southern Shaolin is a good notch below these passable films though. It follows pirate chief Cai Yan (Fan Siu Wong), who is betrayed and left for dead by his second in command (Xiong Xin Xin), himself in league with very evil white soldiers – but is there any other kind in Chinese films? Cai is found and nursed back to health by Shaolin monks; sensing a good place to lay low, he feigns amnesia to ingratiate himself, and becomes an apprentice. What started as a ploy slowly turns to true enlightenment, but soon his past catches up with him. At 75 minutes, Southern Shaolin is simply too short and perfunctory (not too mention, too cheap) to properly convey its redemption narrative, despite an amusing montage showing Cai recoiling at the discipline and frugality of a monk’s life. But it is also unforgivably skimpy on fights: Fan and Xiong, two superb screen fighters, are given only short flashes of action, and their final fight is a brief and disjointed affair. The film also features some of the very worst gweilo dialogue and acting ever put to film – well, to memory card. *1/2

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