Out of seemingly nowhere, mere weeks before Chinese New Year 2021, was announced Stanley Tong’s Rising Shaolin: The Protector (henceforward Rising Shaolin), to be released straight to VOD despite its high-profile director and a cast full of stars – two of whom, Wang Baoqiang and Liu Haoran, are now filling theaters to unprecedented levels in Chen Sicheng’s Detective Chinatown 3. This is obviously a passion project for Wang: when he was 8, he was shown Chang Hsin Yen’s 1982 classic Shaolin Temple, both a debut and a breakout success for Jet Li, and still one of the highest-grossing Chinese films ever when adjusted for inflation. Determined to become a martial arts star, he joined an actual Shaolin monastery the same to be trained in martial arts. Later, his acting career took off with his acclaimed performance in Li Yang’s Blind Shaft, and has gone stratospheric since, in no small part due to the aforementioned Detective Chinatown franchise.

If Benny Chan’s Shaolin was a loose reinvention of the Jet Li classic, Rising Shaolin is more of a direct hommage, mirroring its progression from an action-comedy to a revenge tale to a redemptive coda, giving its theme song a full rendition, including a cameo from the venerable Yu Hai (who co-starred with Jet Li in the original and its two thematic sequels, Kids from Shaolin and Martial Arts of Shaolin and appeared in Benny Chan’s take as well), and even replicating its poster. Wang Baoqiang plays Debao, a con artist who stages phony ambushes and operates a fake inn to rob travelers, until one day he’s framed for the murder of a government official by a mysterious stranger (Xiong Xin Xin). In the ensuing manhunt, his son dies, and he ends up seeking refuge with a Shaolin monk (Ni Dahong) with a tragic past, whom he had previously bullied. The monk trains Debao in martials arts while slowly instilling values of love and tolerance in him, but soon government soldiers find his trace.

Strangely, this is an almost cheap-looking film, its flat cinematography, pared-down sets and scattered extras evoking a midrange Chinese online movie rather than an epic directed by a blockbuster expert like Tong and stacked with A-list names – some of whom are indeed merely cameos, like Liu Haoran as a prince and Ng Man Tat as a traveler Debao tries to con. And while an underground cave has the old-fashioned charm of a Shaw Brothers set, there’s also quite a bit of new-fashioned – and decidedly uncharming – greenscreen work as the monk teaches Debao atop a mountain. The humour is a mixed bag: there’s amusingly ghoulish sight gags in the opening fake ambush, but a lot of uninspired slapstick later on, including Debao being bitten by a turtle or kissed by a monkey.

But more damningly, the plot is so perfunctory that Debao’s redemption has no impact whatsoever. Ni Dahong’s deadpan charisma and gravitas elevates the film while he’s onscreen, especially during an amusing training sequence where he keeps destroying the dodgy huts Debao builds, to teach him resilience and discipline, but from then on the film listlessly strings together episodes with no sense of momentum, even sidelining the great Xiong Xin Xin as a villain, in favor of the very bland Du Guiyu. And for a film that bears the Shaolin name, it’s shockingly low on fighting. Save for a passable finale where Debao fights off dozens of soldiers with a staff, every display of martial arts in the film is over in a minute or so, and choreographed with little flair or power by Yan Hua (of Donnie Yen’s stunt team) in only is second film as a lead action director (after Frant Gwo’s The Wandering Earth). For a passion project, Rising Shaolin is strikingly passionless.

Long Story Short:  A few amusing gags and a passable final fight aside, Rising Shaolin: The Protector is visually flat, narratively perfunctory and shockingly low on fighting, squandering the talent and passion of Wang Baoqiang. **

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