Premiering this coming Thursday, December 18 at 10PM ET/PT on the National Geographic Channel is Secrets of the Kung Fu Temple.
Although the documentary is a good overview of the current state of Shaolin in 2008 its misguided title should be renamed ‘Shaolin Inc.’ – because that is what the centuries old tradition has become; a multi-million dollar corporation headed by Abbot Shi Yong Xin. Tourism, merchandising, world tours, Shaolin franchises in the US and Europe are all now a part of Shaolin Inc. with its vision to spread its knowledge globally. Not to say that it’s a bad thing, because the very forward thinking Head Abbot Shi is Spiritual Leader turned Brand Manager and CEO feels that the temple (company) should be moving with the times. Some call his choices radically innovative while others criticize his decision to enter the temple into the capitalist marketplace.
Now, had the documentary focused on the conflict between spirituality and capitalism, it would’ve made for a much more interesting production. Instead, the cameras focus on internal conflicts coming from two novice Shaolin hopefuls wanting to secure a spot on an exhibition team, the generation gap between the elder monks and the new generation, plus the preparation from a Belgian choreographer brought into mix traditional kung fu with modern dance moves for a performance in London that has yet to be approved by Head Abbot Shi. It’s interesting, but the result is disorganized, choppy and anti-climactic at best.
I gotta say I was waiting to be fascinated and enthralled, awed, and all those enlightening adjectives. But I guess with all the martial arts films in abundance – despite the feats of human ability that my cute physique will not be able to accomplish no matter how much Pilates I do – I’m quite desensitized. Secrets of the Kung Fu Temple reminds me of another (better) documentary co-produced by ITVS called Circus School about life amongst the trainers and their students of the Shanghai Circus School. National Geographic’s magazine documentary is kinda boring in comparison to the frank, Cinéma vérité style of ITVS.
Perhaps it’s also because it’s preaching to the choir; I grew up on martial-arts films, thanks to the Shaw Brothers and Gordon Liu, so I have a good idea of the deep level of spirituality that is fundamental to the monks training and tradition; secrets revealed, it is not. Nowhere found is this conflict between the capitalism and spirituality, as the documentary implies. I mean, who is criticizing Head Abbot Shi’s vision? Why? Have there been any dire consequences of his moving the temple into the 22nd century? What is life like for someone who has left the temple? Can you show and not tell?
Those interested in a refresher check it out Secrets of the Kung Fu Temple the National Geographic Channel this coming Thursday, December 18, 2008 at 10PM ET/PT.