Legend of Kung Fu

Legend of Kung Fu

13 April 2008 (Sun), Beijing

My friends and I came across this in a Japanese guidebook on our way back from the Great Wall. It described an action piece performed by Shaolin Temple guys and gave it a strong recommendation. We called the Japanese agent listed in the book for reservations and were told that they were sold out. She refused to speak Chinese to our Chinese friend or to give us the theater number, so it was beginning to sound suspicious. We had the driver take us directly to the theater and discovered that there were plenty of seats for the evening performance at 5:15p. The agent evidently was concerned only with gouging Japanese tourists. We had initially thought to go to dinner and then the show, but since it was already 4:30p, we switched our plans and went straight in.

The theatre (紅劇場) is a dedicated building in large red brick. They sell goods right at the entrance – not only programs and concessions, but DVDs, books and more. Definitely a commercial venture, whatever the Shaolin connection. There was a little boy sitting on a stand cross-legged and perfectly still, moving only to beat a drum every now and then, and containers of broken wood and metal pieces on either side. From what I can see, the audience was almost completely Caucasian or Japanese, so either the show is not tailored for or marketed to the locals or they can’t afford it.

It was a silly story about a boy’s journey to becoming a Shaolin master. Essentially, after his destitute mother tearfully deposits him at the temple, he goes through much hard training to reach the ultimate status within the temple. The details are unnecessary, but what was interesting was the influence yet again of the Cirque de Soleil-type show that’s so pervasive these days (as was also the case with the Chinese acrobats in Shanghai). Story took second place at all times to atmosphere. There were a lot of martial arts moves – kicking, punching, somersaults, spinning in the air, breaking bricks over the head – all accompanied by new age-y music, mood lighting and special effects (like the white-bearded master flying on a cloud from stage left to right) as well as other elements like ballet-type movements. The action scenes were well-staged, and the guys, all amazingly athletic and fit, laudably approached their work as if the story really meant something.

Nevertheless, despite the semi-serious attempt to tell a story, it came across basically as a cheesy way to string together a bunch of impressive stunts. I wish they’d dispense with the pretense and just do what they’re out there to do. That being said, this show and this style seem to be popular, so I guess it’s what people want. It wasn’t uninteresting to see this, but once was enough. I hope the Cirque rage passes soon. It’s getting tiresome.

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