Some 1500 years ago, Bodhidharma, the patriarch of Zen Buddhism and kungfu, made a pilgrimage from India to China in order to spread the teachings of the Buddha. There, he established the Shaolin Temple that has trained monks in Zen and martial arts ever since. In the 1990s, five Shaolin monks left China on a journey of their own. They went to the United States in order to spread the teachings of the Buddha, and "Shaolin Ulysses: Kungfu Monks in America" tells their story, in documentary fashion.
Narrated by Beau Bridges, the film focuses on two monks who settled in New York City, two who landed in Houston, and one who has made a life for himself in Las Vegas. Also included is footage of the Shaolin Temple in China that they left, and interviews with family and friends that they left behind. It's fascinating and a subject ripe for documentary treatment, but I couldn't help but think, as I watched this, that it might have been more powerful or compelling had the filmmakers lingered a bit more, or gone deeper. In a statement by producer-directors Mei-Juin Chen and Martha Burr, the pair relates how what intrigued them about the project was that the monks found in America "not a mountain of gold but instead a long series of challenges, ranging from rampant American materialism, spiritual emptiness, and a culture oftentimes at odds with their own." But frankly, the 56-minute film, which aired on PBS in October 2003, never fully explores these issues. No challenges or struggles are evident (unless you count an old woman looking on from her front door in a seedy neighborhood as a temple across from her celebrates its opening)—just a matter-of-fact telling of where the monks landed, what their dreams are, and footage of them interacting with their students. There are many stories lurking here, and the filmmakers may have chosen too big of a cosmic brick to break when they might have done better to stay small. The most interesting segments feature students of the monks, rather than the monks themselves. There's little Julie Zhang, a Houston schoolgirl who tells of being driven to take kungfu lessons because she and her friends were getting beaten up by students who even gave teachers a hard time. Though monks emphasize the spiritual side of kungfu and self-defense, her declaration on camera that she's just about ready to take them on and beat them up flies in the face of those teachings. And while the monks are trying to spread Buddhism, Julie says her big aspiration is to be a big martial arts movie star, right up there with Jackie Chan. This is good stuff, and the story of this pupil and her teachers (and the gap between what the teacher intends and what the student learns) is worth the entire 56 minutes of camera time.
Same with a Las Vegas doctor who lives in an opulent home and was drawn to kungfu because of its spiritual side. Yet, as he talks on camera about his dream of going on to teach others about the spiritual side of kungfu, the camera pulls back and we see that he and his master monk are sitting in a Hooters bar and restaurant. "This is my temple," the doctor jokes, but tellingly so. And once again, the paradoxical relationship between teaching ideals and the pragmatic mindsets and entrenched lifestyles of Americans comes clearly into focus. This story, too, is worthy of being a documentary by itself. So, for that matter, is the monk who traded kungfu lessons for guitar lessons from rockers he met on a Lollapalooza tour, or the monk who married a Catholic American woman and now has a child that will be raised both Buddhist and Catholic. I'm guessing that viewers may find other segments of this film that they would wish were longer as well, because "Shaolin Ulysses" feels like a made-for-TV show of the "60 Minutes" variety—a little here, and a little there.
Even so, those clips provide some strong overall impressions, and martial arts fans will find the monk's teaching styles and the training regimens fascinating. The routines (especially acrobatic sequences and "iron body" footage, where the monks endure all manner of blows to the body) are fun to watch. Interspersed among the interviews and current footage are segments from a 1983 film, "Shaolin True Kungfu," Even the children look so polished as they land on their backs, flip back to their feet, and launch into a series of punches, blocks, and kicks. There's both footage of the monks' pupils in America and of young martial arts students training at the original Shaolin Temple in China—even performances of monks engaging in routines based on five animal styles. But it's almost painful to watch young boys learning how to tolerate pain atop their heads (with the scars and scabs to prove it), and to watch the master used as a chopping block for bricks placed atop and beneath his head, or to see footage from the old kungfu film of a master pulling large objects with a rope tied to his sex organs (not shown—don't panic). We won't even talk about the monk who breaks a metal bar over the top of his head. Yet, the footage is mostly of youngsters training, and little ones taking martial arts lessons of any kind will find the kungfu sequences from "Shaolin Ulysses" inspiring.
The film is presented in full screen (1.33:1 aspect ratio), with color footage and black-and-white animation. Footage from the 1983 kungfu movie is especially grainy, and current footage shot of trainees dressed in bright red uniforms create a two-dimensional effect with halos around the colors. Otherwise, the picture is clear and the colors distinct. Subtitles are provided for monks and other interview subjects who speak no English.
The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, with most of the sound coming out of the front center speaker. Nothing fancy, no complaints.
Included among the bonus features is the full animated short used to illustrate the story of Bodhidharma (sans narrative), brief click-on text filmmaker biographies and statement, and 40 minutes of deleted scenes divided into 15 clips: Shaolin Kungfu, Little Luo Han Fist, Youth Kungfu, Iron Shirt Golden Bell, Broadsword, Whip Chain, Ditang, Luo Han Fist, Staff, Eagle Fist, Monk Ping Hao, Huen Yuen, Monkey and Tiger, Julie Zhang, and Shaolin Festival. The deleted scenes are a real treat for martial arts fans, though the quality isn't quite as good as the finished documentary.
More than an in-depth study of the five Shaolin monks or their experience with culture-clash, "Shaolin Ulysses" provides a nice all-ages introduction to kungfu and the spiritual regimen that accompanies the physical training. But it also raises unstated but provocative questions about the lives that Americans lead.