Shaolin Ulysses: Kungfu Monks in America (2008)

PBS - Global Voices

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The famous fighting monks of the Shaolin Temple have seen a resurgence throughout the world, aided in part by the popularity of kungfu movies starring Jet Li and the Academy Award-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Narrated by Beau Bridges, SHAOLIN ULYSSES: Kungfu Monks in America traces the odyssey of five real Shaolin kungfu monks from China who immigrated to America in the 1990s.



SHAOLIN ULYSSES explores the stories of five immigrant kungfu monks from China's Shaolin Temple: the legendary birthplace of kungfu, Zen Buddhism and today's contemporary kungfu mecca. They share their lives, ambitions and visions of building American temples, doing Las Vegas shows and producing Olympic sport champions. From New York to Texas to Las Vegas, their stories reflect a unique version of the American Dream—Shaolin style.



The film began as a concept between producers Martha Burr and Mei-Juin Chen several years ago. Burr was the editor of a kungfu magazine and Chen had recently debuted her documentary in Berlin on the famous Chinese opera star Mei Lanfang. Both shared an interest in Chinese culture and cross-cultural topics, especially between China and America.



The stories of the five kungfu monks who left their homeland are as individual and varied as the men themselves. Shi Guolin opened a successful Buddhist temple and kungfu school in Flushing, Queens. Li Peng Zhang has married an American woman and now is raising a family in Brooklyn, New York. Two monks, Shi Xing Hao and Shi De Shan, have landed in Houston, Texas, where they coach young athletes aspiring to the Olympics (where kungfu may be a medal sport in 2008) and teach brutal self-defense and submission takedowns to Texas police. And, finally, one of the biggest Shaolin stars, Shi Xing Hong, is springboarding to Las Vegas, where he sees a perfect opportunity to spread Zen and kungfu in America.



Interspersed throughout the documentary is footage and history of China's Shaolin Temple in Henan province, chronicling the creation of Zen and kungfu by a wandering monk named Bodhidharma, 1500 years ago. Today the temple is a mega-tourist attraction, the world's largest kungfu school and a UNESCO World Heritage Monument applicant. The film explores the cultural interface of Shaolin kungfu, Zen Buddhism and America. It is at once a story about immigrants, a story about kungfu and Buddhism, a story about dreams and a story about journeys.



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