Martha Burr (former editor of "Kung Fu Magazine") and Mei-Juin Chen's documentary Shaolin Ulysses: Kung Fu Monks in America, which originally aired on PBS "Independent Lens", follows a handful of current and ex-Shaolin monks who, following exposure to the US during an early 90's tour, have decided to try and make their way and spread the teachings of the famous martial monastery in the States.
In New York we meet Queens based Master Guilon, who just a few years ago opened the first official branch of Shaolin. In Brooklyn we meet former monk Li Peng, who has distanced himself from the Buddhist teachings and has become a family man with a young child and a Catholic wife. We learn the most about him, visiting his family back in China, and he describes how he went to the temple because his family was poor and his only desire was to study martial arts, not Buddhism.
In Houston we meet a couple of monks, who dream of kung fu being in the Olympics and try to continue the Shaloin tradition of helping out law enforcement by instructing some beer bellied Texas cops. In Las Vegas there is monk Xing Hong and his benefactor, Richard Russell a rich doctor who visited Shaolin after an accident and is now attempting a Vegas branch/sideshow. Perhaps the most telling scene of the adjustments and Western temptations the monks must adjust to comes when Dr. Russell and Xing Hong are in a Hooters restaurant and the slickster doc hooks an arm around a Hooters girl's waist and proclaims, " You think you've got a nice temple over there in China. This is my temple, and [referring to the girl] you're the head disciple."
This is a very typical, lightweight tv doc. Co-director Martha Burr also explored similar territory with the doc Kung Fu: The Animal Within, which I believe I saw on the Discovery Channel. The one questionable choice I found was in the celebrity narrator- When you think martial arts, surely you think Bea Bridges? At 60 mins Shaolin Ulysses is just a surface level story, briskly giving the details and set-up, but not really probing too deep. The basic sense you get demystifies the typical view of virtuous stalwart monks and presents them in a far more human light. These are men from impoverished, sheltered backgrounds, who are now just trying to make their way in a world far different from where they grew up. Going from eating nothing but vegetables to digesting a cheeseburger is strange enough, much less the lifestyle change from living in a temple to going on tour with Lollapalooza.
Picture: Full-screen. Standard. Non-Anamorphic. Since it is a tv affair and not an IMAX feature, the image is simple pretty basic video. The location footage is a bit more raw, but there are some set-ups with the monks performing styles that have a more stylized cinematic look. The transfer is fine with no technical defects. So, this isnt a case where the image sets out to stun; it simply gets the job done.
Sound: Dolby Stereo. Again typical doc fare, it gets the job done. The stereo really only gets a workout in terms of the music by John Zorn, which combines Chinese instruments within some Americana,Western, folky tunes.
Extras: Shaloin Temple Animated Short— Film maker Bio and Film maker (text) Statement— 40 minutes of bonus footage, including more location footage and the monks performing different forms.— Docudrama catalog and trailers.
Conclusion: Being a short form doc, it is hard to recommend outside the academic world. Shaolin Ulysses is good but thin. While informative enough for a casual classroom showing, die-hard doc freaks and martial fans (count me as both) won't find enough meat in the doc to warrant a purchase or many repeat viewings.