The documentary is strictly a no-frills affair, and its 40-minute running time and PBS-style straightforwardness make it play out more like the sort of video you might see playing on a loop at a visitors' center while on vacation. (I can't find any information on the film's origins, so it's only a guess to say it may have been made for Chinese television. There's a state-sponsored feel to the thing, although I say this not with any negative connotations attached.)
For the most part, we follow the daily routines of these boys, ages ranging six through twelve, as they study a vast number of subjects, chief among them Buddhism. They also practice the fine art of shaolin wushu, which has been passed from generation to generation for centuries. The amount of focus these youths put into their studies (both physical and academic) is impressive - it's impossible not to be wowed by the gymnastic prowess on display in many scenes, while parents will also start wondering what they can do to get their own kids to shape up behind the school desk. And just when you begin to worry that all this seriousness is draining the souls from these children, along comes a glimpse of boys being boys, chasing each other with brooms, laughing all the way.
Several times throughout, we're given long, simple scenes where the narrator remains quiet and we simply observe the boys as they go about their day. An excerpt from the children's Buddhism lesson seems hand-picked for outside audiences, as the teacher softly extols the virtues of mercy and peace.
The only "story" as such comes in the middle of the film, as we follow one student as he travels to Beijing, becoming excited over the sights of the big city. Again, images of the child smiling at the thought of seeing Mao's statue has a vague whiff of propaganda, showing off a sense of national pride, but then comes the scene of the boy calling his mother on a cell phone, joking and smiling, genuinely thrilled by his experiences, and we can all relate.
"Little Shaolin Monks" avoids in-depth analysis and refuses to ask any serious questions (what do the boys leave behind by coming here?), yet remains worthy of a glimpse, if only for its rare look into the real side of a life glamorized by the fantasy world of action movies. The reality, it turns out, is just as interesting.
Video & Audio
"Little Shaolin Monks" is presented in a non-anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1), although its credits are in 1.33:1 full screen. The film was shot on video and it shows. At one point late in the movie, we get a quick snippet of videotape damage, probably a problem with the source material itself. The Mandarin soundtrack is a passable Dolby stereo, with non-removable Chinese and English subtitles playing out simultaneously.
The short running time and lack of fuller detail prevent "Little Shaolin Monks" from being a keeper. Anyone with an interest in the subject will do fine just to Rent It.