Shi Long Pang is an unlikely Shaolin monk, and if he's not careful, he's going to be a dead Shaolin monk. After escaping the burning of his temple, this pudgy little holy man is wandering Yunnan province looking for the lost members of his order. But he'll have to make sure the Qing Emperor's bannermen don't find him — and the book he's carrying — first.
Ben Costa's Pang, the Wandering Shaolin Monk (also known as Shi Long Pang) doesn't contain any magic beyond the incredible powers of the Shaolin monks' wushu. But this historical drama contains both facts and folklore about 17th-century China and the legendary burning of the Southern Shaolin Temple in 1674 (although the very existence of a such a temple in Fujian province remains in doubt). This drops us into the era following the grand stability of the Ming Dynasty and into the uncertainty of the dawning Qing Dynasty.
Pang (whose name, aptly, means "fat") enters a walled city in Yunnan looking for his fellow Shaolin. He befriends Yang Yang, the charming niece of a local innkeeper, and reveals the truth of his situation: the Shaolin temple was burned by agents of the Qing Empire, and he must protect the remnants of Shaolin knowledge, both in his own person and in the book of Shaolin history that he carries. Through flashbacks, we get a taste of Pang's life at the monastery, how the monks responded to the threat of destruction, plus the bloody battle that follows.
Now Pang is a stranger in a strange land. He carries with him the guilt of his failures at the temple, and now he is on the outside for the first time. He's angered by the injustices he witnesses and confused by the feelings he has "below the navel" for Yang Yang. And he doesn't understand the politics that have led to the destruction of so many Shaolin temples. He may carry a legacy of his order with him, but Pang worries that he's just not a very good monk.
If all of this sounds packed with depressing melodrama — don't fret. Pang has its sad and even shocking moments, but those are broken up with a fair share of levity. Costa uses both verbal humor (the comic practically kicks off with a round of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) and comic visuals to keep the comedy in his action-comedy. And fans of extended wushu fight scenes will find plenty of that. Pang may be on the soft side, but he can hold his own in a fight, although his battles aren't always of the virtuous hero against the wicked villains.
In fact, this isn't as simple as a tale of heroes and villains. The facts of the Southern Shaolin Temple and its destruction may be murky, but Pang is filled with genuine history, history that Pang doesn't fully understand but which the characters around him respond and react to. The Han Chinese are increasingly under the rule of the Manju, and while many chafe at being forbidden their traditions, there are those who welcome a new ruling party. And there are those — even other Shaolin — who just want to live their lives in peace, apart from politics. Pang has been caught up in a war that have little to do him or his quiet temple far removed from Fujian. But one side of that war has him in their sights and Pang will have to decide what is worth fighting for — including whether he is worth fighting for.