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TORONTO (Reuters) - They went to kick butt and gain enlightenment, but what the men in new documentary "The Real Shaolin" found in China was loneliness, pain, bad food and angry kung fu teachers.
For aspiring martial artists, movies about kung fu fighting are the stuff of which screen legends are made. The stars' names are well-known: Bruce Lee, Jet Li and Jackie Chan.
But the reality, as told in "Real Shaolin" which debuts at the Toronto International Film Festival this week, has little to do with flying fists and more with hard work.
"The difference between movies and the reality I try to show is that in the movies when they experience hardship, it's romanticized," director Alexander Sebastien Lee told Reuters.
"In China if you go to a master and tell them I want to learn to beat someone up and kill somebody they'll tell you to go somewhere else," he added.
"Real Shaolin" follows two Chinese and two Westerners who journey to the Shaolin Temple in central Henan province, inspired by the mythical feats from film heroes Li and others.
Glorified images of warrior monks effortlessly breaking spears with their throats and withstanding brutal body blows inspire many to learn the deadly art form at its birthplace.
A Korean-American, Lee decided to make his documentary after venturing to Shaolin to see if he could survive the excruciating training. Lee, 29, a black-belt in tae kwon do and a first-time director who wrote, produced and shot the film, found something else.
Since hardly anyone actually studies kung fu at the Shaolin Temple (it is mostly a tourist attraction now after surviving 1,500 years of wars and revolutions), Lee follows the four students in the nearby rural city of Dengfeng, dubbed "Kung Fu City" for its 40,000 students and 100 martial arts academies.
He spent about 18 months filming two Chinese, Yuan Peng and Zhu Hao Shan, American Orion Lee and Frenchman Eric Guillou, as they spent 8 to 10 hours-a-day kicking, punching stretching, and just as important praying and meditating.
But their initial excitement and dreams -- Eric wants to become the first non-Chinese Shaolin monk -- are tempered with squalid living conditions, isolation and not always training with strong rivals but with children.
"I was almost mystified by the kung fu warriors, by the Shaolin monks, training in the mountains and being in this beautiful temple where people have dedicated their entire lives to the pursuit of kung fu and Buddhism," said Orion Lee, a blond-haired and blue-eyed man from Connecticut, who was just 19-years-old when the documentary was filmed.
"The lesson I learned was really to appreciate everything you have and everything that you stand to lose."
For the two Chinese subjects, one 9-year-old Yuan Peng who was abandoned by his parents at the Shaolin Temple, their path is equally trying but it can transform their lives.
Martial artists in China can hope to escape poverty with a career as a policeman, soldier, kung fu coach or bodyguard -- and if they're really lucky, a chance to work in the movies.
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte