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The 36th Chamber of Shaolin
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Gordon Liu and half-moon weapon thingy.

AKA: The Master Killer, Shaolin Master Killer
Chinese: 少林三十六房
Year: 1978
Director: Lau Kar-Leung
Producer: Sir Run Run Shaw, Mona Fong, Huang Chi-Hsi
Writer: Ni Kuang, Eric Tsang Chi-Wai
Action: Lau Kar-Leung, Wilson Tong Wai-Shing
Cast: Gordon Liu Chia-Hui, Lo Lieh, Lau Kar-Wing, Wilson Tong Wai-Shing, Wong Yue, Lee Hoi-Sang, Wai Wang, Henry Yu Yang, Hon Gwok-Choi, Simon Yuen Hsiao-Tien, Austin Wai Tin-Chi
The Skinny: Widely considered to be one of the greatest martial arts movies ever made, The 36th Chamber of the Shaolin remains a definite must-see film for fans of the genre. Thanks to an intriguing premise, inventive choreography by Lau Kar-Leung, and a star-making turn by lead actor Gordon Liu, this film still retains the ability to hook new viewers even after all these years. Simply put, I liked it.

Review by

In 1978, Lau Kar-Leung and Gordon Liu teamed up to create The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, a film that became not only a seminal work in both men's careers, but a certifiable classic in the eyes of Hong Kong cinema fans worldwide. It's doubtful that either Lau or Liu could have predicted the film's overwhelming influence on the genre, but in watching the movie all these years later, it's obvious that the film was a definite labor of love.

Set in Manchu-controlled China, the film centers on the young Liu Yingde (Gordon Liu), the teenage son of a humble seafood shop owner. During the day, Liu attends Chong Wen College under the tutelage of Mr. Ho (Wai Wang), who secretly moonlights as a revolutionary against the Qin Empire. Upon viewing the dead bodies of several rebels (Lau Kar-Wing among them), Liu decides that it's high time he put his schooling to use and fight back against the imperious Manchu forces.

Along with several of his friends, Liu joins the rebellion and agrees to smuggle secret documents to aid the resistance fighters. They begin by using the family fish market as a front for their covert activities, but their not-so-brilliant subterfuge is ultimately uncovered. Liu's friends, family, and teacher all end up paying the ultimate price, each perishing at the hands of the merciless Manchu warlords, Tang San-Yao and General Tien Ta (Wilson Tong and Lo Lieh respectively). Liu's only chance at survival is to flee to the fabled Shaolin Temple in the hopes that they will accept him as a pupil. But revenge isn't Liu's only motivation for learning kung fu. In addition to avenging his loved ones, he also plans to instruct the common folk in the ways of Shaolin, so they can properly defend themselves against the tyrannous Manchu aggressors. But as Liu soon discovers, you've got to learn to crawl before you learn to kick ass.

Wounded and weary from fleeing his Manchu pursuers, Liu finally makes it to the temple, hiding himself in a load of groceries purchased by Shaolin monks at a local market. Liu is soon discovered, but isn't able to explain himself just yet because he's comatose! Once nursed back to health, Liu is eventually given the option of joining the monastery. He accepts, and after a year of performing menial tasks for the temple, he finally begins his marital arts training (all he had to do was ask). Now renamed San Te, our hero enters the thirty-five chambers of Shaolin. And here's where things really start to heat up.

With an unflappable dedication, San Te practices day and night until he masters each chamber, flying through each grueling challenge in record time. The trials presented in each succeeding chamber range from the deceptively simple (log hopping) to the insanely brutal (bashing one's head on multiple punching bags) to the exceedingly complex (reciting esoteric Buddhist mantras). After ascending past the final chamber, San Te is given the opportunity to become a teacher on any chamber of his choice. In response to this honor, he asks to create a 36th Chamber, in which he would teach laymen the art of Shaolin kung fu. Unfortunately for San Te, Shaolin dogma expressly forbids the teaching of non-members, so for this inappropriate suggestion, San Te is "punished" by his peers and forced to leave the temple to collect donations. Of course, this only gives San Te the opportunity to recruit some disciples for his cause with folk hero Hung Hei-Koon (Henry Yu-Yung) and the oddly named Miller Six (Wong Yue) among them. Oh, and San Te also gets some revenge on those dastardly Manchu baddies. But we all saw that coming, now didn't we?

My facetiousness in glossing over the events of the film's final act may seem a bit odd, but in truth, I only do it because that's not where the real meat of the film resides. Unlike most martial arts films in which the big payoff is in the climactic duel between hero and villain, the real allure of The 36th Chamber of the Shaolin lies in the extended, creative, and often grueling training sequences that take up the majority of the film's middle act. Action choreographer and director Lau Kar Leung handles each trial deftly, taking what could be tedious filler in a lesser director's hands and making each scene sparkle with a palpable sense of energy and intrigue. Though the wirework involved might put off "purists" looking for realistic martial arts techniques, the sheer creativity of these scenes more than makes up for any complaints over the wire-enhanced kung fu on display here. Thanks to these sequences, the film's climax almost seems entirely beside the point. At the risk of sounding trite, it's San Te's journey, not the destination that makes this film so satisfying.

As the master monk San Te, martial arts superstar Gordon Liu really shines in what would become a career-defining role. His portrayal of the character is remarkably nuanced for what is essentially—at least on paper—a standard kung fu flick. While lesser actors often fail to make the onscreen transition from callow youth to mature adult seem believable, Gordon Liu makes that transformation work. And though the universal laws of the genre dictate that San Te will master each and every task he's presented, there's no less drama in watching the actual events unfold. By the time he's made it to the Shaolin Temple, we've grown to like San Te and sympathize with his plight. And with each successive victory at Shaolin, we the audience seem to share in his sense of accomplishment. Consequently, suspension of disbelief isn't even an issue thanks to Gordon Liu's performance; we're just plugged into his story, anxiously waiting to see what happens next. And if that's not the sign of a good film, I don't know what is. (Calvin McMillin 2003)

Awards: 24th Asian Film Festival
Winner - Best Martial Arts
Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Intercontinental Video Ltd. (IVL)
Region 3 NTSC
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Mandarin and Cantonese Language Tracks
Removable English, Chinese, and Bahasa Subtitles
Gordon Liu Interview, Behind The Scenes, Trailers, Color Stills, Original Poster, Production Notes, Cast/Crew Information
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc
Also see: Return to the 36th Chamber (1980)
Disciples of the 36th Chamber (1984)
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image courtesy of Intercontinental Video, Ltd. Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen