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Disciples of the 36th Chamber
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Gordon Liu returns for more 36th Chamber goodness.

Chinese: 霹靂十傑
Year: 1984
Director: Lau Kar-Leung
Producer: Sir Run Run Shaw, Mona Fong Yat-Wah, Wong Ka-Hee
Writer: Lau Kar-Leung
Action: Lau Kar-Leung, Lee King-Chue, Hsiao Hou
Cast: Gordon Liu Chia-Hui, Hsiao Hou, Lau Kar-Leung, Pai Piao, Lily Li Li-Li, Lee Hoi-Sang, Yeung Chi-Hing, Cheng Miu
The Skinny: Extremely disappointing third entry in the 36th Chamber of Shaolin trilogy that relegates Gordon Liu to a mere supporting role in favor of Hsiao Hou, who plays quite possibly the most annoying Fong Sai-Yuk in the history of Hong Kong cinema.
  Review by

On paper, the premise for Disciples of the 36th Chamber probably sounded promising. The first film saw martial arts megastar Gordon Liu playing Chinese folk hero San Te, and the sequel had him playing an entirely different character trained by the same venerable monk, so it only seemed natural that the third film in the series would have Gordon Liu back as San Te once again, but serving in a mentor capacity this time around. But if Gordon Liu's character wasn't going to be the main focus of the piece, then who would be a suitable replacement? It would have to be some figure that could match San Te in popularity and screen presence; smartly, the filmmakers chose legendary kung fu hero Fong Sai Yuk. But while putting both San Te and Fong Sai-Yuk in a single movie sounds like a license to print money, I'm sorry to report that a maddening script and an unappealing performance by lead actor Hsiao Hou botches any promise that was suggested in the unique pairing. Disciples of the 36th Chamber is a lackluster sequel, and that's putting it mildly.

We begin as all the 36th Chamber of Shaolin movies do, in Manchu-infested China. The protagonist of the film is Fong Sai-Yuk (Hsiao), a grade-A mama's boy who seems to have been held back in school a grade or two (he's in a class with small children). From a very early age, Sai-Yuk learned the art of kung fu from his mother, Miao Tsui-Hua (Lily Li), and she's been ever-protective of her darling son, even employing her other offspring to keep a watchful eye on him. Skilled as he is, Sai-Yuk is eager to show off his abilities at a moment's notice, usually with disastrous effects.

Eventually, San Te (Gordon Liu) enters the picture and crosses paths with Fong Sai-Yuk when the young man insults some Manchu officers (Lau Kar-Leung among them). The officials don't know who did it for sure, but are about to investigate when San Te interferes. For some odd reason, Sai-Yuk is too dense to realize that San Te's deferent behavior toward the guards was a ruse to save the lad from trouble. Even worse, Sai-Yuk vows revenge against San Te; exactly why he holds such a silly grudge isn't explained.

Even after his mother speaks highly of the monk, Sai-Yuk barges into the Qin gymnasium, busting heads in search of San Te. Of course, this idiotic behavior offends the court and puts not only him, but the whole Canton school into grave danger, so Mama Fong sends her all her boys to the Shaolin Temple for safekeeping (She and San Te are old friends). When Sai-Yuk reaches the temple, he STILL wants to fight San Te, and even after his mother explains what San Te has done for him, Sai-Yuk still seems to harbor some animosity toward the good-natured San Te.

Sai-Yuk spends the entire time at the Shaolin Temple trying to escape, slacking off during drills, and acting like a pain in the ass know-it-all. One night, he goes AWOL and interrupts a private Manchu celebration, where his annoyingly sarcastic cheers during a parade expose him to the crowd. When asked his identity by the Manchu governor (Yeung Chi-Hing), Sai-Yuk immediately reveals his name and says he's from the Shaolin Temple. (The whole "I'm wanted for execution by the Manchu government" thing must've slipped his mind.) In a clever move, the Manchu governor plays nice with Sai-Yuk and invites him to join in a martial arts tournament. Of course, it's all a ruse to learn the secret techniques of the 36th Chamber, but self-centered Sai-Yuk doesn't have a clue. On his second visit to the Manchu court, Sai-Yuk declares that he can't reveal any of the secrets he's learned at Shaolin, but only minutes later, he gives a demonstration of many of the skills taught by the monks in the 36th Chamber!

When San Te finally exposes the callow youth's behavior, Sai-Yuk expresses zero guilt for violating the rules and talks back to his Shaolin betters, quickly forgetting that the monks are shielding him from danger. Sai-Yuk is expelled from the temple, and subsequently becomes little use to the Manchu governor, who plans to execute him, but not before luring the rest of the secular pupils of Shaolin into a seemingly inescapable death trap. Luckily for the students, San Te gets wind of the plot and sets up a ruse of his own with the help of Sai-Yuk's mother. And while the laws of cinema require that the flawed Sai-Yuk should eventually emerge as a hero, the transformation is too little too late in this reviewer's eyes.

Hsiao Hou is unquestionably a talented martial artist, but his take on Fong Sai-Yuk just doesn't set right with me. Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Jet Li have all portrayed characters who cause all sorts of trouble, but somehow their shenanigans come across as playful and funny whereas Hsiao Hou seems to exude arrogance at every turn. Many of his scenes, if played differently, but with the same dialogue could have made Sai-Yuk a slightly more likeable character.

But to be fair, Hsiao Hou shouldn't take all the blame—much of it falls on Lau Kar-Leung's script. The overall direction and construction of the plot is fine, but as with Hsiao Hou's performance, a little tweaking here and there would have benefited Sai-Yuk's character immensely. It's hard to root for a hypocrite. To wit, Sai-Yuk is eager to beat the stuffing out of San Te for just talking to the enemy, while he himself becomes a Manchu lapdog in only a matter of days. This film version of Sai-Yuk isn't too bright either; in the climax, he continues to trust the Manchu governor and fight against San Te even after the governor gives the order to kill Sai-Yuk's comrades—including his own mother! Maybe it's just me, but I don't think it's a good sign when the audience is rooting for its protagonist to get a brutal and well-deserved comeuppance. I kept hoping for rogue monkeys to show up and tear Sai-Yuk limb from limb, but sadly, no monkeys appeared.

Gordon Liu, the one person who could salvage this train wreck of a movie, is unfortunately confined to a limited supporting role. Sure, he gets to show his stuff in the final reel, but even that doesn't help. In truth, fans of Gordon Liu and the character San Te should really just check out the previous installments of the 36th Chamber of Shaolin series before venturing a look at this tepid sequel. And for those of who want to see Fong Sai-Yuk at his very best, look no further than the self-titled 1993 film and its sequel, both featuring a charming performance by Jet Li as Fong Sai-Yuk. Ultimately, Disciples of the 36th Chamber amounts to a film that's for martial arts aficionados only, and even those guys will walk away disappointed. (Calvin McMillin 2003)

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
Trailers, Color Stills, Original Poster, Production Notes, Cast/Crew Information
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc
Also see: The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978)
Return to the 36th Chamber (1980)
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image courtesy of Intercontinental Video, Ltd. Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen