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Return to the 36th Chamber
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Gordon Liu plays with poles in Return to the 36th Chamber.

AKA: Return of the Master Killer
Chinese: 少林搭棚大師
Year: 1980
Director: Lau Kar-Leung
Producer: Sir Run Run Shaw, Mona Fong Yat-Wah
Action: Lau Kar-Leung
Cast: Gordon Liu Chia-Hui, Johnny Wang Lung-Wei, Chen Szu-Chia, Kara Hui Ying-Hung, Hsiao Hou, Wong Gam-Fung, Cheng Wai-Ho, Wong Ching-Ho, Wa Lun, Lee King Chue, Yau Chiu-Ling, Cheng Miu, Kong Do
The Skinny: This unconventional follow-up recasts Gordon Liu as a down-on-his-luck con artist learning the ropes from the very character he played in the original, the venerable Shaolin monk San Te. Equal parts spoof and straight-ahead martial arts actioner, Return to the 36th Chamber is one of the rare sequels that's just as much fun as its predecessor.
  Review by

How do you make a sequel when the main character's story was pretty much wrapped up in the original? That may have been the very question facing director Lau Kar-Leung when Shaw Brothers came calling for him to helm the follow-up to the mega-popular 36th Chamber of Shaolin. In that stellar film, Gordon Liu starred as bookish student San Te, who after years of arduous training emerged from the Shaolin Temple as a certifiable master of the martial arts. The film ended with San Te taking revenge on those who killed his loved ones and establishing the 36th Chamber, a section of the temple dedicated to teaching laymen the art of Shaolin kung fu. Sure, a sequel could involve San Te serving as a mentor for a new lead character, but part of the fun of the original film was watching Gordon Liu struggle to master each of the grueling chambers. If Liu were to reprise the role of San Te, would there really be anything more for him to do with the character? But if he doesn't play San Te, how can the film still be called a sequel?

In crafting the Return to the 36th Chamber, the filmmakers came up with an innovative compromise: Gordon Liu would remain the star of the film, but would instead be recast as a comical loser who ends up training under the first film's protagonist, San Te (this time essayed by Lee King-Chue). The sequel also adds a large helping of humor to the mix, which makes for a winning combination—thanks largely to this novel approach, the resulting film is a surprisingly engaging, fun-filled kung fu romp.

As with all of the films in the series, the events of Return to the 36th Chamber are set during a time when the Manchurians controlled China. The film focuses on the Han employees of the Manchu-owned Cheng Tai Dye Mill, all of whom are happily going about their business—until one day when the higher-ups decide to hire some Manchu workers and cut the Han's salaries by twenty percent! Enraged by these unfair business practices, the employees decide to quit in protest, but to no avail. The Manchurians simply beat them to a pulp and tell them to get back to work!

In a hilarious comic turn, Gordon Liu enters the plot as Chu Jen-Chieh, an out-of-work conman who spends his days pretending to be a monk and selling fake goods to unsuspecting marks. Convinced by his dye mill pals to help out, Ah Chieh dons the guise of the stern monk San Te in order to fool the Manchus into giving the poor workers back their wages. Thanks to fancy wirework and some painfully acrobatic stunt work courtesy of the dye mill crowd, Ah Chieh is able to trick most of the Manchus into thinking he's a martial arts master. But when the Manchu boss (Johnny Wang Lung-Wei) shows up, he's more than a little suspicious of the ersatz San Te, and asks the fake monk to show up for a demonstration. When Ah Chieh bungles the moves, the jig is up and everyone from Ah Chieh to the Dye mill workers are ruthlessly thrashed. Admonished for his dishonest lifestyle by his own brother, Ah Chieh skips town and vows to learn Shaolin kung fu from the real San Te.

Since telling lies is Ah Chieh's only real talent, he tries to put his skills in deception to good use. After a series of comic ploys (including slipping a laxative to a monk in order to take his place), Ah Chieh eventually sneaks his way into the Shaolin temple. San Te eventually reveals Ah Chieh to be an imposter, and puts our young hero to work. His job is to scaffold every building of the Shaolin temple to prepare for its regularly scheduled renovation. Using the precept that Mr. Miyagi would take up years later, San Te uses work as a way to train the undisciplined Ah Chieh. As he watches the young disciples practice in the courtyard, Ah Chieh uses the bamboo and cord to imitate their techniques, crafting several nifty exercises from his woefully modest resources.

After more than a year of training (bringing his grand total stay at Shaolin to a possible three years; the narrative is unclear), Ah Chieh has a "falling out" with San Te, and leaves the monastery. Unbeknownst to our protagonist, he's actually learned something in his years away from home, and when he finally realizes what he can do, Ah Chieh decides to take on the Manchu overlords. But one thing the Shaolin Temple couldn't have prepared him for is the Manchu's proficiency in the deadly art of "bench fu." Be afraid, be very afraid.

When all is said and done, Return to the 36th Chamber turns out to be a pleasant surprise. The more overt comic tone is a welcome change of pace in comparison to the rather straight-laced tenor of the original. Gordon Liu is a riot, showing his range as a comic actor throughout the film, but most noticeably during the scenes where he lampoons his image as the iconic San Te. But even with all the comedy, the filmmakers are disciplined enough to know when to give the film a sense of reality.

Admittedly, some aspects of the plot don't really hold up to intensive scrutiny. What's the point of training for years just to beat the hell out of the bosses? Sure, they'll increase wages for a while, but won't they just hire a better fighter to take on Ah Chieh next month? Maybe it's better not to think about that, and instead just take Return to the 36th Chamber for what it is: a fun-filled, lighthearted popcorn movie that will probably please both the fans of the original and newcomers alike. (Calvin McMillin 2003)

Notes: Hsiao Ho, who plays the bucktoothed character Ah Chao, would go on to star as Fong Sai-Yuk in the third film in the series, Disciples of the 36th Chamber.
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
Behind The Scenes, Trailers, Color Stills, Original Poster, Production Notes, Cast/Crew Information
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc
Also see: The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978)
Disciples of the 36th Chamber (1984)
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image courtesy of Intercontinental Video, Ltd. Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen