The 36th Chamber of the Shaolin (1978, Lau Kar-leung)
And now, after an epic and adventurous Shaw Brothers ride, our long journey ends here. A 13 movie marathon than began way, way back in June now concludes with the film many afficionados consider to be the granddady of all martial arts films, let alone Shaw Brothers films, The 36th Chamber of the Shaolin. The picture's influence on many kung fu films that followed in considerable, hence its deemed historical relevancy, but also been touted as simply a great action movie, period. This marathon has already taken a brief look at director Lau Kar-leung's work (also known as Liu-Chia-liang) earlier with our review of Heroes of the East, a film Between the Seats nearly praised to the high heavens. It also reunites him with that same film's star, the inimitable Gordon Liu. Clearly, there was no more fitting way to finish off this massive undertaking. Without further ado, let us climb the mountain leading the famous shaolin temple, where the world's great masters of kung fu practice and perfect their multidisciplinary art form in its cleverly devised chambers.
The citizens of a small village under the rule of the Manchu suffer. Any disobedience in the face of their harsh rulers is squashed immediately and without mercy. San Te (Gordon Liu) is a young student at a local school and son of an honest fish merchant. His teacher is a staunch supporter of the Tar Tar rebellion and has, for lack of a better term, indoctrinated his classroom to join in as well. San and his comrades are still young however,and possess few means to fight back effectively against their oppressors, although seeing public executions of those who attempt to liberate them certainly helps fuel their desire. Everything changes the say the Manchu general, Tien Ta (Lo Lieh, of King Boxer fame), make their move against San Te's teacher, clearly an enemy of the state, which consequently himself and those he loves in direct line of danger. After the butchering of not only his classmates but also his father, San Te is determined to rid his region of evil the only way he believes is possible: venturing to the famous Shaolin temple where, if the information is correct, many variations of kung fu are taught. The Buddhist monks do not typically concern themselves with world matters and rarely accept newcomers on a mere whim, yet it is a risk worth taking...
Very little can be said in support of The 36th Chamber of the Shaolin which has not already been written down. The movie is widely entertaining, with a charismatic hero venturing on the ultimate, classic hero's journey. Something the film accomplishes handsomely is giving the sense that San Te's path has been long enough and that it has morphed him into a new person. While true that, according to his teachers, the five years the protagonist has required in order to graduate from each of the 35 original chambers is a record, director Lau nevertheless shifts the story into the future in a manner that helps the viewer believe that the character is changing. It is no easy trick to perform because, whether by budgetary constraints or lack of will, no specific work is done to make San Te any different than what he did five years ago other than shave his head in traditional Buddhist monk style. There are other venues used to create a convincing transformation however, such as attitude, posture, both of which clearly indicate that a few years removed from that fateful day when his father and teacher were executed, San Te is now a totally different person. The boy who looked wide eyed in face of unmitigated threats now has a solid head on his two shoulders, and actor Gordon Liu should receive credit, in part at least, for helping the protagonist live this metamorphosis. He demonstrates a tremendous charisma and an understanding of the many different faces his character takes on.
Speaking of differences within characters, director Lau Kar-leung apparently has a knack for telling stories in which people are put into not merely difficult situations, but situations which thrust them into moral and psychological ambiguity. In Heroes of the East, problems arised when national pride disrupted the marriage between a Chinese man and Japanese woman. International relations were at stake, even though nobody was a true villain in the piece, which the story all the more interesting. The context obviously differs in the case of 36th Chamber in that there are most certainly villains who need to be disposed of, and yet the director still finds way to complicate matters thematically. It is one thing to how to confront one's enemies for protection of those one loves (which is what San Te does, in fact, attempt in the film). However, the path chosen by San Te to go about putting that desire into concrete action is filled with murky waters. After all, it is to the Shaolin Monks that he pleads for help. Monks, by their nature, are not especially violent people and definitely do not kill people. The basic principles of Buddhism would not, normally, encourage any sort of gross acts of violence. San Te therefore finds himself in a peculiar situation. There is no question that he will do whatever he can in his power to accomplish his ultimate goal, but his path is a strange one to say the least. It is not as if, by becoming a Buddhist monk, general Tien Ta is suddenly going to sit down and have a chat with him in order to solve the issue by reasonable means. This reality makes the entire last act of the film, while still great fun, so strange. To see this Monl, in his monk robes, absolutely go out in 'attack mode' is peculiar to say the least. The movie tries to play down the oddity of the sight by having San Te express a second desire: the creation of a 36th chamber in which he could teach the basic principles of kung fu to ordinary citizens, thus providing the means to defend themselves. The notion is fantastic, although it does not take away from the fact that the third act has a wild and crazy feeling to it. This comment in meant in the best way possible, although it feels like the best way to put it. It is 'great', but in a weird, weird way.
The final act in question is a spectacle, to be sure. San Te is alone for the most part when confront hordes of enemies. There one scene in particular when a rather stacked garrison of soldiers and a captain attack San Te in town at night. The hero literally fights 10 people at once who are sometimes attacking him with completely different instruments. Some of swords, some have spears, some use their fists and legs, etc. It is great to watch because San Te will react to one sort of attack, either by avoid contact or repelling the attack, while simultaneously taking care of someone else. All these skills are acquired after the many years of training at the temples various chambers, which is something else the viewers get to see a lot of. The film does not avoid poking a little bit of fun at the silliness of the story (lines like 'the wall may be low, but Buddha's power is high' help), but never too much so as to make sure that audience still understands this is an adventure film, not a comedy.
It might not be possible that anyone seriously in love with kung fu films has yet to see The 36th Chamber of the Shaolin. It has plenty of the hallmarks the genre is known for today, including a story of revenge, long training to become the best fighter possible and finally triumph. While there were other films in the marathon the author enjoyed more, this Lau Kar-leung film is definitely among the finer Shaw Brothers movies.