While still relatively new to the sword clashing and empire trashing worlds of Kung Fu that were brought to us by our friends, The Shaw Brothers, I can’t help but notice some fundamental similarities between all the fights and drama…
Obviously they’ve all been period pieces so far, they usually contain cruel, petty and paranoid authority figures, be it noblemen, representatives of the law or even a batshit emperor or two that have to be vanquished by a precocious hero and pretty much every time there’s a good old fashioned massacre to trigger the plot into overdrive.
Now, don’t think I’m complaining (do you really think a fan of Bond movies and slasher films like myself is going to be put off by cliches?), but when your relitively new in a particular kind of genre you usually don’t notice the established rules until somebody comes along and casually breaks them like a calloused palm going through a board of wood. This brings us nicely to The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin, a kung-fu masterpiece that curiously subverts many of the Shaw Brothers tropes while simultaneously still managing to uphold them while also inspiring such talents as Quentin Tarantino and The Wu-Tang Clan in the decades since it’s release – for example, rapper Masta Killa gets his name from the alternate US title, the gloriously unsubtle The Master Killer.
San Te is a young student learning ethics under the oppressive rule of the Manchu government and much like the McCarthy witch hunts in 50’s America, paranoia is rife as random people are yanked off the street, being accused of being traitors and spies and, more often than not, are being put to death. When an out of turn word lays suspicion on Sae Te and his classmates, the city’s soldiers (who thanks to their tunic being blue with a circular white insignia on the chest, all oddly look like members of the Fantastic Four) lay waste to everything he holds dear and he barely manages to escape with his life. Hearing that the Shaolin temple is close, Sae Te joins their order hoping that he can learn some sweet martial arts skills to help him get revenge for virtually every human being he’s ever known but after cooling his heels for a year he us still yet to see a single kick or punch. Finally realising that he actually has to ask to be taught martial arts (awkward lot, these Shaolin Monks), our hero enters the 35 Chambers, each of which contain training of special skills which first enhance your skill, speed and strength so you can progress into actual fighting. Years pass and Sae Te’s determination makes him ascend through the chambers with impressive speed, but after all of his training in an enlightened environment, he has bold ideas how the methods of training should be offered to people other than the monks who tend to stay out of the affairs of outsiders. Will Sae Tae get his wish and does he even want the same kind of revenge he once sought all those years ago…?
Where a lot of similar movies made before or since 36th Chamber usually skim through the training while making it’s main focus the revenge at the end, this movie manages to stand out by doing things somewhat differently by simply reversing the amount of screen time devoted to these aspects. So now we have a film which is almost totally training (not unlike Rocky IV, then) which has the benefits of us treating our main character somewhat differently than in other movies. Where the hero has usually trained in martial arts his whole life and learn a new technique to vanquish his foe, San Tae has absolutely no fighting experience whatsoever, therefore making him more relatable than the other leads who feature in this kind of film, who often come across as brattish, over confident or just plain dickish. It also helps that San Te is played by Gordon Liu (best known for his dual roles as Pai Mei and the leader of the Crazy 88 in Kill Bill) who for most of the film carries the facial expression of a yelled at child and channels vast amounts of vulnerability that make you desperate that he conquers his journey, not because he’s an unstoppable, badass motherfucker (although he most certainly is that) but because you feel he really needs it, you know?
Liu’s talent stretch far beyond looking bewildered, however, and his skills in the realms of punching and kicking are hugely impressive. Hell, the opening credits alone are just him performing moves while rain falls on him (while inside?) and a late fight scene where he shows off his invention of a three-piece-nunchucku (or three sectioned staff according to wikipedia) in a test against a teacher is, at times, thrillingly too fast to follow.
So what stops this unconventional kick-flinger from getting stale if the whole middle hour of the movie is just devoted to training? Well, I’m glad you asked, young student, as the titular 36 chambers (of which we admittedly only actually see about 10) each involves resolving ingenious tasks like a health and safety free version of The Crystal Maze but with even more bald people. Head butting a gauntlet of hanging sand bags increases your head butting strength (no durr) like a GTA: San Andreas power up where as the strength building exercise which involves carrying buckets of water at arms length with daggers strapped to the underside of your arms seems particularly sadistic, but who am I to nickpick on the wise ways of the Shaolin monks especially when it obviously gets shit done.
If there’s any negative issues that The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin has is that in conventional storytelling terms it somewhat fails to stick the landing by having it’s fully trained hero setting out into the world a mere 25 minutes from the end and managing to solve everyone’s problems with suprising ease chiefly thanks to the movie’s wrong doers virtually lining up for a fatal ass whooping. To a western audience, the habit of the way these movies just sometimes seem to abruptly stop can be quite jarring (just check out the baffling final seconds of footage from Sammo Hung’s Encounters Of The Spooky Kind or John Woo’s Once A Thief) and the penultimate shot, a freeze frame of San Te goring his foe with his super Shaolin headbutt like he’s scored a knockout in Street Fighter 2, isn’t going to win over any converts but it’s a minor niggle in a great movie that went onto shape the careers of Gordon Liu and director Lau Kar-leung who went on to give us the other movies in this franchise as well as Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master II and the magnificently excessive Tiger On Beat.
While more straight laced than other Shaw Brothers films that I’ve seen (but not that straight laced, he trains for headbutting but smashing his skull into sandbags, remember) The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin is a top notch kung-fu flick that’s regarded by those in the know at one of the best of it’s kind thanks to it’s off-beat approach and a star turn by it’s endearing lead and his highly recommended as a great start point for those who wish to study at the cinematic feet of the Shaolin – no concussion causing sandbags required.