Disciples Of The 36th Chamber

Lau Kar-leung’s first two entries in his 36th Chamber franchise were both a couple of zippy training-fests that fused the bond between director and star, Gordon Liu to near unbreakable levels. Featuring ornate sets, innovative fight choreography and concise plots (man gets in trouble, man flees, man trains as Shaolin, credits roll), this Shaw Brothers series set a standard that still has many devout followers to this day – but with the third installment there was a noticable tone shifts. Fighting it’s way through the plot like a martial arts maniac and dominating the story like an irritating kung-fu Gremlin was a dose of broad humour that was as subtle and as nuanced as a mule kick to the happy sacks and just as welcome. Now, it’s not like high-jinks and high-kicks don’t mix – Jackie Chan has spent many years, not to mention hospital bills, to prove that exact fact – but where the previous two movies has humour in them, this goes all out for jokes.

Fong Sai-Yuk comes from a family of fierce martial artists (his mother in particular is a fucking beast) and despite boasting a natural talent for flamboyantly whupping ass wherever he finds it, he’s also the most annoying, disrespectful and disruptive little fuck-wit that ever threw a punch. His egotistical ways may be somewhat excused by the fact that he’s supposed to be a teenager but to riff on Bad Boys 2, the motherfucker looks about thirty and so his behavior soon gets him into trouble with the powerful Manchu boss-types who are striving for hegemony over the native Han Chinese population. As they look to shut down his parent’s school because of Sai-Yuk’s asswipe demeanor, his parents arrange to have him sent to the Shaolin temple and train in it’s 36th Chamber – a space exclusively for non-monks to train for Kung-fu. However, because a leopard can’t change it’s spots and Sai-Yuk can’t stop being a trouble making prick, he causes no end of headaches for San Te, the abbot of the titular chamber, who usually responds to Sai-Yuk’s regular bullshit with a friendly, good-natured beat down.
However, when Sai-Yuk starts sneaking out of the temple nightly and is wooed by a rival martial arts school to reveal Shaolin secrets, San Te realises he has to take matters into his own hands before his troublesome student gets into more trouble than even he can handle…

Easily the least of the 36th Chamber movies, the injection of forced humor would be so bad if it was for one, obvious problem – and that problem is that it’s main character is an irredeemable shit-heel who carelessly wrecks the lives of everyone around him while we’re just supposed to write it all off as him simply being a youthful cheeky chappie. Even though the opening credits sequence shows the balanced and legendary fighter he is destined to become, it wouldn’t be so much of a problem if we were to see him learn a single life lesson at some point during the entirety of the story. But after an adventure that sees him put his family, his fellow students and his own life at risk at multiple points and not take an iota of responsibility, it’s not hard to write him off as a smug bag of dicks and just move on. Now I’m sure that this may just be an example of Cantonese humor that may have escaped me – after all, Tony Stark is still a prick at the end of Iron Man and we were all ok with that, but at least he was a nice prick…
However, to say the fault lies with the actor Hsiao Ho would be unfair because despite playing a character so entitled he make your average YouTube influencer seen like Mother Teresa, his athletic skills are frankly dumbfounding as he ricochets all over the screen like lightning powered whippet. But despite Hsiao’s abundance of face-kicking energy, you can’t help but feel that the film would have been better served giving more screen time to characters who weren’t total wankers. Series mainstay Gordon Liu returns to his original role of San Te after playing someone else in the sequel but doesn’t even appear until around halfway through the story and I really wanted to see more of Sai-yuk’s mother, a ferocious fighter in her own regard. One such scene sees her successfully bet the villain that he can’t prise her knees apart thanks to her tremendous leg strength (it plays better than it sounds) and she more than holds her own against a bunch of guys with spears during the phenomenal final battle.
Ah yes… The final battle…
Despite the irritating nature of a lead who is less likable than your average politician, Disciple Of The 36th Chamber contains some rousingly good fights and, in it’s epic climatic rumble, may actually have a solid claim to best fight scene in the trilogy. Picture the scene, Sai-Yuk has been tricked by the rival school to invite a gaggle of Shaolin’s best and brightest to a wedding where they all (Sai-Yuk included) will be poisoned but San Te, infiltrating by hiding in the brides carriage (again: plays better than it sounds) with help from Sai-Yuk’s mum, leaps out to put an end to the subterfuge and thus the mother of barneys erupts with the students on one side and an entire fucking army on the other. The scene, so brightly coloured it makes a Bollywood production look like David Lynch’s Eraserhead, is jaw dropping in scope and execution with the tremendously intricate fights bolstered by having our heroes decked out in fabulous, glitteringly pink outfits Liberace would’ve strangled a kitten for. No part of the set is wasted and in their efforts to escape (San Te has ordered that none of his students greviously harm their assailants in case it causes a greater backlash despite beating shit out of people with a metal flail) they even utilise the roof in this truly exciting sequence that saves the film with the super satisfying blow out we knew director Lau Kar-leung was capable of.

In 1985, Shaw Brothers Studio arguably had their best years behind them but Lau Kar-leung went on to score winners with the irresponsibly mental Tiger On Beat and got to put Jackie Chan through his paces in Drunken Master II, but fans will always look back this trilogy and his partnership with Liu as a major high point – even if the third movie slightly fails to stick that landing…

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