HCR REWING NO. 87. THE 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN AKA THE MASTER KILLER, SHAO LIN SAN SHI LIU FANG [Hong Kong, 1978]
AVAILABLE ON DVD AND BLU RAY
RUNNING TIME: 111 mins/ 94 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
China, during the repressive and corrupt rule of the Manchu dynasty. A group of rebels attack a convoy transporting General Tien Ta but he defeats the lead rebel in a fight. San Te is a young student whose teacher Mr. Ho works for the rebels, and before long San Te and all of his classmates become couriers for them. However, Tien Ta and his cohorts find out about this and kill off many students, and arrest all others. San Te and his best friend escape, but San Te finds out his father was killed so they agree to go to the Shaolin temple to learn kung fu so they can take revenge. Ambushed on the way, his friend is captured, but the wounded an San Te makes it to the Shaolin Temple…..
Though I have a great love for the traditional martial arts movie, I am certainly not blind to the way they are often badly made, and though it is sometimes enough for me when constantly having to suffer through the incoherent mess that often passes for fight scenes these days, I am well aware that their good fighting is sometimes the only saving grace in the weaker films. There are some movies in the genre which truly stand out though and proudly hold their head up high as classics, just like the great movies of any genre, and most of these were made ages before Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon came along and pretended it was the first martial arts picture of any worth. A Touch Of Zen, Once Upon A Time In America, Pedicab Driver and The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin are four of the best, the title of the last of these probably being familiar to any hip-hop fan.
China’s Shaolin temple, or rather Shaolin monastery, had been a common subject for films years before 36th Chamber came along and even now still features in movies, the latest example being Shaolin. Founded in 454AD according to most sources, it’s long famous for its association with Chinese martial arts and has been destroyed several times, something which has been depicted quite often in films. The lead character of 36th Chamber, San Te, was actually based on a real person called San De who brought kung fu from the temple to the masses. Shaw Brothers, the premiere studio for martial arts pictures in the 70’s, had, prior to 36th Chamber, made many films involving the Shaolin temple, most of them under the direction of Chang Cheh, whose films were usually crammed with action and extremely bloody. Lau Kar Leung was a martial arts director for Cheh until he got the chance to direct his first film with 36th Chamber, which was intended to be a somewhat more thought provoking movie than the average Cheh film. The picture was a sensation even in the US where it usually went under the title The Master Killer. These days it is commonly regarded as a classic of the genre though because it is still a martial arts it’s still somewhat neglected by many supposedly learned critics who look down on this type of film and don’t consider it of serious worth.
It opens, as many of these movies do, with an extended showcase of the skills of its star as the opening credits are set against Gordon Liu busting some cool moves amidst differing studio backdrops, in one bit being deluged by some of the most unconvincing staged rain you will ever see. Never mind, we soon move onto the film proper, and the first thing that really strikes you is how good it looks. The budget wasn’t much greater than normal and many of the sets, props and costumes are obviously recycles, but Kar Leung gives the impression of a more expensive film with glorious widescreen compositions making the most of the colours on display. Of course we have to open with a fight, and it’s a good one, if a little short, between a rebel wielding a huge axe and one of our main villains with two swords. Amazingly, despite whetting our appetite for action to come later and setting the political scene against which the tale takes place, this scene was cut from most export prints of the film upon release, as well as some of the ‘chambers’ and lots of small but important details like San Te defeating an opponent but someone else killing him, which give the film a philosophical edge. For a while it was hard to find an uncut version though it’s easily available now.
After the beginning there are actually no real fight scenes, bar the odd tiny skirmish, for almost the next hour, but I’m always so caught up in firstly the story of the uprising against the tyranny of the Manchu government, and secondly San Te’s training, that I hardly notice. This movie takes its time to tell its story and doesn’t feel the need to cram in a brawl every ten minutes. The whole middle hour is devoted to San Te at Shaolin temple mastering various skills, and even though we certainly don’t see thirty-five chambers, it’s simply hypnotic to watch as our hero progresses through chamber after chamber, from punching bags, to a passage of water where you have to jump on logs before they sink to get to the other side, to having to move your eyes to follow something while your head cannot turn. One really bizarre chamber seems to consist of mumbo-jumbo and actual magic, though San Te only briefly visits it. Perhapd it’s there to show that one can never reach true perfection, that there will always be new things to learn. Nonetheless, it’s made quite clear that the temple is not so much a breeding ground for martial arts masters or killers but a place where physical training and mental training combine. San Te has to learn discipline and understand the world around him more than just be a kick-ass fighting, and every chamber makes him a better person.
After increasingly more esoteric oddities, the training suddenly switches to practising fighting in a glorious moment as Yung-Yu Chen’s rousing theme music [no re-used music in this movie] really kicks into gear. We are rewarded with scene after scene of absolutely stunning skill and choreography, some of the best involving San Te trying time after time to overcome a monk jealous of his popularity with the Abbot. Another moment guaranteed to make any martial arts movie fan feel like hitting the roof is when he pulls out a makeshift weapon he has created, which turns out to be the famous three-sectioned staff. Though I have a limited knowledge of history and do sometime research reviews a little, I have no idea if San De did invent this weapon. I don’t care when I see Liu [who most people will probably recognise from his two Kill Bill roles] twirling it about with skill that is sublime to watch, the absolute perfection of art to which a human being can aspire to.
Of course San Te eventually returns to wreak his revenge, and truth be told the very final fight is disappointing; it’s a bit short and San Te never really looks like in danger. Then again, despite the conventional aspects of the plot, the feelings behind it are more complex than your average chop-socky flick. San Te may carry out his revenge, but he doesn’t seem too happy about killing after his time at the monastery. It’s a necessity he’d rather get over and done with, so he wouldn’t mess about in his final battle. And there’s a distinct melancholy in the conflict between San Te, who wants to teach kung fu to the masses so they can rise up against their oppressors, and the monks, who want it kept in the peaceful realm of the temple. Should a religious order be neutral during strife and violence, or not. It’s hard not to be behind San Te, and the final shot shows that he has, in part, fulfilled his wish, but it’s also rather sad. One feels that San Te’s destruction of the Shaolin code will bring more trouble than good, and anyone familiar with Chinese history will know that things did not actually work out very well for the Shaolin monks at all.
Melancholy? Thought-provoking? Odd words to use while describing a kung fu flick, but they are true. The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin is a masterpiece of its type and an absolute must-see for anyone interested in the martial arts. Aside from some of the dubbing, which in any case is avoidable as the subtitled version is easy to see, and with even the acting far better than usual, I doubt you’ll find much to mock here.