1978, Lau Kar-Leung and Gordon Liu teamed up to create The
36th Chamber of Shaolin, a film that became not only
a seminal work in both men's careers, but a certifiable
classic in the eyes of Hong Kong cinema fans worldwide.
It's doubtful that either Lau or Liu could have predicted
the film's overwhelming influence on the genre, but in watching
the movie all these years later, it's obvious that the film
was a definite labor of love.
Set in Manchu-controlled China,
the film centers on the young Liu Yingde (Gordon Liu), the
teenage son of a humble seafood shop owner. During the day,
Liu attends Chong Wen College under the tutelage of Mr.
Ho (Wai Wang), who secretly moonlights as a revolutionary
against the Qin Empire. Upon viewing the dead bodies of
several rebels (Lau Kar-Wing among them), Liu decides that
it's high time he put his schooling to use and fight back
against the imperious Manchu forces.
Along with several of his
friends, Liu joins the rebellion and agrees to smuggle secret
documents to aid the resistance fighters. They begin by
using the family fish market as a front for their covert
activities, but their not-so-brilliant subterfuge is ultimately
uncovered. Liu's friends, family, and teacher all end up
paying the ultimate price, each perishing at the hands of
the merciless Manchu warlords, Tang San-Yao and General
Tien Ta (Wilson Tong and Lo Lieh respectively). Liu's only
chance at survival is to flee to the fabled Shaolin Temple
in the hopes that they will accept him as a pupil. But revenge
isn't Liu's only motivation for learning kung fu. In addition
to avenging his loved ones, he also plans to instruct the
common folk in the ways of Shaolin, so they can properly
defend themselves against the tyrannous Manchu aggressors.
But as Liu soon discovers, you've got to learn to crawl
before you learn to kick ass.
Wounded and weary from fleeing
his Manchu pursuers, Liu finally makes it to the temple,
hiding himself in a load of groceries purchased by Shaolin
monks at a local market. Liu is soon discovered, but isn't
able to explain himself just yet because he's comatose!
Once nursed back to health, Liu is eventually given the
option of joining the monastery. He accepts, and after a
year of performing menial tasks for the temple, he finally
begins his marital arts training (all he had to do was ask).
Now renamed San Te, our hero enters the thirty-five chambers
of Shaolin. And here's where things really start to heat
With an unflappable dedication,
San Te practices day and night until he masters each chamber,
flying through each grueling challenge in record time. The
trials presented in each succeeding chamber range from the
deceptively simple (log hopping) to the insanely brutal
(bashing one's head on multiple punching bags) to the exceedingly
complex (reciting esoteric Buddhist mantras). After ascending
past the final chamber, San Te is given the opportunity
to become a teacher on any chamber of his choice. In response
to this honor, he asks to create a 36th Chamber, in which
he would teach laymen the art of Shaolin kung fu. Unfortunately
for San Te, Shaolin dogma expressly forbids the teaching
of non-members, so for this inappropriate suggestion, San
Te is "punished" by his peers and forced to leave
the temple to collect donations. Of course, this only gives
San Te the opportunity to recruit some disciples for his
cause with folk hero Hung Hei-Koon (Henry Yu-Yung) and the
oddly named Miller Six (Wong Yue) among them. Oh, and San
Te also gets some revenge on those dastardly Manchu baddies.
But we all saw that coming, now didn't we?
My facetiousness in glossing
over the events of the film's final act may seem a bit odd,
but in truth, I only do it because that's not where the
real meat of the film resides. Unlike most martial arts
films in which the big payoff is in the climactic duel between
hero and villain, the real allure of The 36th Chamber
of the Shaolin lies in the extended, creative, and often
grueling training sequences that take up the majority of
the film's middle act. Action choreographer and director
Lau Kar Leung handles each trial deftly, taking what could
be tedious filler in a lesser director's hands and making
each scene sparkle with a palpable sense of energy and intrigue.
Though the wirework involved might put off "purists"
looking for realistic martial arts techniques, the sheer
creativity of these scenes more than makes up for any complaints
over the wire-enhanced kung fu on display here. Thanks to
these sequences, the film's climax almost seems entirely
beside the point. At the risk of sounding trite, it's San
Te's journey, not the destination that makes this film so
As the master monk San Te,
martial arts superstar Gordon Liu really shines in what
would become a career-defining role. His portrayal of the
character is remarkably nuanced for what is essentiallyat
least on papera standard kung fu flick. While lesser
actors often fail to make the onscreen transition from callow
youth to mature adult seem believable, Gordon Liu makes
that transformation work. And though the universal laws
of the genre dictate that San Te will master each and every
task he's presented, there's no less drama in watching the
actual events unfold. By the time he's made it to the Shaolin
Temple, we've grown to like San Te and sympathize with his
plight. And with each successive victory at Shaolin, we
the audience seem to share in his sense of accomplishment.
Consequently, suspension of disbelief isn't even an issue
thanks to Gordon Liu's performance; we're just plugged into
his story, anxiously waiting to see what happens next. And
if that's not the sign of a good film, I don't know what
is. (Calvin McMillin 2003)