paper, the premise for Disciples of the 36th Chamber
probably sounded promising. The first film saw martial arts
megastar Gordon Liu playing Chinese folk hero San Te, and
the sequel had him playing an entirely different character
trained by the same venerable monk, so it only seemed natural
that the third film in the series would have Gordon Liu
back as San Te once again, but serving in a mentor capacity
this time around. But if Gordon Liu's character wasn't going
to be the main focus of the piece, then who would be a suitable
replacement? It would have to be some figure that could
match San Te in popularity and screen presence; smartly,
the filmmakers chose legendary kung fu hero Fong Sai Yuk.
But while putting both San Te and Fong Sai-Yuk in a single
movie sounds like a license to print money, I'm sorry to
report that a maddening script and an unappealing performance
by lead actor Hsiao Hou botches any promise that was suggested
in the unique pairing. Disciples of the 36th Chamber
is a lackluster sequel, and that's putting it mildly.
We begin as all the 36th
Chamber of Shaolin movies do, in Manchu-infested China.
The protagonist of the film is Fong Sai-Yuk (Hsiao), a grade-A
mama's boy who seems to have been held back in school a
grade or two (he's in a class with small children). From
a very early age, Sai-Yuk learned the art of kung fu from
his mother, Miao Tsui-Hua (Lily Li), and she's been ever-protective
of her darling son, even employing her other offspring to
keep a watchful eye on him. Skilled as he is, Sai-Yuk is
eager to show off his abilities at a moment's notice, usually
with disastrous effects.
Eventually, San Te (Gordon
Liu) enters the picture and crosses paths with Fong Sai-Yuk
when the young man insults some Manchu officers (Lau Kar-Leung
among them). The officials don't know who did it for sure,
but are about to investigate when San Te interferes. For
some odd reason, Sai-Yuk is too dense to realize that San
Te's deferent behavior toward the guards was a ruse to save
the lad from trouble. Even worse, Sai-Yuk vows revenge against
San Te; exactly why he holds such a silly grudge isn't explained.
Even after his mother speaks
highly of the monk, Sai-Yuk barges into the Qin gymnasium,
busting heads in search of San Te. Of course, this idiotic
behavior offends the court and puts not only him, but the
whole Canton school into grave danger, so Mama Fong sends
her all her boys to the Shaolin Temple for safekeeping (She
and San Te are old friends). When Sai-Yuk reaches the temple,
he STILL wants to fight San Te, and even after his mother
explains what San Te has done for him, Sai-Yuk still seems
to harbor some animosity toward the good-natured San Te.
Sai-Yuk spends the entire
time at the Shaolin Temple trying to escape, slacking off
during drills, and acting like a pain in the ass know-it-all.
One night, he goes AWOL and interrupts a private Manchu
celebration, where his annoyingly sarcastic cheers during
a parade expose him to the crowd. When asked his identity
by the Manchu governor (Yeung Chi-Hing), Sai-Yuk immediately
reveals his name and says he's from the Shaolin Temple.
(The whole "I'm wanted for execution by the Manchu
government" thing must've slipped his mind.) In a clever
move, the Manchu governor plays nice with Sai-Yuk and invites
him to join in a martial arts tournament. Of course, it's
all a ruse to learn the secret techniques of the 36th Chamber,
but self-centered Sai-Yuk doesn't have a clue. On his second
visit to the Manchu court, Sai-Yuk declares that he can't
reveal any of the secrets he's learned at Shaolin, but only
minutes later, he gives a demonstration of many of the skills
taught by the monks in the 36th Chamber!
When San Te finally exposes
the callow youth's behavior, Sai-Yuk expresses zero guilt
for violating the rules and talks back to his Shaolin betters,
quickly forgetting that the monks are shielding him from
danger. Sai-Yuk is expelled from the temple, and subsequently
becomes little use to the Manchu governor, who plans to
execute him, but not before luring the rest of the secular
pupils of Shaolin into a seemingly inescapable death trap.
Luckily for the students, San Te gets wind of the plot and
sets up a ruse of his own with the help of Sai-Yuk's mother.
And while the laws of cinema require that the flawed Sai-Yuk
should eventually emerge as a hero, the transformation is
too little too late in this reviewer's eyes.
Hsiao Hou is unquestionably
a talented martial artist, but his take on Fong Sai-Yuk
just doesn't set right with me. Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung,
and Jet Li have all portrayed characters who cause all sorts
of trouble, but somehow their shenanigans come across as
playful and funny whereas Hsiao Hou seems to exude arrogance
at every turn. Many of his scenes, if played differently,
but with the same dialogue could have made Sai-Yuk a slightly
more likeable character.
But to be fair, Hsiao Hou
shouldn't take all the blamemuch of it falls on Lau
Kar-Leung's script. The overall direction and construction
of the plot is fine, but as with Hsiao Hou's performance,
a little tweaking here and there would have benefited Sai-Yuk's
character immensely. It's hard to root for a hypocrite.
To wit, Sai-Yuk is eager to beat the stuffing out of San
Te for just talking to the enemy, while he himself becomes
a Manchu lapdog in only a matter of days. This film version
of Sai-Yuk isn't too bright either; in the climax, he continues
to trust the Manchu governor and fight against San Te even
after the governor gives the order to kill Sai-Yuk's comradesincluding
his own mother! Maybe it's just me, but I don't think it's
a good sign when the audience is rooting for its protagonist
to get a brutal and well-deserved comeuppance. I kept hoping
for rogue monkeys to show up and tear Sai-Yuk limb from
limb, but sadly, no monkeys appeared.
Gordon Liu, the one person
who could salvage this train wreck of a movie, is unfortunately
confined to a limited supporting role. Sure, he gets to
show his stuff in the final reel, but even that doesn't
help. In truth, fans of Gordon Liu and the character San
Te should really just check out the previous installments
of the 36th Chamber of Shaolin series before venturing
a look at this tepid sequel. And for those of who want to
see Fong Sai-Yuk at his very best, look no further than
the self-titled 1993 film and its sequel, both featuring
a charming performance by Jet Li as Fong Sai-Yuk. Ultimately,
Disciples of the 36th Chamber amounts to a film that's
for martial arts aficionados only, and even those guys will
walk away disappointed. (Calvin McMillin 2003)