The 36th Chamber of Shaolin [少林卅六房] (1978)
AKA Master Killer, Shaolin Master Killer
Starring Gordon Liu Chia-Hui, Lo Lieh, John Cheung Ng-Long, Wilson Tong, Wa Lun, Hon Kwok-Choi, Lau Kar-Wing, Wai Wang, Chan Sze-Kai, Wong Ching-Ho, Woo Wang-Daat, Lee Hoi-Sang, Keung Hon, Hao Li-Jen, Shum Lo, Lui Tat, Chan Shen, Chiang Nan, Aai Dung-Gwa, Simon Yuen Siu-Tin, Wang Han-Chen, Peter Chan Lung, Henry Yu Yung, Ng Hong-Sang, Norman Chu Siu-Keung, Wong Yu, Huang Pa-Ching
Directed by Lau Kar-Leung
Expectations: I love it. I expect to continue to love it. 🙂
Right from the opening moments, it’s clear that The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is a classic. Gordon Liu commands your attention, performing precise and artful kung fu as the credits appear before him. The iron rings on his arms glisten and add a sonic rhythm to his movements. I tried my best to forget the film’s legacy and watch through this review series’s chronological lens, but this was quite the challenge. It was my first Shaw film, and I’ve seen it countless times. This particular time was my first experience with the film in its original language, though, and this definitely helped to separate it from my personal history. In any case, the film starts out poppin’ on all cylinders, and as it goes it only further cements itself into the martial arts cinematic history.
Liu Yu-de (Gordon Liu) is a passionate student who is displeased with the injustices of the current tyrannical Manchu rule. A group of rebels have been recently executed, including a notable general (played by Lau Kar-Wing), and Liu finds it near impossible to stand by without action. He is told that “one must humble oneself under enemy rule,” but he wonders how long that must go on for. Surely, the fate of his people is not to simply accept their fate and live in fear. He learns that the Shaolin monastery is where the best kung fu is known, but they do not allow outside students or involve themselves in the country’s politics. Fleeing the Manchu, Liu ventures to the Shaolin temple regardless of their policies, hoping that he might appeal to their humanity and learn their fighting arts.
While Lau’s earlier film Executioners from Shaolin saw him delve deeper into the life of folk hero Hung Hsi-Kwan — already well-established in the Shaolin films of Chang Cheh — in The 36th Chamber of Shaolin he focuses on an earlier point in history. Liu Yu-de was a real man, living sometime in the early 18th century, who, according to the story I read in The Fall of the Southern Shaolin Temple and Rise of the Ten Tigers of Canton by Paul Burkinshaw, was taught kung fu at a young age by a Shaolin monk. He later sought refuge at a Shaolin monastery while on the run from the Qing soldiers, and went on to become a student of the Abbot Gee Seen, similar to the film’s story. As shown in the film, he was also a teacher to Hung Hsi-Kwan and other anti-Qing civilians, helping his people to rebel against the Qings while also ensuring the survival of the Shaolin martial arts.
The film’s focus is very much on the aspect of training, both in the arc of Liu Yu-De and the broad decision to allow laypeople to learn the Shaolin arts. Lau approaches the story of Liu with the goal of showing the audience how important it was to disseminate the Shaolin teachings among the common people. After the opening credits, the film begins with Lau Kar-Wing’s character plotting to assassinate a Qing leader. He fights brilliantly, but he is ultimately defeated. The rebels are in chaos; they have the passion and the spirit to fight, but they possess neither the discipline or the form necessary to come together and overthrow their oppressors. Liu Yu-de is the personal embodiment of this sentiment, a rough-edged student who has more spirit that smarts.
Later in the film, after he has thoroughly trained at Shaolin, he returns to his homeland as the monk San Te. He is calm, he knows his purpose, and his passion has been distilled through training into pure martial energy. Among others, he encounters Hung Hsi-Kwan (Henry Yu Yung) and Tung Chien-Chin (Ng Hong-Sang, the same character played by Gordon Liu in Executioners of Shaolin), and they are in similar struggles as Liu was at the beginning of the film. Where I felt the helplessness of Liu in the opening scenes, now I knew that San Te brought hope and knowledge to shine a light onto this dark struggle. He is a force of order to the chaos wrought by the Qing rulers, bringing the peace of the monastery to the lawless outside world.
None of this would work if the martial arts themselves were not brought to the screen convincingly. Thankfully, Lau Kar-Leung is just the man for the job, choreographing and directing the film to absolute perfection. The fights are filled with intricate movements from both the performers and the camera, often captured in long, unbroken shots. The edits are precisely done to accentuate the choreography in ways that only Hong Kong cinema can pull off. These tightly choreographed battles are a major reason why the film continues to stand the test of time, and they also exist as a great counterpoint to the highly edited, more fantastical fight work seen in the films of Chor Yuen.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the whole movie, though, is its ability to entertain without throwing a ton of fights at the viewer. After the opening scenes, there isn’t another fight until much later in the film, proving that fights are not essential as long as the focus remains on the martial arts and its teachings. The training sequences in this film are legendary, and are easily the most recognizable and memorable parts of the film. You might not think that watching someone carrying water pails up a hill would be entertaining, but you’d be surprised at what adding a couple of swords to the mix will do. Many kung fu films include unique training methods (especially after this film), but for my money I don’t think any of them are quite as iconic as the ones in this film.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is one of the great films of Hong Kong, and an essential movie for all fans of world cinema.
Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is Chor Yuen’s first film of 1978, Clan of Amazons! But first, we have Horrific October and four Shaw Brothers horror films to get through. See ya then!