The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978)

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.

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Winner Takes All! (1977)

Winner Takes All! [面懵心精] (1977)
AKA 泥鰍吃猛龍

Starring Richard Ng, Lok Shut, Rosalind Chan Yee-Hing, Tang Ching, Dean Shek Tin, Max Lee Chiu-Chun, To Siu-Ming, Addy Sung Gam-Loi, Lee Hoi-Sang, Ho Pak-Kwong, Karl Maka, Guy Lai Ying-Chau, Hon Kwok-Choi, Sammo Hung, Yue Tau-Wan, Peter Chan Lung, Hsiao Ho

Directed by Karl Maka

Expectations: Excited, but I don’t really know what to expect.


Winner Takes All! was independently produced, but it is the final film of 1977 that I’m covering as part of my chronological Shaw Brothers series. I chose to review it because it was widely successful in 1977, reaching #2 at the Hong Kong Box Office, incorporating comedy and kung fu in a way that would soon sweep the Hong Kong industry with the 1978 release of Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master. Upon watching Winner Takes All!, though, I realized that its place in Hong Kong cinema history is far greater than simply “doing well at the box office,” as it represents another step in the dominance of Cantonese cinema in the wake of Michael Hui’s successes. In the three years prior to this (1974–1976), a Michael Hui-directed movie — all starring himself and his brothers — dominated the top spot of the Hong Kong box office. Hui would again top the charts in 1978 with The Contract, but he did not release a film in 1977.

Richard Ng is one of Hong Kong’s most famous and recognizable comedians. I’ve seen him in so many movies, it almost feels like he’s always been around. He apparently started on the Hui Brothers TV show in the early ’70s, and received his first major film role in Michael Hui’s 1976 smash-hit The Private Eyes. 1977 was the year Ng was cemented into Hong Kong cinema history, though, as he starred in both the #1 film (John Woo’s The Pilferer’s Progress AKA Money Crazy) and the #2 film, Karl Maka’s Winner Takes All. Like this film, all of Michael Hui’s films were filmed in Cantonese, and along with Chor Yuen’s mega-hits The House of 72 Tenants (1973) and Hong Kong 73 (1974), they were the impetus for the industry to shift towards the Cantonese language. In addition, Hui’s directorial debut, 1974’s Games Gamblers Play, essentially saved Golden Harvest from bankruptcy and paved the way for comedy’s rise as a dominant genre in Hong Kong cinema, both coupled with kung fu and not.

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Heart of Dragon (1985)

HeartoftheDragon_1Heart of Dragon [龍的心] (1985)
AKA Heart of the Dragon, The First Mission, Powerman III

Starring Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Emily Chu Bo-Yee, Melvin Wong, Lam Ching-Ying, Mang Hoi, Chin Ka-Lok, Yuen Wah, Corey Yuen Kwai, Peter Chan Lung, James Tin Jun, Chung Fat, Dick Wei, Phillip Ko Fei, Anthony Chan Yau, Lam Ying-Fat, Wu Ma

Directed by Sammo Hung

Expectations: I remember not liking this one at all, but I’m sure I’ll be more open to it than I was as a teenager.

threestar


Heart of Dragon is one of the few Jackie Chan films that isn’t a traditional action film, and this makes it a hard sell to many fans. Director Sammo Hung wanted to stretch out the acting chops of both himself and Jackie, so the action was scaled back to allow the story’s drama to take the center stage. They even shot two fight scenes that were cut from the film, which should give you a pretty good indication of how dedicated Sammo was to making a more serious film that his previous work with Jackie. It also gave them the right to say, “We threw away better fight sequences than [insert movie title here] had!” 🙂

Heart of Dragon is actually more tonally mixed than all that makes it sound, and this really surprised me. I saw this film once before during my teenage obsession with Jackie, and the only thing I remember is Sammo in overalls and how bored I was. I honestly didn’t remember there being any action at all. This time I found Heart of Dragon to be a delicate mix of serious drama and lite comedy, with sprinkles of action and romance. Often the tones would mix together, too, which is always challenging for a movie to pull off. The scene when Sammo masquerades as his friend’s father to visit the school principal comes to mind. It’s funny as an isolated scene, but when you consider the entire situation it’s heartbreaking how vulnerable Sammo’s character is.

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Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (1978)

Snake_In_The_Eagle's_Shadow17Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow [蛇形刁手] (1978)
AKA Eagle’s Shadow; Eagle Claw’s, Snake’s Fist, Cat’s Paw; Snaky Monkey

Starring Jackie Chan, Hwang Jang-Lee, Simon Yuen Siu-Tin, Dean Shek Tin, Fung Hak-On, Tino Wong Cheung, Peter Chan Lung, Hsu Hsia, Charlie Chan Yiu-Lam, Roy Horan

Directed by Yuen Woo-Ping

Expectations: Very high.

threehalfstar


Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow is one of the most important and most influential kung fu films of all time, not only giving Jackie Chan his breakthrough hit, but also introducing the world to a style of kung fu film that had never really been seen before. Shaolin Wooden Men may have gotten us closer to a true Jackie Chan film, but Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow is the real deal. Free of Lo Wei’s authoritarian control, Jackie and Yuen Woo-Ping craft an incredibly enjoyable kung fu romp. I don’t think it’s a perfect film, but the positive aspects are overwhelmingly great, so they easily overshadow whatever problems I had with the film.

Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow is the story of the struggle between the evil Eagle’s Claw clan and their systematic murder of every practitioner of the Snake Fist style, but it’s also the story of a young man named Chien Fu (Jackie Chan). He’s a lowly kid that scrubs the floors of his martial arts school, without reward and without ambition to do much else. The current masters taunt him by purposefully stepping in chalk and tracking it all around the dojo, making him work needlessly. But when he befriends an old beggar (Simon Yuen), his life is forever changed as he learns Snake Fist style from the old man. Given the tools to make something of himself, Chien Fu — and Jackie Chan himself — rises to the occasion and shows us all what he’s truly capable of.

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