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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Challenge of the Masters (1976)

Challenge of the Masters [陸阿采與黃飛鴻] (1976)

Starring Chen Kuan-Tai, Gordon Liu Chia-Hui, Kong Yeung, Lau Kar-Leung, Lily Li Li-Li, Lau Kar-Wing, Ricky Hui Koon-Ying, Chiang Tao, Wong Yu, Fung Hak-On, Wilson Tong, Shut Chung-Tin, Cheng Kang-Yeh

Directed by Lau Kar-Leung

Expectations: High. I love this one.


Challenge of the Masters tells the story of a young, headstrong Wong Fei-Hung (Gordon Liu). His father, Wong Kei-Ying (Kong Yeung), refuses to teach him martial arts, but that doesn’t stop Fei-Hung from attempting to learn and cajole his father’s students into accepting him as one of their own. His father believes him to be too undisciplined and temperamental to be a true practitioner of the martial arts, and true to form Fei-Hung’s headstrong nature gets him into trouble often. This wouldn’t be too much of a problem if they kept it within the walls of their home, but Fei-Hung refuses to listen to reason and sneaks into the town’s annual competition between kung fu schools.

Lau Kar-Leung slowly builds the character of Wong Fei-Hung during this early phase of the film, as well as building up the martial world that surrounds him. Fei-Hung’s father is a teacher, but he is largely uninterested in the petty struggles between schools. He spends his days at home, living a quiet life of kung fu and pleasantries. Kei-Ying’s teacher, Lu Ah Tsai (Chen Kuan-Tai) similarly lives quietly outside the hustle and bustle of the town’s martial politics. They keep to themselves, but for some reason — perhaps old grudges — Master Pang (Shut Chung-Tin) and his school seem determined to undermine and devastate the Wong school at every opportunity. Meanwhile, Officer Yuan (Lau Kar-Wing) has come to town looking for the fugitive Ho Fu (Lau Kar-Leung), who has recently just arrived to visit Pang’s school. These sub-plots are part of Wong’s story of growth, but they also exist outside of it, showing us that the martial world is complicated and ever-moving.

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The Spiritual Boxer (1975)

The Spiritual Boxer [神打] (1975)
AKA Naked Fists of Terror, Fists from the Spirit World

Starring Wong Yu, Lin Chen-Chi, Kong Yeung, Shut Chung-Tin, Fung Hak-On, Lee Hoi-Sang, Ng Hong-Sang, Ngaai Fei, Chan Shen, Teresa Ha Ping, Chan Mei-Hua, Wong Ching-Ho, Keung Hon, Lee Sau-Kei, Shum Lo, Tin Ching, Chen Kuan-Tai, Ti Lung, Wilson Tong, Ho Kei-Cheong

Directed by Lau Kar-Leung

Expectations: High.


The Spiritual Boxer marks the directorial debut of one of the most influential figures in all of martial arts movie history: Lau Kar-Leung. Along with frequent partner Tang Chia, Lau began work at the Shaw studio choreographing Shaw’s first color martial arts film: Temple of the Red Lotus — a job they secured after pioneering Hong Kong’s first wirework in the Great Wall film The Jade Bow. Over the next 10 years, Lau’s collaborations with Chang Cheh resulted in a slew of iconic and lasting martial arts films that defined the genre. Lau’s goal throughout his film work was to bring more true-to-life representations of martial arts to the screen, and this ambition eventually led to Chang Cheh’s Shaolin Cycle of films. These films represented the closest Lau had come to realizing his dreams, and his strong, definite ideas led to a falling out with Chang Cheh during the filming of Disciples of Shaolin (though I’ve also seen it cited as being during Marco Polo, which Lau is not credited on). Producer Mona Fong then invited Lau Kar-Leung to return from Chang’s Film Co. in Taiwan to direct a movie of his own at the Shaw Brothers Studio in Hong Kong. Obviously, he took the offer and The Spiritual Boxer was the result.

The film begins near the end of the Qing dynasty with an intro showcasing the history of the “spiritual boxer,” a martial artist who could become invincible to all weapons after being infused with spirits of legend. Chen Kuan-Tai and Ti Lung make wonderful cameos as the spiritual boxers showing off their skills to the Empress Dowager Cixi, but the film isn’t about them, or this time, or even a spiritual boxer of the same ilk; it’s actually about a young apprentice, Hsiao Chien (Wong Yu), who travels the land with Master Chi Keung (Kong Yeung) performing spiritual boxing rituals. What their audiences don’t know is that they are just performers trying to earn a living from the reputation of the spiritual boxers, and when this trickery doesn’t go as planned it leads to much of the film’s conflict & comedy.

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The Hand of Death (1976)

KMJ0246The Hand of Death [少林門] (1976)
AKA Countdown in Kung Fu, Dragon Forever, Strike of Death, Shao Lin Men

Starring Dorian Tan, James Tin Jun, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, John Woo, Chu Ching, Yeung Wai, Wilson Tong, Gam Kei-Chu, Ko Keung

Directed by John Woo

Expectations: Moderate.

threestar


From what I could gather, The Hand of Death was actually made well before New Fist of Fury, but for some reason it didn’t get released until after. According to his autobiography, Jackie Chan had made this film and then moved in with his parents in Australia, taking jobs as a construction worker. Months later, he received a telegram asking him to be the lead in New Fist of Fury. His father allowed it on one condition: that Jackie had a two-year time limit to “make it,” or else Chan must come back for good. And two years after New Fist of Fury, Chan had indeed become a star. But not with this film (and also not with Lo Wei), so I’ll hold that story for later!

The story in The Hand of Death is simple, yet multilayered and oddly structured. At the heart of the film is the often-told struggle between the Shaolin Temple and the Manchu. In this version, an evil warlord names Shih Shao Feng controls the region with an iron fist (not a literal one), and his group of eight badass bodyguards. The Shaolin priests know that he is looking to intercept a man named Zhang Yi (John Woo) who holds a map important to the cause, and who must not be allowed to land in enemy hands. So they send Yung Fei (Dorian Tan) to save Zhang Yi and kill Shih Shao Feng. Along the way there’s a number of sidetracks and flashbacks as new characters are introduced, but that’s the gist of it. The way characters were introduced and given ample time felt like a wuxia film to me, while the rest of the film is definitely straight-up kung fu.

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