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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The Adventures of Emperor Chien Lung (1977)

The Adventures of Emperor Chien Lung [乾隆下江南] (1977)

Starring Lau Wing, Wong Yu, Lee Kwan, Chiang Nan, Cheng Miu, Wang Han-Chen, Yueh Hua, Yeung Chi-Hing, Chen Ping, Kam Ting-Hsun, Wang Sha, Aai Dung-Gwa, San Shu-Wa, Wong Ching-Ho, Chan Shen, Ng Hong-Sang

Directed by Li Han-Hsiang

Expectations: High. I really liked the first film.


The first film in this series, Emperor Chien Lung, introduced us to an emperor bored with his rigid, dependable life in the Imperial palace. He longed for adventure and the knowledge of how his subjects lived, so he disguised himself and embarked on a journey across his lands. Along the way, he helped those in need and stopped more than a few crimes perpetrated by officials in his name. It’s a nice setup for an episodic film, and the first film left me hungry for more adventures with Emperor Chien Lung. The sequel delivers (although the first film actually tells more adventurous tales), but it does so in many unexpected ways that build the character in different directions. The Adventures of Emperor Chien Lung was the first sequel (of four) to Shaw’s highest grossing film of 1976, and I’m in for some real fun if the others are anywhere near as good as this one.

Taking over for director Wong Fung is one of Shaw’s most well-respected directors, Li Han-Hsiang. He directed all the sequels, and judging from his work on The Adventures of Emperor Chien Lung it’s possible that he saw the first film as more of a test run for his series, and not an actual “first film” that he was making follow-ups to. The Adventures of Emperor Chien Lung begins before Chien Lung is born, showing us how his father, Prince Yong (Yueh Hua), met his mother, Stable Maid Li Jia (Chen Ping), and eventually how Chien Lung became the favored grandson of the long-reigning Kangxi Emperor (Yeung Chi-Hing). The star of the first film, Lau Wing, doesn’t even appear until over 20 minutes into the film! Chien Lung’s sidekick, Zhou Ri-Qing (Wong Yu), fares even worse, only appearing in the final act of the film. To be honest, I can’t recall exactly how they met in the first film, but here we again see them meet for the first time. Things like this are what leads me to believe the Li wasn’t looking back on Wong’s film when making his.

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Executioners from Shaolin (1977)

Executioners from Shaolin [洪熙官] (1977)
AKA Hung Hsi-Kuan, The Executioners of Death, Shaolin Executioners

Starring Chen Kuan-Tai, Lily Li Li-Li, Lo Lieh, Wong Yu, Dave Wong Kit, Cheng Kang-Yeh, Shum Lo, Gordon Liu Chia-Hui, Lee Hoi-Sang, Tin Ching, Chiang Tao, John Cheung Ng-Long, Lee Chiu

Directed by Lau Kar-Leung

Expectations: Super high.


Shaolin Temple marked the end of Chang Cheh’s Shaolin Cycle, but hot on its heels a couple of months later came the first Shaolin film from Lau Kar-Leung: Executioners from Shaolin. Lau is fundamentally a different style of director than Chang, and this film is a perfect example of this. Chen Kuan-Tai reprises the role of Hung Hsi-Kuan, but Lau builds the character in ways that Chang never did. Executioners from Shaolin begins similarly to Chang’s Heroes Two (with Hung’s escape from the burning Shaolin temple), but it is not a tale of survival and hiding out from Qing government officials. Executioners from Shaolin has a bigger goal in mind, broadening its focus out to illustrate the evolution of Hung Gar and the importance of its lineage. Lau Kar-Leung was a member of this lineage himself, so his genuine appreciation and love for it really pops off the screen. Shaolin filmmaking at the Shaw studio began with Hung Gar under the influence of Lau, so it’s fitting that he would begin there as well.

The martial lineage of Hung Gar is the overall focus of Executioners from Shaolin, but it is framed around a basic revenge-driven story that any kung fu fan has seen a million times. It’s presented differently here, but regardless it still boils down to “You killed my master, now I kill you.” Shaolin Master Zhi Shan (Lee Hoi-Sang) is defeated by Pai Mei (Lo Lieh) during the film’s opening credits, setting the stage for a quest of revenge. Hung Hsi-Kuan & his remaining Shaolin brethren would like to strike while their emotional wounds are fresh and the wood of Shaolin still smokes, but after confronting some Qing resistance it becomes clear that regrouping and strengthening their position is their only viable option. The students find refuge in the Red Boat opera troupes who travel the country by sea, leading Hung to meet the beautiful and martially adept Fang Yung Chun (Lily Li), and this is where the heart of Executioners from Shaolin can be found.

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The Snake Prince (1976)

The Snake Prince [蛇王子] (1976)

Starring Ti Lung, Lin Chen-Chi, Helen Ko, Fan Lei, Wong Yu, Ng Hong-Sang, Wong Ching-Ho, Cheng Miu, Leung Seung-Wan, Lam Wai-Tiu, Norman Chu Siu-Keung, Tsang Choh-Lam

Directed by Lo Chen

Expectations: Excited, but I’m not sure what to expect.


The Snake Prince is easily one of the most unusual Shaw Brothers films I’ve seen. It combines a full-on musical with fantasy and folklore to create an unforgettable film you’ll either love or hate. I love a good musical, so to have one with funky ’70s music, the usual Shaw Brothers feel and a bunch of snake-driven fantasy, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. There’s also a bit of martial art action here and there, but it’s not treated like the fights of more traditional films. They aren’t edited for tension at all, instead there are a lot of long, unbroken takes that allow the physicality of the actors to really be appreciated. But don’t expect anything too exciting in this regard, it’s more like a few sprinkles on top of a donut instead of something more substantial. If you aren’t diggin’ the rest of the movie, the fights aren’t going to be enough to make it worth it.

A small mountain village is in the middle of a severe drought. The villagers pray (via a funky song, of course) for the rains to return so their crops can thrive again. After the opening credits introduce us to the Snake Prince, we return to the villagers, again in song. During this celebration, the Snake Prince (Ti Lung) and his two snake friends (Wong Yu & Ng Hong-Sang) enter the town disguised as villagers. They dance and sing with the humans, and a trio of sisters catches their snake eyes. The Snake Prince is especially smitten with Hei Qin (Lin Chen-Chi), but a trio of men from the village (who I assumed were the boyfriends of the sisters, but they never said they were) run the snake guys out of town. This is where one of the bigger action scenes happens, but it’s more like stage fighting than anything resembling what was occurring in the other films of 1976.

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Emperor Chien Lung (1976)

Emperor Chien Lung [乾隆皇奇遇記] (1976)

Starring Lau Wing, Wong Yu, Tin Ching, Shut Chung-Tin, Shum Lo, Chiang Nan, Cheng Miu, Kong Yeung, Lam Fung, Teresa Ha Ping, Chan Shen, Cheng Kwun-Min, Shih Ping-Ping, Mi Lan, Lun Ga-Chun, Cheung Chi-Hung, Wang Han-Chen, Pang Pang, Lee Pang-Fei, Wong Ching-Ho, Chu Siu-Boh, Ching Si

Directed by Wong Fung

Expectations: I don’t know what to expect, honestly.


I added Emperor Chien Lung to my chronological lineup of Shaw Brothers films for a few reasons. For one, I knew it had some limited martial arts content, and that it starred Lau Wing and Wong Yu. Secondly, it was the top grossing Shaw Brothers film of 1976 and it spawned multiple sequels (which might have more martial content than this one). It was also directed by Wong Fung, who intrigued me with his film Rivals of Kung Fu and his legacy with the original Wong Fei-Hung series starring Kwan Tak-Hing. Thankfully, my curiosity was well-placed, and Emperor Chien Lung is a fantastically fun and well-crafted film.

Emperor Chien Lung is absolutely sick and tired of the sheltered life of an emperor. He is fed the same foods and dressed in the same clothes every day, and literally every aspect of his life is governed by tradition and routine. One day, he hears a tale of how Emperor Tang Ming-Huang disguised himself as a commoner and mingled amongst his people. Chien Lung decides to do this as well, and his adventures outside the palace are what makes up the bulk of the film. It bears an anthology feel, with each tale wrapped up tight before proceeded ahead with the next one. Chien Lung learns things along the way, and he even picks up a sidekick, Chau Yi Qing (Wong Yu), but nearly everything else is self-contained within each story.

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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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