(1978) Directed by Chia-Liang Liu; Written by: Kuang Ni; Starring: Chia Hui Liu, Lieh Lo, Chia Yung Liu, Wilson Tong, Tung-kua Ai; Available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Rating: **** ½
“It’s a pity Shaolin martial arts is confined solely to the temple. It should be taught widely to all.” – San Te (Chia Hui Liu)
Any discussion of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin requires a mild spoiler from the get-go, so if you haven’t watched the film and want to remain completely spoiler free, you might want to read the rest later. Don’t worry, I’ll wait… Okay, now we can move on. Despite the title, there are really 35 chambers that the movie’s protagonist must endure on his way to becoming a Shaolin Kung Fu master. The 36th is his proposed creation.
Loosely based on historical events, the film doesn’t let dry facts get in the way of telling an engaging story. Director Chia-Liang Liu and writer Kuang Ni never get mired too deeply in political intrigue, and while they understand that it’s nice to have some historical perspective, we’re really here to watch the bad guys receive their comeuppance. The opening scenes establish the ruthless General Tien Ta (Lieh Lo) and his henchmen as they take over a city and crush opposition in their wake. Lowly student San Te (Chia Hui “Gordon” Liu) becomes embroiled in the struggle when his father’s seafood shop is raided. San Te abruptly becomes a fugitive, and is forced to flee the city from the despots who killed his father. He vows to return for vengeance, but first he must find a legendary temple where Shaolin Kung Fu is practiced.
Chia Hui Liu is mesmerizing as the resolute San Te. We experience his tenacity and drive through the sheer intensity of his eyes. His personal quest anchors the film, as we witness his progression from a brash and impulsive young man to a martial arts master. He almost perishes before reaching the temple, but uses his last vestige of strength to sneak onto a cart carrying food for the monks. The leaders of the monastery are not impressed with his brazen attempt to learn their secrets, but the head abbot (Tung-kua Ai) identifies with San Te’s perseverance (which seems to mirror the Buddha’s), and allows him to stay. What follows is San Te’s journey of self-discovery, fraught with a series of 35 trials. He foolishly decides to start at the top, with the 35th chamber, but in the first of many lessons, learns that he must start at the beginning and work his way up.
On the road to personal enlightenment, San Te realizes Shaolin Kung Fu is not merely about body movement, the mind, or philosophy, but the successful integration of these elements. We never actually get to see all 35 chambers, but the ones we witness are ingenious in their simplicity. The first chamber adds an extra level of difficulty to the mundane task of going to dinner. Something as basic as heading to a dining hall becomes an insurmountable obstacle as San Te must traverse bundles of floating logs and stay dry in the process. Seemingly menial tasks, such as carrying buckets of water or ringing a huge bell become monumental tests of endurance. Each successive chamber becomes a new opportunity to learn, demanding different adaptation skills. Brute strength and willpower can only take one so far. In order to master the higher-level chambers, San Te must rely on a combination of ingenuity, mind-body awareness and embracing the Shaolin way of life.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin stands apart from many other martial arts films, because it takes pains to incorporate the underlying principles into the story. In an early training scene, one of San Te’s mentors comments, “Power takes you forward, firmness balances the body. Uniformity of mind focuses power.” San Te gains wisdom about the Shaolin philosophy and learns to kick butt. The film isn’t just about elaborately choreographed fight scenes* (and this one has it in spades), but the training the protagonist must endure. Everything is a potential learning opportunity. When he’s eventually mastered the top level, he wants to share the skills he’s acquired with the outside world, but he meets opposition with the monks, who assert, “we don’t involve in worldly affairs,” preferring to keep the Shaolin martial arts within the walls of the monastery…” In this instance, San Te reveals their limitations under the guise of their unwavering attitude. What good are kung fu skills if they can’t be taught to others for self-protection?
* Many of the actors and filmmakers (including Chia-Liang Liu, who also served as fight choreographer) were accomplished martial artists, lending veracity to the action. As a result, camerawork/editing trickery is kept to a minimum.
On a side note, the DVD commentary track by film critic Andy Klein and hip hop artist The RZA is definitely worth a listen. Although I’m not much of a fan of hip hop, The RZA clearly knows his kung fu movies. I was entranced by his portion of the commentary, which revealed his deep affection and profound respect for the martial arts genre and the discipline of kung fu.
Aside from the Shaolin philosophy, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is simply a wonderful film to look at. The beautifully shot compositions are masterfully framed, and the inventive set pieces and brisk action sequences (albeit with a decidedly cerebral spin) keep the eyes engaged. I suspect this movie, which has earned its well-deserved reputation as a true modern classic, will only get better with repeated viewings.