36th Chamber of Shaolin Review

The Film

The training sequences in kung fu films are a staple of the genre, and for the best example of such look no further than The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. Liu-chia Liang, along with his "brother" Gordon Liu, delivered up the best example of a martial arts apprenticeship by combining the physical endurance of the trials faced by Yiu-de(Liu) with the spiritual lesson of Buddhism. Liu's journey from leaf sweeper to kung fu hi-flier is the core of the film which is bookended by a standard story of the poor Han people fighting back against the evil Chings.
Unlike a lot of films in its genre, Chia-Liang's is best outside of the more usual hand to hand combat and man on man action. The climactic showdown between the priestly Liu and the venal Lo Lieh and his evil underlings is rewarding enough and gives the audience the payback it had been hoping for, yet it is relatively prosaic when compared to Liu's tutelage in Shaolin itself. As he moves within the chambers of the temple, the literal representation of his learning, the joy of Yiu-de's education outshines the growing potential of his violence.

And that is why the film works. Many action films have used Buddhism as spiritual window dressing and justification for righteous bloodshed, or they have used this apparent sense of conscience to show a hero's development as he goes from non-violent abstainer to avenging angel. This rather superficial approach is a tad insulting to the basic belief in temperateness, and revenge doesn't sit easily with such a faith. In 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Yiu's revenge is actually enlightened by his education and his eventual actions are based on self defence rather than the violation of others.
Later movie monks wouldn't try so hard to keep the faith, Jet Li, for one would kill and maim in innumerable films. Yet here, Yiu proves different as the lessons he learns are not conveniently forgotten under provocation. This fidelity to Buddhist beliefs is not total though, as when villains are chivalrously beaten by the priest their broken bodies are then hacked to pieces by the common people he wishes to inspire. Similarly his evangelism of his fighting skills to the Han people leaves rather too much wiggle room with these supposedly sacred precepts.

I suppose though that it is just a kung fu film rather than a holy text and the time spent on Yiu's growing spiritual discipline far outweighs his later fisticuffs. Gordon Liu's athleticism and convincing appeal as both novice and hero are strengths of the film and his "brother"'s excellent action direction and capable dramatic work ensure that this one man show is compelling and still rather original after all these years.
One of the longer kung fu classics, it is testament to the brothers that the film drags very little in the temple sequences and is prosaic only in the top and tail of revenge. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is a true classic of the genre.

Transfer and Sound

Presented with non of the usual standards conversions issues we've all got too used to with Shaw Brother re-issues, this transfer is often a thing of beauty. Detail away from the centre of the screen is as good as could be expected given the mode of shooting of the original movie. Some sequences look better than others with variance in vibrancy and contrast, but for 70% of the time the quality is largely excellent. This is sharp with surprising detail and with a very natural appearance, Momentum have done a terrific job.
The audio tracks are available in mono in Mandarin, Cantonese and English. The original Mandarin track is without obvious hiss or source issues; it lacks a little in clarity and seems a little muted in comparison to the Cantonese track. The English dub will probably do the job if you like obviously un-synched Americanised voices coming from Asian faces, but I can't say that I do. The optional English subs are not dubtitles, but there are some lapses in grammar.

Discs and Special Features

This is a region 2 coded, dual layer disc with the majority of the extras ported from the Dragon Dynasty release. Those extras involve RZA and Andy Klein in a rather obvious commentary track which follows the DD tradition of using a celebrity and a film buff and is a bit like those clip shows that monopolise Channel 4 schedules where famous people tell you what you should think and superficiality reigns. If that wasn't enough, we are then treated to interviews with the two men which are high on enthusiasm but less intriguing for people already aware of the film and the genre.

Much better is the interview with Gordon Liu where he talks about his career, his work with the director, and how he got his start in movies. His interview is intercut with clips from the film and much more interesting than the other interviews included here. The picture gallery mixes stills, posters, and photos and has to be flicked through rather than being animated. Two trailers for the film are included, along with some forced trailers for other Momentum releases when the disc is inserted into your player.


This a really impressive disc at an ace price, the film is one of the best of its type and you now have an excellent reason to own it.

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Last updated: 14/07/2018 04:09:57

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