Described by its director as a, “love story of the spirit”, this study of the training of kung fu at the Shaolin Temple and of monk San Te quickly became one of the best known and most highly-regarded of martial arts movies…
And there is a 36th chamber? Not until one young man enters the famous Shaolin Temple in pursuit of the knowledge of the kung fu masters with one intention…to take it outside of the Temple, to train laymen in their ways and to defeat the corrupt generals who are tearing his home village apart. The 36th chamber of Shaolin is all that exists outside of the Temple and San Te is determined that he will be the one to build it. But the Shaolin monks, who have kept their knowledge secret, are not so keen that he leave. A desire for vengeance, though, is a powerful emotion.
San Te (Gordon Liu) actually begins the film as Liu Yu-te, a young student of Teacher Ho (Wai Wang) who watches a powerful group of Manchu generals occupy the village where he grew up, his father owning a fish store. From their public torturing of rebels to their destruction of his school, General Tien Ta (Lo Lieh)and Tang San-yao (Wilson Tong Wai-shing) are hated but the villagers are powerless, particularly when the rebel General Yin (Lau Kar-wing) is captured and hung in the village square as an example to anyone who intends on following his lead. Declaring Yin a hero, Liu Yu-te joins his teacher in the rebellion but Tang San-yao acts quickly, killing Teacher Ho and all those sympathetic to his cause. With his father’s shop destroyed in the search for messages from the rebels, Liu Yu-te leaves the village in search of help but, finding one, travels to the famous Shaolin Temple to learn kung fu. But the journey to enlightenment is hard and despite his progression through the thirty-five chambers of Shaolin, there may be no way back for the young monk now known as San Te. And certainly no way home.
The apparent aim of director Lau Kar-leung in making The 36th Chamber of Shaolin was to create a martial arts drama that was realistic in the time and effort that is needed to learn an art such as kung fu. No Karate Kid-styled picking up of a martial art within a long summer here, Kar-leung aims for authenticity with a training regime within the Southern Shaolin Temple that lasts for seven years, beginning with learning to balance on a raft of sticks – as well as some humility – long before unarmed combat and the art of fighting with weaponry. Despite a running time of close to two hours, there isn’t enough time to reveal the inner workings of all thirty-five chambers and so Kar-leung chooses a handful – the aforementioned raft, the carrying of buckets of water up a hill, the striking of a bell and the following of a candle attached to a large metronome. As straightforward as these sound – and the Shaolin monks have a habit of making the tasks within their chambers very simple indeed – each one is made difficult by a testing of the novice’s skills in kung fu. So, the carrying of buckets of water, as easy as that may be, is made difficult, deadly even, by the Shaolin monk strapping knives about the novice’s arms, which will pierce their skin should the buckets not be held outright. Again, in a later chamber, Sun Te learns to watch an opponent by only using his eyes and not the movement of his head by having two large sticks of burning incense placed close by either ear. A moment of comedy is added later in the film as Sun Te and the other novices develop the strength of their skulls by butting heavy bags of sand. Cue a group of novices confused both by the methods in the task and by the blows sustained within it.
If this makes The 36th Chamber of Shaolin sound dry, that’s really not the case. Yes, most of the film is concerned with the training of a novice monk but not only is it bookended with two scenes of high action – an early sword fight between Lau Kar-wing and Wilson Tong Wai-shing opens the film whilst the return of Gordon Liu to the village is accompanied by much bloodshed – but the scenes of training in the Shaolin Temple are well-staged, mixing action and humour with some sense of the order of the Shaolin Temple. Hence, any excitement is balanced with the need to place the training in a particular order. As much as we might want to get to the kung fu, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is paced such that it only comes late in Sun Te’s training and where another film might end with his success in the thirty-five chambers and the Shaolin monks wishing him their very best as he leaves to restore order to his village, this one does not. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin prefers to stall Sun Te’s ascension to a seat of some importance in the Temple by a Justice Officer who asks that Sun Te beat him in a fight before he take it. Given how often The 36th Chamber of Shaolin has overturned convention up to that point, it comes as no surprise to learn that Sun Te does not succeed, at least not at his first attempt.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is well-regarded in martial arts circles, not as flashy as Enter The Dragon but manna from heaven for those who hanker after a more realistic portrayal of martial arts. By any stretch, the seven years that Sun Te spends in the Shaolin Temple is still a short time to master a martial art – being awarded a black belt ought to be thought of as only finishing an apprenticeship and that can still take ten years or thereabouts – but it’s still a good deal longer than the traditional martial arts feature, where syrup-slow reflexes are honed in weeks. By choosing to frame his film in such a way, director Lau Kar-leung has produced The 36th Chamber of Shaolin to not only be a, “love story of the spirit”, as he called it, but a love letter to the legend of the Shaolin Temple and their legacy of martial arts. Knowing that success in kung fu comes from within, Kar-leung dwells on the fight Sun Te has with his own spirit and how his initial failure comes from his inability to bring his heart, and not his fists, to the tasks at hand. That The 36th Chamber of Shaolin brings that internal conflict to film so successfully, as well as the bloodshed that opens and closes it, it ends a very satisfying film and a rare treat within the genre.
Presented anamorphically in 2.35:1 and with Cantonese and Mandarin language tracks – there are English, Chinese, Malaysian and Indonesian subtitles – The 36th Chamber of Shaolin looks good but is let down by a lack of detail in the background of the image. Appearing much the same as colour newspapers do when the printing process fails to bring the colours together as one, the blurring and fuzziness to the picture draws one’s eyes to the foreground in spite of those events elsewhere. Colours are, however, good and the image shows good stability.
What I assume to be an original mono audio track has been remixed into stereo and sounds fine, nicely separating the action across the left and right speakers. Fans of martial arts movies won’t be disappointed at all by the solid thwack of fist on bone and everything, action and dialogue, sounds clear. The subtitles read well and although there is the occasional misspelling, there’s not enough to criticise.
Shaolin – A Hero Birthplace (15m58s): The main extra on the disc is this short feature, which is part documentary on the Shaolin temple and part behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film. An interview with Gordon Liu Chia-hui fulfills the latter part of the feature but the history of the Shaolin temple is rather sketchy, choosing to dwell on small parts of the legend rather than what is known. Hence, there is some repetition of the methods of the Shaolin monks and of the principles behind kung fu but nothing that most of us won’t already be familiar with.
Movie Information: This section contains all of the special features that don’t quite fit elsewhere, including a Photo Gallery of behind-the-scenes shots and movie stills, the Original Poster and one page of Production Notes. The last extra here is a Biography and Selected Filmography for Gordon Liu Chia-hui, Lo Lieh, Yu Yang, Wang Yu and Liu Chia-liant.
Finally, there are a set of Trailers for The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (3m42s, 1m03s), the first of which is the Original Trailer whilst the other is a new one produced for this DVD release. The DVD also includes trailers for The Grand Substitution (1m10s), Behind The Yellow Line (1m06s), The Venus’ Tear Diamond (1m02s) and Passing Fickers (1m10s).
For anyone raised on terrible, western ninja movies, but who remains optimistic about there being something better, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin will be warmly welcomed. Surprisingly thoughtful, this comes on a well-presented DVD that, flaws in the picture aside, does the film proud and, as Lau Kar-leung intended, the legacies of the Shaolin Temple.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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