In Hong Kong, a band of activists plans to rebel against the Manchu government, but during the uprising the government strikes back, and only one young rebel manages to escape. Wounded, he makes his way to the Shaolin temple, where he seeks martial arts training in order to return to his home town and defeat the oppressors.
This film was recommended for me to watch by Todd Liebenow of Forgotten Films, the Forgotten Filmcast and the Walt Sent Me podcast.
I’ve never been very interested in martial arts movies, by which I mean I haven’t seen very many. Other than recent hits like The Raid and its sequel, and the Jet Li film Unleashed, I don’t think I’ve seen any others, not counting films like The Matrix or Kill Bill, which feature martial arts segments but are not what you would traditionally call a “martial arts film”. There’s more than a couple on the 1001 List, and at least two more I’ll be getting to this year, but going into this one I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
First things first, this was not an easy film for me to find. As far as my research showed, there has never been a UK DVD release of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, or as it’s known over here Master Killer, and if there was it is no longer in print. I found a few copies on eBay, but all for extortionate amounts or not specifying the DVD’s region code, and I’ve been burned before in getting a disc I then couldn’t play, so I had to look elsewhere. Fortunately a copy was found online (many thanks to Elwood Jones of From the Depths of DVD Hell and the Mad, Bad and Downright Strange Showcase for helping find it), so I watched it there, but alas the only option available had an English dub, which I know is not the best way to watch any film, but was all I had. If I lost anything in the translation, I’m sorry, there’s nothing I could do about that. The image quality wasn’t perfect either, but it was acceptable enough.
The film opens with some setup that just lost me, straight away. There’s an ambush plan that I didn’t fully understand what was happening with until a while later, which fails and leads to a one-on-one fight that left me bored. It’s between a rebel with a long axe and a general with two swords, and I wasn’t excited one bit. In my mind it was just a lot of sound effects, clanging and swishing and tinging and lots more swishing. The outcome was interesting and unexpected, but the fight itself had me grateful that I hadn’t shelled out the price of a new Blu-Ray release for a DVD, even if it would have been a Region 2. It is this fight, or at least its ramifications, that cause our star, Liu Chia-Hui’s San Te (also known as Liu Yude at times, to guarantee optimal confusion) to join the rebellion with his two friends. They start out as delivery boys, running communication errands between various factions, but when one of them is caught carrying a scroll inside a fish – yes, inside a fish – they are all investigated and only San Te gets out alive, but barely. He believes there wouldn’t have been any trouble if he knew kung fu (“I should have learned kung fu instead of ethics, what use is that?”) so he sets out to get some learning, from the fables Shaolin Temple. Being an outsider, their initial response is to send him away, but the abbot agrees to allow San Te to train. He then spends a year pushing a broom around cleaning the place, without ever bringing up that he actually wanted to fight, and as soon as he pipes up about it they let him partake in the 35 Chambers of Shaolin. Being a naive youth he wants to get everything done as quickly as possible, so he starts at the 35th chamber, which is essentially Jedi magic he can’t quite handle, so goes down a rung and starts there. This is where the film truly picks up.
I loved the chambers. It’s essentially one giant training montage that takes up the middle act of the film as San Te trains and completes all 34 non-magic chambers. There’s learning to walk on tied up bundles of sticks floating in water, carrying buckets of water with blades strapped to your arms that cut into your sides if you lower them, using a weight on a really long stick to hit a bell at speed and so on. Lots of great stuff, lots of variety, and lots of entertainment watch San Te initially be terrible at everything, but eventually succeed. However, given how many chambers there are we obviously don’t get a lot of time in most of them, which is fine, but I found it very difficult to determine how much time was being spent within the world of movie in any one place. We find out at some point that over two years has passed, but it could just as easily been less than a week. The general set up is that San Te enters a chamber, is told what the task at hand is, tries it, fails, then cut to him trying it again with much great success. The only difference to this one is the first chamber, the bundles of sticks one, where we do see him practising and working things out, which I suppose should be assumed with all the other chambers as well, but I felt it a little lacking.
You know earlier, when I mentioned the opening fight scene bored me? Well that was not the case with the various combat sequences during the training. One of the monks at the temple, the one initially most opposed to San Te joining, insists that San Te be able to defeat him in battle, and this leads to some really great fight scenes with a variety of weaponry. I also really enjoyed the climactic fight at the end of the third act, after San Te leaves the temple in order to complete his initial mission of revenge. The dubbing chose this point to really try and ruin some of the more dramatic moments with what sounded like an actor who thinks he’s recording for a Sat Nav system, with the likes of “Seven years ago you killed my Dad” being said with the same intonation as “At the end of the road, turn left, then, bear right,” but that’s no fault of the film, so I did my best to look past it.
I can’t say I’m desperate to seek out any more films from the Shaw Brothers collection, but I’m not dreading seeing the others that are on the List either. A supremely strong middle act makes up for a weak and confusing opening, with a finale that loses some momentum but remains enjoyable.
Choose Film 7/10
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This film was such a star making vehicle for Gordon Liu credited here as Liu Chia-hui here and who is probably best known to non kung fu fans for his dual roles in Kill Bill as the leader of the Crazy 88 and Pai-Mei (a character he also faces off against in “Clan of the White Lotus”) while its sequels “Return to the 36th Chamber” and “Disciples of the 36th Chamber” are equally worth checking out.
The Shaw Bros. back catalogue is well worth exploring even if it is best known for kung fu and Wuxia movies. At the same time unless you can pick them up on old VHS releases or the limited runs we occasionally see in the UK it seems that the only way to see a lot of them is through the region 1 Dragon Dynasty label justifying (as if it was needed) picking up a multi region player, though most DVD players these days are multi-region without being marked as so, or you could look into unlocking your current machine. You can also get them on YouTube to rent or via ITunes.
I’ve still got a heap of movies to get through on the 1001 List and others, but maybe once I’m done (if I’m ever done) I’ll circle back around and make a point to check out some more Shaw stuff. Thanks for the recommendations!