Friday, September 8, 2017

Shaw Brothers September: The 36th Chamber of Shaolin

Produced by the legendary Shaw Brothers Studio, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin was released in 1978. Its protagonist was based on an actual historical figure – a legendary Shaolin monk – that existed during the Manchu Dynasty during the early 18th century, but his life was highly fictionalized for the movie.

The Manchu government is a tyrannical regime that reigns across the country and is embodied by General Tien Ta (Lo Lieh), an impressive combatant that easily bests an insurgent armed with a battle-axe in a fight sequence that starts off the movie. Chong Wen College and its teacher Mr. Ho plot with a group of students against the oppressive government.

In response to the rebellion, several students accused of being spies are rounded up, tortured for information and eventually killed by Lord Tang, one of General Tien’s enforcers. He even kills the father of one of the college’s star pupils, Liu Yude (Gordon Liu).

Gravely wounded by Lord Tang, Yude flees to the nearby Shaolin Temple to learn kung fu so that he can eventually get revenge on the Manchu government. The monks take him in and nurse him back to health, renaming him San Te. He starts briefly at the top chamber and quickly realizes that he’s not ready for it.

And so begins one of the greatest training montages ever put on film as he begins at the bottom, working on the fundamentals – balance, power and speed. From there, he moves onto building up arm strength, weapons training and so on. These are grueling tests of strength, endurance and dexterity. San Te is a quick learner and soon excels at every test he faces.

What is so striking about The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is how political a movie it is with the Manchu government being extreme repressive. It exploits and keeps the populace down with an iron fist. Anybody who resists in the slightest is tortured and killed. Yude barely escapes with his life having lost everything and takes refuge with the Shaolin monks where he reinvents himself and yet never forgets where he came from or what happened.

What’s interesting about The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is that once our hero enters the Temple, the tone of the film takes on a decidedly more philosophical one as the monks practice a sound mind as well as a sound body, dropping such pearls of wisdom like, “Being at one is eternal,” and “A pure body is light, steps stable, stance is firm.” Initially, Yude is dense and useless, which results in being schooled repeatedly by his elders. He is rash and impulsive but persistent, refusing to give up as he has nowhere else to go.

Yude undergoes a series of punishing exercises that build up his physical abilities. It is only after he’s mastered the basics that he’s allowed to begin kung fu training. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is one of the best training sequence movies ever made as it shows the commitment needed to become more than mere proficient, but a master. It also shows how much Yude fails as he succeeds, putting in the hard work needed to advance through the Shaolin chambers.

Gordon Liu is an exemplary martial arts actor, more than capable of conveying his character’s physical prowess but he also has a very expressive face that he uses to convincingly convey the emotions Yude experiences in a given situation. He also does an excellent job of portraying his character’s coming of age, from a na├»ve student to a Shaolin monk in tune with not only himself but also the world around him.

Once San Te leaves the temple, he actually puts into practice what he learned into his fighting technique and we see just how far he has come. The climactic scene comes when we watch as San Te systematically dismantles the Manchu government’s forces and it is an impressive sight to behold, but is only a warm-up for the even more exciting confrontation he has with the evil general.


--> The 36th Chamber of Shaolin was so successful it spawned two sequels, Return to the 36th Chamber (1980) and Disciples of the 36th Chamber (1985). It also inspired several albums by legendary rap band, the Wu-Tang Clan. For those of you that only know Gordon Liu from his appearances in the Kill Bill films, this is the movie that really showcases his considerable talents and a must-see for any fan of the kung fu genre.

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