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.
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).
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.
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.
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 naïve
student to a Shaolin monk in tune with not only himself but also the world
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.