“Even Buddha has to conquer evil!”
Al’s rating: We’re gonna need a montage! (Montage!)
Al’s review: Do you like kung fu? Do you like training montages? Then The 36th Chamber of Shaolin may just be up your alley! One of the most influential kung fu films ever made (and, as I mention in Five Deadly Venoms and Enter the Dragon, oft cited as one of the best), The 36th Chamber, also known as The Master Killer, is all about what it takes to be a kung fu master—namely, practice, practice, practice.
Gordon Liu stars as Liu Yu Te, a young student who gets caught up in his small town’s rebellion against the conquering Mongol Turks who have taken over the region. Untrained and disorganized, the fight doesn’t go well and soon the movement is smashed by local soldiers. Yu Te has heard stories of kung fu masters in the mountains, and when he suddenly finds himself alone and hunted, he makes a run for the Temple where he hopes to learn the skills that will help him set his people free.
What? You’ve seen this one before? Okay, so the story is basically as old as the hills, but, like a lot of kung fu movies, a complex narrative structure is not what will draw you to The 36th Chamber of Shaolin anyway. In fact, I’m just gonna go ahead and tell you that, yes, Virginia, the monks let him into the Temple, train him in Shaolin kung-fu, and he comes back in the end to turn the Mongol invaders into Tartar sauce.
The plot is not really something you should concern yourself with, since the movie doesn’t really dwell on it much either. The real meat and potatoes of The 36th Chamber is watching Gordon Liu train his little heart out to become a kung-fu superstar. Along with Rocky and Drunken Master, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is likely responsible for more heroic training montages than any other film in existence. We’re talking a full forty-five minutes of our hero, who has now taken the name San Te, hardening his body, focusing his mind, and honing his skills as he ascends the Temple’s 35 Chambers to become a martial arts master before finally disobeying Shaolin law and attempting to create his own Chamber that will bring his techniques to the laypeople of the land.
We don’t actually see San Te in all of the temple chambers, which is probably a good thing, but I’d estimate we’re treated to more than half, and, despite seeing the same basic scene over and over, it never really gets boring. Some of the exercises are painful to watch, like being jabbed with knives for putting your arms down; others, like headbutting sandbags, are played for laughs; and lots, like attacking the reflecting poles in a sort of Shaolin whack-a-mole game, are just plain cool. All of the training sequences manage to be unique or memorable, and none feel like they’re wasting your time.
Also necessarily dominant here is Gordon Liu. Liu had made films for years before The 36th Chamber, but this was his big star turn. It is, by design, the Gordon Liu Show, and he doesn’t disappoint. Both as the youthful and impulsive Yu Te and the older, more deliberate San Te, his performance is nuanced and meticulous—he makes you really believe in the years of work that are going into his training and you see him get older, wiser, and better as time presses on. Liu really shines bright in this performance and is as good as any actor I’ve ever seen in the genre.
It’s not a perfect movie, of course. Like I said earlier, Shaw Brothers films are not exactly known for their deep plots, and The 36th Chamber is no exception. The ending is given a serious short shrift, almost seeming like an afterthought. San Te and the Tartar generals have a few protracted duels at the end that are certainly impressive, but really ends up feeling more obligatory than anything else and doesn’t have the ‘pop’ that makes the movie’s middle section so memorable. Another stumbling block is that our hero is also based on an actual historical figure, so there’s a lot of unexplained background going on that would be common knowledge to a Chinese audience but is more or less lost on you and me. Neither is a huge misstep, but both are definite turnoffs that may leave you scratching your head.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is a movie that’s often slapped with the label ‘Greatest of All Time.’ I can’t go that far. But it is a seminal work in kung fu film history and a defining moment in the careers of Gordon Liu and his brother, director Liu Chia-Liang. Despite the paint-be-numbers plot, it’s got a great visual style and an easy to watch charm that is severely lacking in the glut of chop-socky grindhouse junk that the 1970s produced. Anyone searching for a crash course in kung fu or a firm foundation on which to enter the world of martial arts film needs look no further than The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. You have found enlightenment, now go kick butt.
- The training sequence at the beginning? It’s is totally independent of anything in the actual movie, but is pretty neat nonetheless.
- The hideout password is “Open Sesame?” Really?
- They have to learn kung-fu poses from books when they have actual kung fu masters standing right next to them? Laaaaaaame.
- San Te created the 3-section staff? I feel like actual history might have something to say about that.
- Every time they talk about the town of Canton, my mind drifts to Jayne Cobb. Is that wrong?