Kung Fu Chivalry | The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978) | Lumiere Feature

(A Shaw Brothers

Illustration: Martin Wilkinson

Spoilt for choice at this year's Telecom New Zealand International Film Festival, CALEB STARRENBURG and AARON YAP revisited three classic Shaw Bros. films, due to screen for the first time locally in their original, big screen format.

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978)
Liu Chia-liang | Hong Kong | 115 min | Featuring: Gordon Liu Chia Hui, Lo Lieh, Liu Chia Yung, Sui Tien Yuen.

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is arguably the greatest offering of The Shaw Brothers Studios' prolific production career – over 900 pictures – and a landmark kung fu film.

Also known as Master Killer and Shaolin Master Killer, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin has obtained iconic status in popular culture – parodied many times, in Hong Kong and abroad.1

Directed by Liu Chia-liang2 and starring Gordon Liu (whose recent appearance in Kill Bill Vol. 2 was the film's only saving grace) The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is broken into three distinct chapters.

In the film's first chapter Liu Yu Te (Gordon Liu) – an anti Manchu government rebel – is attacked by the 'evil' General Tien Wa (Lo Lieh). Yu Te's father is killed while helping his son escape the general's soldiers. Yu Te promises to take revenge and travels to the Shaolin Temple to learn martial arts.

The second chapter focuses on Yu Te's acceptance into Shaolin and his quest to learn kung fu. To become a great martial artist, the brash San Te (Liu Yu Te's Buddhist name) must conquer all 35 Shaolin chambers – a series of mental and physical tests.

San Te excels at the 35 challenges and as a reward is promised oversight of any one of temple's chambers. However, San Te asks to establish a 36th chamber, which will teach kung fu to the people. His request is denied and he is sent from Shaolin.

In the final chapter, San Te returns to his home where he is forced to defend himself against Manchu soldiers. An enraged General Tien confronts San Te, and a final showdown ensues.

The plot of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin may sound similar to any number of Shaw Brothers titles, and essentially it is. It is the sublime directing of Liu Chia-liang which sets this film apart. Alternating between kung fu action flick and peaceful spiritual meditation, oftentimes within the same scene, Chia-liang imbues the film with a depth not normally associated with the genre.

In his hands, a simple tale of revenge becomes an exploration of alienation, rebellion, and redemption – the rebirth and refinement of the soul.

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin succeeds largely because director Liu Chia-liang meets his goal of creating 'a love story of the spirit'. Liu Yu Te's transition into San Te is a fascinating – if unsurprising – journey that serves as an almost voyeuristic look at one man's journey of self-discovery.

That the lessons learned inside the chambers of Shaolin (thankfully we are not privy to all 35 of them) will require practical application in a climactic showdown is obvious. It is the manner in which Chia-liang and Gordon Liu apply themselves to their material, which serves to carry the audience as vicarious participants.

Gordon Liu gives in The 36th Chamber of Shaolin what is often referred to as the performance of his career, demonstrating he is not only a great martial artist, but also an accomplished actor. The authenticity he applies to the role almost convinces us of the awkward morality of the films final chapter.

"Buddhism," says San Te "Tells us to confront evil". Whether this justifies leading an armed rebellion is questionable, however the film is (apparently) based on the true story of a monk who successfully commanded an uprising.

Visually, Liu's cinematography is stunning, avoiding the static nature which characterises many early kung fu films. Despite shooting entirely on the Shaw Brother's studio lot3 with a comparatively low budget, the director utilises a clever combination of shadows and lighting to create a palpable sense of energy and intrigue.

Liu's fight choreography is also notable. The director disregards the montage of quick shots, conventionally used to construct fight scenes, instead utilising a series of impressively long takes, adding a fluidity and realism to the melees.

The innovative cinematography and choreography of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin would contribute to the film's international popularity, and establish a benchmark for future kung fu titles. It would seem San Te's desire to establish a 36th chamber and bring martial arts to the people, parodies Liu Chia-liang's desire to bring kung fu to the world.

The Telecom New Zealand International Film Festival's (NZIFF) screening of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is possibly the first time the film has been viewed legitimately in New Zealand since the late 1970s. Sir Run Run Shaw refused to transfer his studio's films to video, or even allow them to be shown at film museums.4

For decades, Shaw Brothers Studios kung fu classics have been seen – if at all – as dirty bootlegs. These were often chopped or squeezed from their wide-screen panoramas to fit a TV format, and then dubbed into an atrociously Anglicised cacophony of grunts, death cries and manic laughter.

Finally in 2000, pan-Asian company Celestial Pictures signed an $84 million deal, purchasing 760 films from the Shaw Studio's library. Celestial Pictures, owned by American William Pfeiffer, have since been working, restoring selected films from their original source material.

Now the familiar Shaw logo – the 'SB' embossed on a golden shield – is again viewable as it should be (admittedly I have never seen it this way), in ravishing colour and wide-screen ShawScope.

The NZIFF's presentation of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is compulsory viewing, not just for kung fu enthusiasts, but also for the wider cinema community. Enter the 36th chamber.>>

–Caleb Starrenburg

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Originally published in: Lumière 4, Winter 2004, ISSN 1176-4082

(1) Pioneering New York rap outfit Wu Tang Clan paid homage to the film on their debut album, Enter the Wu Tang (36 Chambers), while Wu Tang member 'Masta Killa' takes his name from the film's alternative title. Would you tell Wu Tang member Ol' Dirty Bastard aka Big Baby Jesus aka Joe Bananas aka Osirus aka Unique Ason aka Dirt McGirt (recently released from jail for a variety of offences) you didn't like this movie?
(2) The genre's greatest artisan, Lia Chia Liang, also referred to as Lau Kar-wing, was himself a student of Shaolin martial arts. The director is renowned for casting family members in his films – Lau Kar-wing (General Yin) is Chia Liang's brother, Gordon Liu (Liu Yu Te) is Lia's half brother.
(3) The Shaw Brother's 2 million square foot studio lot, built in Hong Kong in 1958, was referred to as the Hollywood of the East.
(4) Sir Run Run Shaw – still alive and apparently sprightly at 97 – refused to transfer his films to video for fear of international video piracy.

PAGE 1 of 2 | © Caleb Starrenburg / Lumière 2004
Illus: © Martin Wilkinson / Lumière 2004

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