This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
If you’ve watched more than a handful of Chinese martial arts films, you’ll be familiar with the iconic Shaw Brothers logo that adorns so many credits sequences. The brothers in question – Runme, Runje and Runde, later joined by little brother Run Run – set up the first incarnation of their film studio (Tianyi) in 1925 and, by the 1960s, dominated the Chinese film industry. Their Movietown studio in Hong Kong was one of the largest and most technically advanced in the world and the martial arts films it made in the 1970s led the charge of bringing Chinese cinema to the west.
At the height of the kung fu boom, the Shaws were producing 30 to 40 films per year and the quality was shockingly high. Many of the big names in Hong Kong cinema got their start working at Movietown and the system allowed the ‘star’ directors tremendous creative control over their output.
As Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA (whose work has been heavily influenced by the Shaws) so eloquently puts it, “the difference between a Shaw movie and a regular martial arts movie is like the difference between cornflakes and frosted flakes” adding “if it’s Shaw Brothers, you know it’ll be dope.” Indeed, choosing the dopest Shaw Brothers movie is a near-impossible task, but let’s take a look at one that would end up in almost everyone’s top five at least – The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin (1978), and its two sequels.
The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin was one of the first films directed by Lau Kar-leung, although he had been around the industry for some time, working as an actor and an action choreographer for the Shaws. Lau was also a highly skilled martial artist and master of the difficult Hung Fist style, which is how he initially met Gordon Liu. Years after they’d trained together, Lau insisted Liu – his favourite student – play the lead in 36th Chamber despite having little experience in front of a camera. Ni Kuang’s screenplay took Lau and Liu’s idea of a more realistic and philosophical approach to onscreen kung fu and turned it into a political piece based on Chinese folk hero, San Te.
The end result is a compelling, sophisticated martial arts film.
Gordon Liu plays Liu Yude, a working class student in Qing Dynasty Guangdong. He’s the son of a fishmonger, sick of seeing his family and friends persecuted by the Manchu oppressors who rule the province with an iron fist. Although he joins a group of revolutionaries, their plans are discovered by the Manchus and a bloody massacre ensues. Liu escapes and manages – starving and injured – to literally crawl his way through the woods and up the mountains to Shaolin Temple, the place where he’s heard they teach kung fu. Although Shaolin is closed to outsiders, the monks take him in and heal him, seeing his arrival as an act of providence. There’s initial resistance to training him but, when it’s clear he’s not giving up, they give him a monk name (San Te) and allow him to enter the 35 training chambers.
It’s quite a daring narrative in that at least an hour of the film is devoted to training sequences (something most films get finished in a five minute montage) but it’s never dull. Most of the chambers are iconic and imaginative. The earlier ones play San Te’s incompetence for laughs but, as he moves through the chambers and improves his skills, the tasks become harder and more exciting. Some focus on training individual parts of the body, such as the incredible “Head Chamber” where he has to fight his way through hanging sandbags using only his head. There are chambers devoted to the practice of individual weapons. Others focus on mental discipline, like the “Eye Chamber” where he stands between two flaming sticks and tries not to move his head while watching a pendulum swing. It’s almost like a Saw trap!
Eventually, San Te creates his own weapon – a three-jointed nunchaku that needs to be seen in action to be believed – and becomes both physically and mentally ready to become true Shaolin. Having completed the training in record time, he petitions the Temple to open a ’36th Chamber’ that allows laymen to learn kung fu, thus creating a force of highly-trained martial artists ready to start a full blown revolution against the Manchus. The rest is, literally, history.
So what makes 36th Chamber so special?
Well, for one, it’s beautifully made. The sets and costumes are as lavish as you’d expect from the Shaws but the technicality of the filmmaking is off the scale. Lau insisted on shooting all the fights at regular speed (many directors of the era used sped-up film for their crazier stunts) and getting exhaustive long takes. Sometimes we’re watching as many as 20 different moves by 20 different people in just one unedited shot. It’s balletic and breathtaking, a testament to the killer combination of Lau’s artistic vision and Liu’s phenonemal Hung Fist skills. Liu reportedly suffered many injuries during the filming, and watching, say, the incredible blade fight between him and superstar Lo Lieh, it’s easy to see why. The blades are real and the camera doesn’t flinch.
Technical accomplishments aside, 36th Chamber has genuine emotional resonance. Its characters are well-drawn and it has more political and philosophical depth than your average revenge plot. It shows elements of Chinese history (and allegorical folklore) that, in 1978, had rarely been seen in films exported to the west. RZA described the effect it had on him as “awakening a sense of social justice and historic awareness,” particularly the struggle against an oppressive government. “As a black man in America, I didn’t know that story existed anywhere else.”
Indeed the Wu-Tang Clan’s determination to train hard and become the best at what they do was also inspired in part by the film (honored in the title of their seminal debut, Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)). Clan member Masta Killa took his moniker from the US retitling of the film (Master Killer) because, as the youngest and least experienced rapper, he felt an affinity with the character and saw himself as needing to go through the training “chambers” in order to reach the standard of the others. I mention this trivia because it just shows the profound, life-changing impact that a film like this could have on people, even if they weren’t the obvious target audience.
Obviously, a sequel would have a lot to live up to but the film’s success demanded one. In perhaps one of his most audacious moves, Lau Kar-leung reunited many of the cast and crew in 1980 to produce a comedy retelling called Return To The 36th Chamber (similar to Sam Raimi‘s tonal shift between Evil Dead and Evil Dead II). Gordon Liu returns not as San Te but as a con man called Chao Jen Cheh.
The plot runs in parallel with the original – Jen Cheh’s friends and family are punished by Manchu overlords so he goes to Shaolin to train hard and defeat them – but Gordon Liu’s surprising skill with comedy makes the film fly higher than it perhaps should. Hilariously, he manages to sneak his way amongst the monks thanks to his uncanny resemblance to the legendary San Te (funny, that)!
The best thing about the film, however, is the way the training sequences are inverted. Jen Cheh is terrible at kung fu and unable to learn so the “real” San Te (played this time by Lee King-chue), now a temple abbot, sets him to work on erecting a difficult scaffolding all around Shaolin instead. He spends years doing it and inadvertently learns all the skills required for Shaolin kung fu without realising it, creating a whole new style known as “scaffolding kung fu.” It’s a great tragedy of martial arts cinema that – to my knowledge – this unusual style hasn’t popped up anywhere else but it’s used here to hilarious and exciting effect.
Return To The 36th Chamber is perhaps second-tier Shaw material but Liu’s presence and Lau’s creativity make it nevertheless watchable. There’s a certain poignancy to Liu’s performance too as he gives Jen Cheh an extra dimension; that of the sad clown destroyed by the fact that none of his revolutionary friends take him seriously and that his only real skill is pretending to be someone else (a possible metaphor for an actor’s lot in life). This gives Return an edge over the final part of the trilogy, Disciples Of The 36th Chamber (1985).
Once again helmed by Lau Kar-Leung, albeit several years after the classical kung fu genre had peaked, Disciplesis a good film but by no means a great one. Gordon Liu returns as actual San Te this time but in a mentoring role to Ho Hsiao who plays another Chinese folk hero, Fang Shiyu. It’s a clever trick, combining two legendary characters like this, but unfortunately Fang Shiyu here is about as endearing as a Robbie Williams tribute act. His character is an already skilled martial artist who upsets the Manchus and has to flee to Shaolin for sanctuary.
Shiyu lacks not just good manners and respect for authority but also any sense, making mistake after mistake and nearly destroying the temple in the process with his oblivious arrogance. While San Te in the first film went on an intense spiritual journey, Shiyu never really does. He just kind of gets away with being a dick through luck and with a little help from his Shaolin friends.
As a result, the plot has neither the emotional resonance of the first nor the clever irony of the second, but that’s not to say it’s all bad. It’s as visually stunning as anything in the series (the Lantern Festival scene during which Ho Hsiao does kung fu on the back of a festival lion is jawdropping) and the fighting, when it happens, is great. A couple of new training sequences, including the glorious ‘Chamber Of Jumping On The Roof’ (as bonkers as it sounds) and ‘Chamber Of Water Posts’ (in which a bunch of dudes fight with giant heavy poles while submerged in water) are imaginative and a joy to watch.
Absolutely anything involving the dynamic duo of Liu and Lau will be a treat at times but Disciples, despite its highlights, isn’t one of their best.
Still it’s interesting to track the development of the genre through these three films (and to, sadly, watch the decline of the Shaws as they struggled to change with the times) but reassuring to note, on the whole, that they haven’t aged badly at all. The kung fu still feels fresh throughout and the original film resonates with all the power it ever did, standing up to just about anything else in the genre quite capably.
For veterans and newcomers alike, you’ll struggle to find many more satisfying and accomplished pieces than The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin. As Shaw favourites go, it may not have the raw brutality of King Boxer or the psychotronic madness of the Deadly Venoms films but it has a special depth that shines through the decades and continues to inspire and enthrall new generations of film fans.
Read and download the Den of Geek SDCC 2019 Special Edition Magazine right here!