Cinapse is all about cinematic discovery. This Shawscope Volume 2 column is, therefore, a watch project for our team, and guests, to work through this phenomenal set from Arrow Video. These capsule reviews are designed to give glimpses of our thoughts as we discover these films for ourselves. Some are kung fu cinema experts, some less so; all are excited for the adventure.
The Hong Kong-based Shaw Brothers Studio cranked out a staggering number of feature films over its lifetime. With worldwide influence continuing to this very day, their contributions to cinema are myriad and undeniable. Arrow Video has curated a second volume of titles; a phenomenal way to wade into the deep waters of the Shaw Brothers. Beyond capsule reviews, our team also offers thoughts on the set curation and bonus features. Watch along with us, join us in the comments, or reach out on social media (linked below) if you’d like to submit your own contributions!
Undeniably one of the greatest and most influential kung fu films of all time, Lau Kar Leung’s The 36th Chamber of Shaolin kicks off Arrow’s Shawscope Volume 2 set with prestige and undeniable clout. One of the few old school kung fu films that I myself have seen multiple times and have long considered myself a fan of, it’s a rich experience to now see the film again after having been exposed to dozens more Shaw Brothers titles and as part of a set that offers context, commentary, and even multiple sequels.
Perhaps the father of the modern day “training montage” (Although Drunken Master released the same year), I still get goosebumps seeing Gordon Liu’s San Te solve the first water puzzle at the shaolin temple and then go on to master all the various training chambers in record time. Something like 45 minutes of the film is dedicated simply to various physical and spiritual challenges presented to our lead and watching along as his hard work and dedication sees him “upgraded” to a venerated shaolin monk. There’s a star power to Gordon Liu and an aesthetic pleasure derived from the visuals of the shaolin training challenges that simply stand the test of time and have inspired countless artists to replicate and riff.
On this viewing, and with a little reflection from commentary expert Tony Rains (who provided many tracks on the previous Shawscope set), I feel like I have a better grasp of the somewhat confounding ending to the film. Liu’s character enters the temple initially with a desire to avenge injustice at the hands of the ruling Manchurians who are oppressing his people. I believe I’ve always read the ending, with San Te being banished from the temple because he wants to train outsiders in kung fu, to be somewhat of a defeat. Like San Te is banished, and sort of “resorts” to revenge against his oppressors. But it does feel clearer to me now that, indeed, San Te’s invention of the 36th Chamber, a chamber beyond the walls to teach the people, was a righteous cause. And when the Abbott “kicks out” San Te, he is really granting his wish to bring kung fu to the common man and spread martial arts as a defense against oppression. This read likely comes a lot easier to others but it was somewhat new to me and helps me understand more powerfully why 36th Chamber Of Shaolin has so long resonated with cultures who experience oppression and indignity at the hands of those in power.
San Te is a hero of the people. A Master Killer, sure, but a righteous one.
Widely considered one of the best Kung Fu films of all time; I get why. While my personal tastes on Shaw Brothers stuff almost always leads me to prefer Venom Mob and Chang Cheh stuff most, the talk of 36th Chambers’ greatness is deserved. The training sequences are stellar and big influences to so many future films – as a devout Batman Begins fan, it’s impossible not to feel this film’s influence in that regard.
The final battle and the closing portions of the film fall short of the glory that the rest of the film really sets up, but that’s not to say those moments late in the film aren’t still enjoyable in their own right. What the end of the film did do extremely well for me, though, was excite me for the next installments in this series – films I’ll be diving into for the first time for our exploration of this second installment of Arrow’s Shaw collection.
It’s also an important distinction that my lifelong love of all things Wu-Tang means I must acknowledge all things Shaolin. There is no RZA, no Ghostface, no Wu, none of it – not without the inspiration and fuel this film (and many others, but very notably this one) gave to that young artist collective in Staten Island and beyond.
It’s not that The 36th Chamber of Shaolin does a ton of new stuff for the studio that had already become an assembly line of martial arts delight, but there’s something about the exact concoction of “zero to hero” underdog story, political strife, unforgettable training sequences, and the fully unleashed charisma of Gordon Liu that makes the legendary stature of this film undeniable. Lau Kar-Leung – coming hot off Challenge of the Masters in Vol. 1 – reteams with Lo Lieh from his Executioners From Shaolin as the villainous general who’s occupying Manchu force kills a young student’s family. San Te (Liu) flees to the Shaolin temple to learn kung fu, and we’re gifted a series of vignettes of him going through the various chambers that he must master in order to return and exact his revenge.
While Chang Cheh’s Shaolin Temple boasts a similar structure, here the different training and combat techniques are all concentrated on bolstering a single character’s journey. Liu proves himself more than capable of carrying the film, going from hapless runaway to martial arts master with apparent ease while still keeping the core of his character at the forefront. San Te begins the film with a very personal goal, but as we see him spend time in the temple, he sees his own tragic experience as only part of a greater injustice. 36th Chamber does one of my favorite things, where it practically turns into a different movie at each act break. By the time he’s back in his home village rallying allies around him (including Hong Xi Guan, for those of you keeping track of the Shaolin-verse folk hero crossovers), we get to see him implement literally every lesson he’s learned in high-flying style.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin remains a perfect gateway film for those curious about martial arts cinema, but the weight of history behind and ahead of it crystallize its status as an all-time masterpiece.
One could argue that the seminal martial arts masterpiece The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is at its core a two hour training montage, kind of like Rocky IV, and they wouldn’t be wrong. But why it’s one of the best in the Shaw filmography (and a personal favorite) is because that montage isn’t singularly training of the body, but also the mind and the spirit. The film has Gordon Liu at the top of his game playing Liu Yude, a student who, after becoming involved in a rebellion, loses his family to the powers that be and is forced to throw himself on the mercy of the Shaolin Temple; both for shelter and to hopefully learn kung-fu for revenge. Not simply satisfied to be a revengomatic, Liu’s journey through the 36 chambers, is one not only of strength, but self discovery and enlightenment. This is thanks to not only the narrative, but Liu’s multilayered performance, that is an exploration of the psyche of his hero, while confronting these challenges literally head on.
Liu’s performance is one that combines emotion with physicality in a way that you seldom see in these films. His traditional dramatic acting is echoed by his body, posture, and competence while in these training exercises. This shows a pure control of his body as an acting instrument and it allows Liu to unleash a truly impressive performance in the film. We can see him working through what happened to him as he makes his way through the trials and tribulations of the Shaolin Temple, only to leave a changed man. And even though he does get revenge and starts an uprising, it’s portrayed in a way that appears it’s almost co-signed by the monks and, in turn, Buddah’s will to banish this evil from the earth. Liu leaves the temple a righteous man and only wants to help others to not live in fear like he once did. That’s something that lives at the core of this film along with some of the best kung-fu captured on celluloid.
And We’re Out.