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; an intentional 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
This film feels a bit more like a traditional sequel to 36th Chamber Of Shaolin if only because here Gordon Liu is playing Abbott San Du, the same character he played a younger version of in the original classic. Yet, he isn’t the lead of this story, but rather a mentor figure.
Hsiao Ho here portrays Chinese folk hero and legend Fong Sai Yuk as a bratty and boastful young student who must be taught a lesson by the wiser San Du. Directed by Lau Kar Leung (who also has an on screen role), Disciples is a frustrating film that has some great martial arts sequences but a hugely unlikeable lead. Yes, the film is all about a prideful young man learning his lesson, but Fong Sai Yuk is so hard to relate to and so simultaneously dense and preternaturally gifted that you can’t help but be annoyed with him repeatedly throughout the film. Where the protagonists of the previous two 36th Chamber films had non-traditional paths to becoming masters, Fong Sai Yuk has unearned and almost supernatural martial arts abilities and must instead tame his ego and his spirit to attain some kind of enlightenment. Unfortunately it takes the entire runtime of the film for him to learn his lesson and we’re practically begging San Du to just whip this kid’s ass. That said, there’s fun to be had here and obviously Lau Kar Leung’s action set pieces are majestic.
I’ll be honest, while I generally never dislike a Shaw Kung Fu film, I also tend to find a large amount of them interchangeable. Fun action, disposable plots, and a genuinely enjoyable vibe mark the Shaw formula for me. Yet, only a handful truly stand out as memorable as compared to the others. This isn’t one of the standouts.
While the Arrow treatment surely gives us a better looking film than the other copies out there, as well as a much better sounding film, this film is the brand of disposable Kung Fu fun that I mentioned above. There are fantastic fight scenes, some laughs, and another in a long line of fun but forgettable plots. Yet, all of that is still to say that I truly enjoyed it nonetheless.
As the third in the 36th Chamber series, it’s also the third best. That’s ok, though. I’d still recommend that fans of the genre give it a go. It’s easy and breezy. And I know I used the word “fun” about 10 times already, but it’s exactly that… fun.
Disciples of the 36th Chamber was a rough watch for me. While I more than enjoyed the first two entries in the loosely connected 36th Chamber trilogy, Disciples has the star of the first two films (Gordon Liu) swapping places with his previous co-star in Return, Hsiao Ho. Liu is instead tasked here with playing the elder monk to Hsiao Ho’s rascal/troublemaker – who spends the entire film frustrating, fighting and disregarding everyone around him with any common sense. I guess that is why I just couldn’t hook into Ho. He’s such an odd character (is he supposed to be mentally disabled?) and when he starts teaching the Manchu’s the Shaolin ways, you’re left wondering how someone could literally be so stupid? That and Ho just lacked the charisma of Liu who even in his supporting role outshines our lead here whenever he is on screen. While I am glad I’ve finally seen it, (this was a first time watch for me), I really think it’s the weakest film of both sets I’ve seen thus far.
And We’re Out.