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
A studio-mandated sequel to capitalize on the runaway success of Lau Kar Leung and Gordon Liu’s 36th Chamber Of Shaolin might not seem like ripe material for a great martial arts movie, but I’m here to tell you (much to my own surprise) that I adored Return and think it’s right up there among some of my favorite kung fu movies in these sets thus far. Gordon Liu is returning as an entirely different character; a fact that likely frustrated many contemporary viewers upon its release. But here he’s a bit of a righteous fool, masquerading AS San De, the fabled monk from the first film. Some oppressed workers at a dye mill enlist his help to conduct a ruse against their hard-nosed bosses who are squeezing them out of their earnings. When this plan ultimately backfires and Liu’s character feels deep remorse, he sets his mind to learning kung fu at the Shaolin Temple to once again seek justice against the ruling Manchus. But this time around our lovable and dishonest scamp of a character tries to learn everything by cheating his way around the temple and eventually the abbotts at the temple see the good heart at the center of this scamp of a man. So we get to see entirely different kinds of training, with the real Abbott San De saddling our lead with a whole host of non-traditional tasks and challenges. It’s a different kind of satisfaction seeing a less pure-hearted hero learn all the secrets of kung fu, but it leads to some brilliant set pieces, my favorite being “scaffolding kung fu”, in which our hero becomes a master at implementing pliant bamboo strips as first construction tools, and then weapons against his enemies. Sure, it’s a formula: Manchus are bad, learn kung fu, stick it to your oppressors. But the arc for this hero felt sincere and meaningful. He becomes a kung fu master without ever knowing it; never giving up on his con-man approach. It’s only when he’s forced to return home and fully admit to his friends and family that he has failed and flunked out at the temple that he’s able to realize that the Abbott had really been teaching him kung fu all along. It’s super satisfying to watch a newly humbled man whip ass with bamboo shoots, I guess. I quite adored Return To The 36th Chamber and felt the approach more than justified the cash grab origins of this less famous sequel.
There’s something rather familiar about learning martial arts through doing manual labor for us kids of the 80s. Seeing some of the roots of this type of training in film is a fun connection to Karate Kid, with the Abbott as a proto-Miyagi of sorts. Tonally different than 36th Chamber and disconnected even morseo in terms of story, this is maybe even more fun than the iconic first film. In fact, with the Karate Kid connection, embracing of the film’s more comedic tone, and an understanding that this film is mostly a sequel to the first in name only, it’s genuinely difficult to not appreciate this as one of the better entries in the Shaw catalog.
It seems best to approach this film as something completely detached from 36th Chamber. As such, it’s a pretty fantastic standalone film. While some previous intentionally comedic films in Shaw’s filmography don’t tickle my fancy, this one really does. The humor lands, the story is easy to follow, and the action sequences (albeit not among the best in Shaw’s history by any means) all work. Like the best entries from this and the previous Shaw collection, it’s entertaining from start to finish. And all said and done, that’s all I can ask from a Kung Fu film.
Oh! And lest I forget that ODB’s stellar debut album borrows its title from the title of this film… so for that I am forever grateful. Ooooh baby, I like it raw…
In terms of sequels, Return to the 36th Chamber is a lot like the Evil Dead 2 of kung fu films. It’s a more comedic reimaging of the preceding film that tells essentially the same story, just this time with an emphasis on dyeing clothes, roofing, and fighting with benches. The first time I saw this I was disappointed, sure. That first film is a near impossible act to follow. However, its odd approach has grown on me over the years. The premise has Gordon Liu now hamming it up and flexing his comedy chops as an imposter monk, who once again is trying to earn his way into the temple to learn Shaolin kung-fu. Only this time he is charged with erecting scaffolding around the temple for misleading the monks in an attempt to gain an audience with the abbot. Of course the absurdity lies in the fact that through this roof work he learns the kung fu he needs to save the jobs of the villagers and the day, but Liu is having so much fun it’s hard not to roll with it.
And We’re Out.