The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin

The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin


Reviewed by: Daniel Hooper

The Shaw Brothers may not be the biggest brand name in cinema but they can certainly boast being the most well known producer of high quality kung fu. In their Seventies and Eighties heyday, the Hong-Kong studio can boast having a production operation to rival the Hollywood studio system, making 40 films a year, each taking 40 days to make in the self-contained studio town aptly called Shaw Town, with a back catalogue of around 800 films. Big in Asia since the Sixties, it was in the mid-to-late-Seventies that the rest of the world began to take notice with the international releases of King Boxer (AKA Five Fingers Of Death) and The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin (AKA Master Killer).

At it’s most basic level, 36th Chamber is a show piece for the talented actor/kung fu legend Gordon Liu, opening with a beautifully shot montage of Liu demonstrating his skills against a plain studio backdrop and slicing through unrealistically torrential rain with his fists – the scenes have no bearing whatsoever on the narrative, yet perfectly set the stage for the star of show.

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A look at the synopsis may lead you to think that this is merely a rote genre flick: San Te (Gordon Liu) seeks revenge against the invading Tartar forces, led by the ruthless General Tien Ta and Tang San Yao, for the deaths of his father, teachers and classmates, but first he needs to learn the ways of the Shaolin at the, again, aptly named Shaolin Temple.

Simplistic on paper, 36th Chamber is nonetheless brave, with almost half the 115 minute running time focused entirely on San Te’s ritualistic training with the monks at the Shaolin Temple. It’s interesting that although 36th Chamber features less fighting than other Shaw Brothers films, it is no less enjoyable thanks to Liu’s likeable performance and the skills he demonstrates in training at the temple – Liu does get a chance to shine in conflict, but he is often pitting his impressive skills against inanimate objects. Director Lau Kar-Leung directs the action tautly and keeps things flowing through shooting longer takes.

The Shaw Brother’s studio was an efficient machine and the consistent production value of their films bears comparison to Forties and Fifties Hollywood - 36th Chamber has the polished feel of a studio product and is all the better for it. The town San Te escapes in 36th Chamber is lifesize in scale and there is an attention to detail at the Shaolin Temple that lends it a hyperreal quality, an effect intensified by the bright Seventies colour footage (dubbed at the beginning as Shawscope). The soundtrack, too, is an eclectic mix of styles (possibly stolen from other films, as is noted in the commentary), fitting well with the action.

Though it goes without saying that Tarantino owes the Shaw Brothers films for his reference fest Kill Bill (or vice-versa, given the extra attention the Shaw Brothers received thanks to his high-profile kung fu epic), QT is especially indebted to 36th Chamber – not only does Kill Bill Vol 2 follow the plot device of a student seeking kung fu training with the old masters in the story strand The Cruel Tutelage Of Pai Mei, it also steals the star of 36th Chamber, Gordon Liu, for the role of the sadistic Pai Mei and even features a scene involving a pupil being taunted by their master for their inelegant way of eating rice.

Say what you will about Kill Bill, Tarantino is clearly a man who knows which films to liberally borrow from, and The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin is a film that packs a good punch, managing to be viscerally stimulating and emotionally engaging. A classic of the genre and should immediately be sought by anyone with even a passing interest in kung fu.

Reviewed on: 26 Mar 2009
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The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin packshot
San Te is on course for a battle with the Tartars... but first he needs training.
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Director: Lau Kar-Leung

Writer: Ni Kuang

Starring: Gordon Liu, Lo Lieh, Wang Yu

Year: 1978

Runtime: 115 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Hong Kong


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If you like this, try:

Kill Bill: Volume 2