Review: The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978)


Director: Chi Liang-Liu

Starring: Chia-Hui Liu, Lieh Lo

Release Date: June 1979 (US)

One of the most remarkable trends to hit 1970s cinemas was the rise of the martial arts film, or the ‘chop-socky’ flicks as they were known to grindhouse denizens across America. High on action with a style all their own, nowadays all most people remember of these colorful films is the most famous of the genre, Enter The Dragon (1973) starring Bruce Lee, when there were scores, if not hundreds, of martial arts movies made during the Seventies and early Eighties. Many of these concentrated on fight scenes, usually between the hero and the minion hordes of some drug lord or master criminal, rather than the history or cultural background of the martial art itself, be it karate, taekwondo, or in the case of this week’s film, kung fu.

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, released in the US under the title Master Killer, is a classic of its kind, and not just because of its exemplary battle sequences. The viewer is taken on a journey, following the lead character in both his physical and spiritual development as he spends several years training to become a master of not only kung fu, but also of Buddhist teachings. This serves to make T36COS “the quintessential martial arts movie as, unlike many others, it could not exist without Chinese kung fu as its metier,” according to Bey Logan’s Hong Kong Action Cinema (1995).

Our hero learns kung fu at the famous Shaolin Abbey, built in 477AD in Hunan province, and where the Bodhidharma spent nine years meditating before laying down the foundations of Dhyana Buddhism (don’t confuse the Bodhidharma with the original Buddha, Gotama, who lived sometime during the period 566-368BC). Of course, as a movie and popular entertainment, the emphasis is placed upon on the more physical aspects of kung fu, yet we see enough of life at the abbey to become aware of the important spiritual aspect to Buddhist training. Our hero also has a pressing personal reason to learn kung fu, and once this is achieved, his desire is to share his knowledge with others in need. Thus, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is a film about the actualization of a man, and the spread of a belief, rather than just a story in which the hero takes on the bad guys.

A few items before we look at The 36th Chamber of Shaolin: first, a little historical context. Legend has it the Shaolin Monastery as we know it today was rebuilt after its initial destruction by the occupying Qing forces, the Manchus (so called as they hailed from Manchuria), sometime between 1647 and 1732. The Qing dynasty ruled China from 1644 to 1912, meaning our film is likely set in the latter half of the seventeenth century, or the early years of the eighteenth. However, as this film is a loose adaptation of stories which are themselves folklore, one should T36COS‘s view of history with a pinch of salt.

Second, the custom with films made in Hong Kong is such that the actors involved are often known by three different names in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English (anglicized so as not to scare off potential viewers in the West). For example, the lead actor in T36COS is known as Lau Kar Fai (Cantonese), Chia-Hui Liu (Mandarin) and Gordon Liu here in the West, and I shall use the latter in this review.

Added to this, the names given in online sources sometimes give an actor’s name in a different format to how those names are listed in a film’s credits. In such instances, I’ve noted actors’ names both as listed in T36COS‘s credits and on IMDB. To make matters more complicated, the version of T36COS I watched carried a cheap dub into English, sometimes leaving characters’ names indiscernible (and making the opening scene in particular hard to follow). When unable to ascertain a character’s name, I’ve given what I hope is an acceptable, descriptive alternative.

Third, I know as much about Buddhism and Cantonese folklore as the average mountain gorilla, so if I’ve gone wrong in anywhere in this review, I apologize in advance, and please feel free to leave a comment, so I may correct the error. On with the movie!

During the opening credits we are treated to a demonstration of kung fu moves by the film’s star, Gordon Liu. Liu sports some chunky metal rings on his forearms as he does so, just the first of a million reasons why I’d fail at kung fu; I couldn’t wear those rubber ‘live strong’ bracelets for more than five minutes, let alone these sort of heavy duty bracelets. As well as being a talented actor, Liu is an expert practitioner of hung gar, a branch of kung fu, something Quentin Tarantino remembered when casting Liu in Kill Bill: Vol 1 (2003) and Vol 2 (2004).

The Manchus have conquered much of China, but rebels establish a base in Canton, under the cover of a school teaching the lessons of Confucius. The teacher and local rebel leader Ho Kuang-Han, known as Teacher Ho (Hung Wei) discusses the capture of six rebels by the wicked General Tien Ta with an assassin dressed in white robes (Lua Kar Wing). The rebels face torture and execution unless they are rescued.

Later, the General’s troops ride into their fort, where the assassin waits on a rooftop. As the General’s sedan chair passes by, the assassin leaps and smashes the sedan to pieces with an ax. The sedan is empty – the assassin has fallen for Tien Ta’s trap, for the General is riding among his own men. General Tien Ta (Lieh Lo), a walking scowl with a mustache to match, takes on the intruder, fighting with one hand when the rebel is injured, and beats the holy crud out of the assassin, in retrospect rather a misnomer.

Over at the school, students lark around until warned by Ho’s assistant Chen Yen-ping (Szu-Chia Chen, the only woman with a speaking part in the entire film) that teacher is approaching. It’s reassuring to see even Chinese ethics students of centuries past clowning around before a lesson; if nothing else, T36COS teaches us teenagers are the same throughout time.

Teacher Ho enters, in no mood for gaiety. The class, including our hero Liu Yu-Te (Gordon Liu), and his two friends, who I’m forced to name Comic Friend and Tall Friend (good luck finding their names in the credits), look concerned. Comic Friend, a tactless sort, asks Ho if he attended the execution of the Mings (as the rebels are known). Ho answers he did, and as it were Mings and not Manchus killed, “the executions were not interesting” (this may have lost something in translation).

The three students go to the town square to look for themselves. Our late assassin is strung up between two poles like a dead fly in a web: “a hero,” is Yu-Te’s verdict, an opinion overheard by Lord Tang San-Yao (Wilson Tong/Tang Wei-Chang) who threatens to send the students the same way as the executed rebels. A friendly shop-keeper intervenes, vouches for the students, and leads them away, explaining Lord Tang is the sadistic associate of General Tien Ta. “To those in charge, we must be humble,” adds the shopkeeper – and this stirs something within Yu-Te.

The young men return to their teacher, who’s burning the midnight oil, as well as a few secret messages. “Do men have the right,” asks Yu-Te, “to say what they believe in, or must they always do what the government says?” Before Yu-Te can stand in caucus on a small government ticket, Ho explains Lord Chang, grand leader of the rebels, is raising an army in Taiwan, and is in need of messengers. The students agree to help.

As luck would have it, a secret message will arrive on a junk containing a shipment of dried seafood for Yu-Te’s father (Ching Ho Wang), who runs a seafood shop in town. Finding the correct crate in Dad’s storeroom, Yu-Te delivers the box to the rebels, one of whom smashes the crate open with a kung fu chop. Impressed, the three boys ask if they can learn kung fu, but are told the practice is only taught at the Shaolin monastery and only monks need apply. Just goes to show a house in the right catchment area isn’t everything, you still need to adjust your religious beliefs to bag a place at the best school.

General Tien Ta hears of the secret message network; one messenger is captured and brought before an inquisition held by General Yin (Chia Yung Liu). Alas, the captured messenger is Comic Friend, whose squeaky dubbed voice won’t help him any chums now. General Yin finds a message from Lord Chang in a dried fish Comic Friend is unwisely wielding as proof he’s a mere errand boy. Yin threatens to torture Comic Friend, who defies the general by swiping a tartar sword and performing a c-section on himself. That’ll show ’em.

One rebel wasn’t so lucky as to kill himself before ‘providing’ the necessary information and as a consequence, the school is raided (it’s implied Ho kills himself before the soldiers can reach him) and Yu-Te’s father’s shop is destroyed by Tang’s men. Spotting his son in the crowds, Yu-Te senior tells his son to flee, and is killed by Tang for his trouble. Later, having changed clothes from their student robes (fashion is as stratified as social class in this feudal society) and stolen away into the woods, Yu-Te and Tall Friend realize their families are dead, killed by Tang and Tien Ta. “I should have studied kung fu,” bemoans Tall Friend. “What use is ethics?” I wonder the same thing regarding my liberal arts degree, but Yu-Te replies “it taught us what is right.” The two friends decide to travel to Shaolin in the hope of learning kung fu to exact revenge on their enemies.

Yu-Te and Tall Friend don’t get far before they encounter Tang and his soldiers on horseback. Tall Friend is captured and killed, while Yu-Te steals a horse but takes a sword to the leg as he rides off. Tang gives chase and finds the abandoned horse; Yu-Te hides in a rockface recess tying up his wound. Once Tang leaves, Yu-Te hobbles onward as best he can to his goal.

Feverish with the onset of gangrene, Yu-Te stops at a village to ask directions to the monastery. A barkeeper takes pity on the sickly youth and advises him to hide in a cart loaded with vegetables (kale, cauliflower, and lord knows what other grisliness) collected by student monks of the monastery. The students transport the cart to the Shaolin monastery, where Yu-Te is found unconscious, due to prolonged exposure to raw spinach and the realization that’s all he’ll eat for the next decade.

Once Yu-Te recovers from his gammy leg, he’s brought before the Chief Abbot (Han Chiang), seated at the head of rows of senior monks, all of whom are Serious Cat. The Chief Abbott tells Yu-Te now he’s recovered, he must leave, as Shaolin isn’t open to riff-raff. Yu-Te pleads to stay, wishing to become a monk. The Abbott of the Justice Office (Li Hai Sheng/Hoi Sang Lee) objects, as he’ll do throughout T36COS: Yu-Te “came in by stealth, using a trick.” The Chief Abbott allows Yu-Te to stay, as “he arrived as the Dharma [Bodhidharma] did” (inside a barrel of spinach?) and “Buddha favors his cause.” And what Buddha says, goes.

We all have to serve our apprenticeships, whether it’s making the coffee, running off reams of photocopies, sexual harassment from the boss, or writing a million words no-one will ever read. In the case of San Te, as Yu-Te is now named, it’s sweeping the monastery to keep the place neat and tidy. San Te does this for an entire year before wanting to know of his abbot when he’ll get to learn kung fu. The abbot’s reply is along the lines of ‘well, you only had to ask,’ and tells San Te of the 35 ‘chambers’ all must pass through before mastering kung fu. As San Te hasn’t learned much from a year of picking up leaves, he asks to tackle the last chamber first and the abbot, in need of a laugh, agrees.

San Te is taken to a hall in which rows of monks read aloud from scriptures while striking red wooden bell-like objects. They chant “we sound bells, we hear nothing,” as they dwell on “the invisible, the inaudible, and the quiet infinite.” As far as I can gather, the monks strike the wooden bells to deny their effect as a distraction from their holy meditations; the material world is inconsequential and transitory, so do not exist, and therefore cannot distract from meditation. By making this percussive noise while they read the teachings of Buddha, they prove their own point while denying its existence at the same time.

Monks seated nearest this chamber’s abbot are tested on their knowledge of the teachings, in a ‘complete the end of this sentence’ type quiz. One unfortunate stumbles over his answer and has to return to standing meditations, setting him back a few years in his progress. And you thought you were under pressure during your final college exams.

“I want to learn kung fu!” declares San Te. The abbot, who looks as if he were best pals with the original Buddha, raises a gnarly eyebrow and asks “how many times have you read the sutras?” (‘sutra’ are the collected teachings of the Buddha). San Te, who hasn’t progressed beyond the pictures in the karma sutra, catches flies until dismissed with a wave of the abbot’s hand – literally. The elderly abbot, without touching San Te, sweeps the sweeper off his feet with a mere gesture.

The chamber, San Te is told, was “the highest form” of the journey ahead. Lucky for San Te, the first chamber is as easy as falling off a barrel.

The first chamber involves falling off a barrel. Before mealtimes, each student must pass across an enclosed body of water to get to the canteen. In the water are two large bundles of sticks. The students must leap on and off the bobbing bundles to reach all the mung beans they can eat. Let’s spare San Te’s blushes by skipping over, in the way the student monk fails to do so, his many failures and onto his method of overcoming this watery obstacle. That night, San Te practices his balancing skills using two wooden buckets, leaping from one to the other, as they roll along the ground.

The next day, San Te performs an astonishing one-legged leap, bouncing off a wooden bundle and onto dry land, winning the admiration of his fellow students, if not the credibility of the viewer; belief, like Gordon Liu here, is only suspended so far.

If San Te thinks he’s got chamber one licked (and from what we see elsewhere, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a tongue chamber somewhere on the premises), he and other students are in for a shock the following day. Remember what Alice said about believing six impossible things before breakfast? To reach their morning bowl of non-krisped rice krispies the students must traverse the water via the now free-floating sticks. Bundled wood? Luxury!

Come the evening, the students are still failing to walk on water, so the water chamber abbot gives the students a clue by skimming a bowl across the water and onto dry land. “It’s all about pressure, lightness, and speed,” he explains. “The mind must leave the body before the body moves.” I’ve had experiences like that, though they came out of a bottle and had nothing to do with water.

While San Te sleeps that night, his feet move of their own accord, as if our student is dreaming of how to cross the waterway. Awaking, San Te practices at the water chamber, until he succeeds. Level Completed!

Next, San Te must build arm strength by joining other students in carrying buckets of water up a steep structure towards a chute, where water is poured to enable other monks to wash clothing (using the ‘beat the dirt with a stick method’ favored by Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest). If that sounds easy, then may I draw your attention to the knives attached to each student’s biceps; if the buckets are lowered to ease the strain, the knives stab you in the ribs – tough love, it’s called. After a wobbly start, San Te gets the hang of this task, and progresses to the next chamber.

Remember what I said about wrists earlier on? Time to buck up, ‘cos those wrists need strengthening, and what you do to exercise them when the house is empty just won’t do. San Te joins a line of students in the wrist chamber, taking turns in banging a huge gong with a long, looooooooong bamboo pole with a 15lb weight at its end. Using only one hand, each student must strike the gong in time to the presiding abbot’s own percussion as he reads the sutras, along with other senior monks. You’ll feel like hugging yourself and rocking to and fro as the students suffer, yet San Te pulls clear of his peers again, taking an abbot’s advice to shorten his grip on the pole, and is soon upping the tempo to match the pounding techno beat of the wrist chamber abbot.

The Chief Abbot is pleased with San Te’s progress and appoints the young man in charge of one of the sutra chambers. The Abbot of the Justice Office interjects, claiming San Te “is ambitious, and different.” Nonetheless, San Te is permitted progress to the next chamber, and this one will make your eyes water.

No, it’s nothing to do with San Te’s using his own little monk to chop a block of wood in half, this chamber is about exercising the eyes. San Te must stand with his head positioned between two large smoldering sticks of charcoal and watch a candle an abbot rocks back and forth. The exercise is to keep your eyes on the candle without moving one’s head – do so, and your noggin is singed. Ever seen a proficient kung fu monk with a singed noggin? Quite.

Remaining in this chamber, San Te must test his co-ordination skills by kicking and punching wooden columns that reflect the candlelight on polished metal panels as they revolve. There’s a gap in the narrative here, as San Te exhibits dynamic fighting skills we haven’t seen him acquire, but it’s impressive all the same and little wonder the optimistic optical abbot acclaims San Te “the best student yet.”

One imagines the next sequence gained quite a few laughs from Western audiences, though it’s unclear if it’s intended as comedy. This is the head chamber, where students must headbutt hanging sandbags before returning to the start, if they’re able; most are on the ground clutching their heads in pain after just one circuit. Once San Te falls, he incurs the wrath of the oddest-looking of all the abbots, a short, tubby fellow like a pint-sized Tor Johnson, who clutches a long stick with a metal hand on the end (reminding one of no less a film than Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966)). This abbot’s bald head is covered in scabs, showing that when it comes to head-butting sandbags, he knows his stuff.

Striking San Te about his person with his extended metal hand, the head chamber abbot informs the dizzy student this is the last chamber before those in which students learn to fight. This invigorates San Te, who soon toughens up until he can headbutt sandbags the livelong day.

Well, when I say “soon,” it’s a relative term. According to the speech given by the Chief Abbott, San Te’s record-breaking progress has so far taken twenty-five months. That’s just over two years of butting, eye strain, wrist torture and water buckets, and all just to gain the “ten basic skills” needed to prepare to learn kung fu. And there we were thinking it just took a few weeks of classes at community college.

And so begins three years of San Te learning to fight, first from books showing the correct stances, and then to practice fights with fellow students. San Te goes on to learn sword skills, maintaining strength by dragging stone blocks, and physical precision by twiddling metal silver stars with a pole through a row of sharpened wooden teeth. If you drop your iPhone down a drain cover, this guy’s your man.

The Chief Abbot offers San Te another promotion, his eighth, this time placing him in charge of a chamber of his own choosing (I’d be tempted to go back and master sweeping up leaves), but you-know-who doesn’t like the idea of Pollyanna in charge of anything. It’s one thing to learn, the Justice Abbot considers, another thing to apply those lessons. The Justice Abbot proposes a challenge to San Te – defeat me in combat, and you will earn your progress to the next level. All being well, this could come as soon as two years.

First, San Te fights the Justice Abbot with a pole, while his opponent uses his customary butterfly swords. The battle doesn’t last long, with the Justice Abbot disarming San Te, who reacts with humility, conceding defeat. San Te then practices with a crescent spade, a nasty, cumbersome looking weapon with metal pincers at either end. Once more, the Justice Abbot triumphs. Rather than giving up to become a goat herder, San Te practices further with the crescent spade in the woods, until he has a brainwave and uses the spade to chop down a bamboo plant. Bending the pliant wood into three, San Te now employs creativity to solve his problem.

In his next battle with the Justice Abbot, San Te uses his new invention, the three-section-staff. Not knowing how to combat this new device, the Justice Abbot is defeated, doubtless to lick his wounds and invent the laser cannon. The Chief Abbot congratulates San Te and permits him three days of meditation to consider what action he wishes to take next.

We know what San Te intends, so I expect he spent five seconds meditating and 2.999 days thinking about girls, of which monastery life is bereft. At the end of these ‘meditations,’ San Te tells the Chief Abbot he wishes to set up a 36th chamber, to head out into the world and teach kung fu to whoever needs to defend themselves. The Chief, displeased at the idea of sharing Shaolin knowledge with the great unwashed, punishes San Te – he must leave the monastery and adopt the life of a beggar. Yet a slight smile plays about the Chief Abbott’s lips, as the delighted San Te gives thanks; the Chief Abbot, in satisfying Buddhist law, also allows San Te his wish, to spread Buddhist practice throughout the land (this is T36COS‘s version of the ‘Five Fugitive Monks’ of Buddhist legend, who journeyed around China after the sacking of the monastery by government forces). It’s a win-win for Team Buddha!

Back out in the greater world, San Te, now a warrior priest, is soon put to the test. Lord Tang hasn’t changed his ways while San Te was at kung fu summer camp; we see him harassing a man who mourns a dead brother, another Manchu victim, in the village graveyard. The monk intervenes, putting Tang’s men out of action and pinning down Lord Tang himself, who points out that monks are forbidden to kill. No problem there, as San Te reminds Tang “even Buddha conquered evil,” and stands by while the aggrieved brother hacks Tang to death with a sword. Tang’s killer becomes San Te’s first disciple.

The next is the local blacksmith, Tung Qian-jin (Hang-Sheng Wu), who fights a rowdy gang of tartars with a long-handled hammer, and is on the brink of being overpowered when San Te offers the familiar advice to “shorten your grip,” adding “the mind is more important than brute strength.” Tung wins out, San Te has another follower, and in the next instant meets the man who’ll become the third, Lu-Ah Cai (Norman Chu/Hsu Shao-Chiang), a bamboo craftsman. A slippery customer fond of teasing friends with fibs, Lu-Ah is won over to San Te’s side on guessing it’s a better than getting his head kicked off by a man who can balance unharmed on rolling sticks of bamboo.

Meanwhile, General Tien Ta has noticed Lord Tang isn’t looking so good these days, and wants to avenge his friend’s death. Time is of the essence for San Te and his followers, as they consult a map to figure out their best plan of action. Noticing a tavern selling sweet sweet rice-based booze (and I don’t mean Budweiser) backs onto the General’s fort, San Te pays bar owner Hung His-kuan (Yu Yang/Yang Yu/No, really) a visit. Hung is a fun character, preferring the company of his jug of rice wine over any scary-sounding plans about his bar and killing the General. “I need this place,” he tells San Te, “what can I do? Let’s have a drink.” An admirable thought, but San Te criticizes Hung’s attitude.

Hung, the sort of guy who’ll talk to anyone, tells San Te he has no parents and so no name, with people calling him ‘Ground Rice’ as Hung has spent his life grinding rice (as a job I think, not a hobby). Quite why he feels nameless is unknown, given at last count, he has three, with IMDB crediting him as Miller Six, in addition to Hung and ‘Ground Rice.’ I’d call him ‘semolina,’ as that’s what ground rice was made into when I was a kid. Regardless of names, Hung demonstrates nifty footwork, developed over years of grinding rice, and agrees to help on San Te’s promise of taking him to Shaolin to improve his skills.

General Tien Ta addresses his court, determining to hunt the rebellious monk even to Shaolin. The General leads out his army, and charges through the fort gates. Unknown to the Manchus however, San Te and friends have set up a surprise, and as soon as he General is clear of the gates, the rebels release containers of ground rice from atop the gateway, leaving the army in disarray. With the General cut off from his troops, San Te chases him down to a scenic spot overlooking the sea, and we’re set for our final battle, with narrative logic long since perishing under the sheer mania beloved of kung fu film fans.

The fight is spectacular without being ridiculous, and filmed in long takes to show just how the characters, and the actors playing them, are dedicated to their art. Unlike Hollywood films, T36COS‘s fight scenes display real stamina and skill, rather than stunt doubles or muscle-clad oafs who use their body as armor rather than as a weapon. Here, once San Te relieves Tien Ta of his broadswords, he gives up his three-sectioned-staff and fights using only kung fu. Those years spent headbutting sandbags pays off, with San Te flipping the General into a fatal somersault using just the power of his neck. T36COS concludes with San Te achieving his dream of setting up the 36th chamber among his own people, who can now learn the art of kung fu to keep enemy forces at bay.

I’ve talked in the past of the difficulties in discussing films made when societal mores were different to those of 2016, yet a film like T36COS presents a whole new cinematic, as well as moral, infrastructure with a different approach to narrative, acting (more forceful and demonstrative than the usual Western style), direction, and to entertaining an audience. Fredric Dannen & Barry Long made an accurate surmise in their Hong Kong Babylon (1997): “Refinement is not a characteristic of the Cantonese movie. Perhaps the best way to describe the Hong Kong genre is to speak of its comic-book aesthetic: it is a cinema of incessant action, eye-popping effects, and cartoon-like violence.”

This view makes T36COS one of the more thoughtful kung fu movies, but even so you’ll need to strap yourself for the ride. Aside from the frenzied, elaborate fight scenes, there are problems within the film’s logic: for instance, we learn a Buddhist monk must not take life, and while, for instance, he doesn’t kill General Yin directly himself, San Te confronts the General’s soldiers in such a manner they inadvertently spear the General to death. T36COS also leaves San Te’s exact method in disposing of General Tien Ta unclear, as the film cuts away once the monk delivers what one presumes is the fatal blow, delivered by the head to the general’s stomach. Whether this ambiguity is a result of T36COS‘s dubbing into English, I do not know.

We do however get a real sense of life for San Te before, during, and after his training, and we feel he earns his vengeance through his agonies at the Shaolin monastery. San Te is no fully-formed invincible superhero chopping down villains from the first minute of the film, but a man who must grow in spirit as well as in body before he can claim the place he wishes for in his world.

For those put off watching T36COS after decades of chop-socky comedy spoofs and parodies, all I can say is if you’ve never seen a kung fu film for real, then give this one a try. You’ll learn something of kung fu’s background through a film with a clearly defined beginning, middle, and end, and with greater emotional meaning than many standard Hollywood action pictures. A movie fan who approaches T36COS with an open mind may find a film that teaches them their mind was a little emptier than they realized, and by its end, will learn of how to fill that mind with something worthwhile.

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