Widely regarded as one of, if not the best martial arts films of all time, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, aka Master Killer aka Shaolin Master Killer, is an undisputed masterpiece. In 1978, martial arts films were dropping at an absolutely intense rate. They were cheap to make, cheap to shoot, and highly profitable. Martial Arts mania was in full swing in both Asia and America, and studios, as they are wont to do, were eager to capitalize. As we have seen, if you have read any of the previous pieces linked conveniently below, there were more than a few gems to hit the silver screen during this period. However, the glut of releases meant that not every one would be a classic. Some, (to be fair probably more than some) were… not good. At all. We’re talking Wii levels of shovelware here. In the late 70’s and early 80’s we were lousy with choice and the onus was on us to not make a lousy choice. (see what I did there?) For those more savvy viewers, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin rewarded their discerning eye with a film chock full of everything great and perfect and true about Kung Fu cinema and launched Gordon Liu, covered previously in 8 Diagram Pole Fighter, to unprecedented stardom.
The story, unlike so many Kung Fu films, is one of the key factors in the overall greatness of this movie. It starts simple enough. San Te, Gordon Liu’s character, is a student. His teacher encourages his students to rise against the Manchu government. Not taking kindly to this uprising, the government enacts revenge on the school and its teacher by not only suppressing said uprising, but by destroying the school and killing the families and friends of San Te as well as a fellow student who was helping sneak messages to rebels through San Te’s father’s fish deliveries. (a bit silly I know but honestly, would you want to look through some fresh raw fish to see if it maybe had a secret message? have you ever smelled a fish market?) With friends and family dead and no school to go to, San Te decides to seek revenge against the Manchu government with the help of the local Shaolin temple. San Te and his friend are attacked en route. The friend is killed, San Te is injured. A local merchant smuggles San Te into the temple with a food delivery where he is nursed back to health. He begs to be taught Kung Fu but is asked to leave. The chief abbot however takes pity on San Te and agrees to train him. Now, so far, pretty much a paint by numbers story. Bad shit, grrr angry, train me/no/okay, revenge. But, where this story differs, where it really shines, is in what happens next. The chief abbot agrees to train San Te by putting him through the thirty five chambers of Shaolin. (yes the movie is called thirty SIX chambers, yes we will get to that) Most films in this genre have some sort of training sequence or montage. This film is the training sequence. And that is where its heart lies. Very few films have been able to capture the notion of mastery through failure, perfection through practice. Often times we see someone decide to do a thing, whatever that thing may be, and oh look, five minutes later they have indeed done that thing. (it’s like Patton Oswalt’s Dave Burbank sketch which you can see here) Not so here. Here, we see San Te fail, a lot. The message of the film is one we can all identify with. We have all failed and spoilers kids, will continue to fail in the future. If we work at it though, whatever it is, we will get better. It’s what makes this movie stand the test of time.
So about those training sequences. They vary between the simple and the brutal. A brief sampling of the things San Te is asked to do: jump logs, carry water pails up hills while he has daggers strapped to his arms, race to hit a gong with a crazy heavy rod before another monk hits a block with a stick, an eye tracking test with burning incense rods that will burn him if he turns his head, a headbutt challenge (no one wins with a headbutt), and thirty additionally difficult tasks. The acting on display during these scenes is fantastic. Gordon Liu makes you feel every struggle with him. He makes you root for him to overcome the odds that in the back of your mind you know he will overcome. (otherwise it would be a pretty short, depressing movie) Cheering for someone to do the only thing that makes sense for their character to do is an impressive bit of acting. The skill on display during these scenes and the accompanying fight sequences is remarkable. While fewer in number than other films, the fights in this movie mean so much more. San Te goes to his teachers with a proposal for a 36th Chamber, one that would train non-monks in the ways of Shaolin. In order to get his wish, San Te must fight one the abbots with swords. Trust me when I say that this is one of the smartest fight scenes ever filmed. The final fight scene in this film also stands out not just for the incredible action but the fact that it was filmed using real swords! That is certifiably insane by today’s standards and would simply never happen on a modern movie set.
Enough out of me though. This movie did not become a classic because a bunch of writers said it was. It became a classic on its own merits. If you have never seen this film, you are in for something truly special. If you have seen this film, you know that every word written above was truth and you cannot wait to dive into this one again. Check out the trailer below and watch the whole flick here. (it’s a hulu link so ads, but better quality) The Shaw Bros. hit big with this one. It’s influence is undeniable. (do quick google search to find RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan talk about this film) Let me know what you thought on twitter, @geekadedan, or leave a comment below. Only three movies left in this summer series and man are they amazing. See you next week.