MOVIE: The 36th Chamber of Shaolin
RELEASED IN: 1978
STARRING: Gordon Liu, Wang Yu, Lo Lieh
WRITTEN BY: Kuang I
DIRECTOR: Chia-Liang Liu
PRODUCER: Run Run Shaw, Mona Fong
FIGHT CHOREOGRAPHER: Chia-Liang Liu
RATING: ★★★★☆ For years, this film has been lauded by critics as the quintessential martial arts movie for any moviegoer’s collection. The DVD cover alone boasts a glowing New York Times review: that the film was “widely considered to be the greatest kung-fu flick of all time”.
Indeed, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (or otherwise less-tastefully known as Shaolin Master Killer or Master Killer in other countries) is a classic film that is perhaps one of the best in both its portrayal of Shaolin kung fu and showcasing the legend of Shaolin monk San Te.
While the film thoroughly demonstrates the skillful mastery of Shaolin kung fu in its well-directed fight scenes, it is by following San Te’s journey as a student in the temple as well as seeing the unique training methods and body conditioning all of the Shaolin monks undergo that makes this movie so memorable.
A fresh-faced Gordon Liu plays Liu Yu-de, a young ethics student in a village found to be at the mercy of the despotic Manchu government. After witnessing the brutality of Manchu troops against the villagers and those who sought to challenge their rule, the once carefree Liu Yu-de and his classmates were soon drawn into working in a local rebellion. But any form of an uprising fails, and in order to suppress the rebels, Manchu troops descend on Liu Yu-de’s school, murdering all of the students and teachers and even the students’ family members.
Liu Yu-de manages to escape with his life before fleeing to the Shaolin temple, resolute on learning kung fu and seeking vengeance for his family and friends. While Manchu aggressors enforced widespread bans on the learning and teaching of kung fu, the Shaolin temple, though completely closed off from outsiders, was considered the last stronghold of martial arts expertise, and Liu Yu-de was determined to learn how to fight.
Though at first the monks rebuff his pleas to remain at the temple and reject his barefaced efforts to learn the temple’s secrets, the chief abbot decides to let him stay, even christening him with the Buddhist name San Te. But it was only after he begins his pilgrimage as a monk when he realises just how much it takes to become a master of Shaolin kung fu.
While it would be expected of a monk to spend his entire life in dedication to the mastery of martial Zen, it in fact took San Te just about five years of grueling training before maturing into one of the finest students to navigate through each of the 35 chambers of Shaolin. And in a way, audiences can also indulge in San Te’s triumph, having watched the mammoth “training montage” that made up most of the film.
We don’t see all of the 35 chambers of Shaolin. But of the ones shown in the film, we see how the monks’ training methods are simple but inventive. It certainly creates a lasting impression. Watching the monks work tirelessly and shed their share of blood, sweat and tears on seemingly menial tasks in each chamber’s test is enough to make your own muscles ache and eyes water.
Ringing a massive prayer bell, carrying pitchers of water up and down steps, or following a pendulum with your eyes wouldn’t seem remarkable on paper, but are actually epic trials of skill and endurance. It becomes clear that relying merely on brute strength just couldn’t cut it. San Te had to grow both mentally and spiritually and develop heightened mind-body awareness.
Having graduated from his kung fu training, the senior monks grant San Te the choice of overseeing the training of his fellow monks in any of the 35 chambers he has already mastered. But San Te instead requests he establish a 36th Chamber, in which he can teach Shaolin kung fu to civilians outside of the temple, so they may better protect themselves should warmongering and tyranny return.
Rather than pandering to the typical revenge, eye-for-an-eye plotline or the one-dimensional kung fu movie blueprint most productions released in the 1970s sought to capitalise on, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is almost profound in its depiction of its hero.
Instead of seeing Shaolin as a means to an end, San Te’s journey began as a brash young man before emerging on the other side as a wise kung fu master who will forever embrace the qualities and beliefs of the temple and acts as a true advocate for the people.
- The 36th Chamber of Shaolin was the number one hit for the Shaw Brothers in 1978, and also won Best Martial Arts Award at the 24th Asian Film Festival (also in 1978).
- Director Chia-liang Liu and Gordon Liu are brothers. Nepotism or not, his part in The 36th Chamber of Shaolin became the turning point in Gordon Liu’s career in the martial arts movie genre.
- During his training, San Te is depicted to have invented the three-section staff, improvising the weapon out of stems of bamboo. His makeshift weapon was the key to him defeating his teacher in a sparring match, and later in a final showdown with the Manchu general.