Wednesday, 3 April 2013

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin AKA: Shaolin Master Killer

Title: The 36th Chamber of Shaolin A.K.A.: Shaolin Master Killer Director: Chia-Liang Liu
Released: 1978
Starring: Liu Chia-Hui, Lo Lieh, Wang Yu, Yu Yang, Hsu Shao-Chiang, Wu Hang-Sheng

Plot: A young student named San Te (Chai-Hui) is drawn by his activist teacher into the local rebellion against the Manchu government. The government officials suppress the uprising and liquidate the school, killing friends and family members as well. San Te seeks vengeance. Wounded in an attack by Manchu henchmen, he flees to the Shaolin temple and seeks training in kung fu. Initially the Buddhist monks reject him, since he is an outsider, but the chief abbot takes mercy on the young man and lets him stay. One year later, he begins his martial arts training in the temple's 35 chambers.

Review: Widely regarded as being one of the greatest kung fu movies ever made, it is along with “King Boxer” aka “Five Fingers of Death” equally one of the most influential setting the style for the films which followed in its wake, with director Liu’s films impressing arthouse audiences years before the likes of “Once Upon A Time In China” and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” convinced the critics that the genre deserved closer inspection.

While the plot itself might not be anything particularly original seeing how it’s that classic tale, were the wronged man sets out on the path of revenge, engaging in an elaborate training regime before finally facing off against those who wronged him. Formalic it might be, but then you would be hard pressed to find any kung fu movie from this period which wasn’t. Still what sets this apart from the others is the focus on San Te’s training, which forms the main part of the film, which the kind of thing I can hardly see Hollywood doing such a thing with any of the summer blockbusters, yet here it proves to be a highly effective story device.

As with any good revenge movie, the path of revenge is never straightforward, as is the case here with San Te initially being turned down for training by the temple monks, seeing how he is seen as an outsider, but after a year at the temple he is finally given his chance to train where he is presented with a choice of where to start with the 35 chambers of Shaolin (no this not a typo as what the 36th chamber is, is revealed over the course of the film), with each chamber containing a different discipline of increasing toughness, with the 35th being the toughest, which of course is where the hasty San Te chooses to start only to predictably have his ass handed to him by one of the senior monks. However rather than give up he decides to start with the 1st chamber and work his way through the chambers and so starts the real meat of the film, as San Te completes each challenge, starting with the water cross, were to fall in the water means that your forced to dry your clothes before you can enter the dining hall, meanwhile the limited food is consumed by your fellow monks who can complete it. While this might seem like a random task to complete it is the scenes in which San Te tries to figure it out which are truly engrossing to watch, like each task he completes from fetching water and painting fences, which were memorably lifted by “The Karate Kid”.

Still this film is not all completing tasks with a questionable relationship to learning martial arts, as once San Te gets into the later chambers that he is given tasks with an increasing focus on martial arts, which also leads to him supposedly creating the three section staff, as a way of beating one his fellow monks who questioning his skills, after a rapid rise through the chambers, challenges to him a duel.

What is great about this film though is the journeyit takes us on, with San Te transforming from an angry and quick tempered youth at the start of the film to the poise and serious demeanour to a Shaolin master, especially when he return to his village to teach his common man kung fu so that they can defend themselves against the regular attack from the Manchu regime, a belief he is even willing to sacrifice his position in the Shoalin temple to follow, after proposing it as a 36th chamber, an idea which doesn’t’ sit too well with the high monks and soon sees him thrown out of the temple, a plot device which essentially ensures that he is forced to face those who wronged him in a final showdown.

The martial arts skills on show here are impressive to say the least, starting with the opening credit exhibition sequence a much used trademark of director Liu, who also assembles some highly memorable fight sequences combining scenes of traditional kung fu and weapon use, both which stand well next to the standout training sequences. It is of course these training sequences which the film rests upon, as it takes the unusual step of making them the main focus, when other films would treat them as having more throwaway value, yet here they only add to the journey we follow San Te on, which again is only further helped by the likeability of Chai-Hui who is completely believable in the part and marks himself out from this early performance as a true star in the making.
Unquestionably worthy of it's cult status, aswell as being viewed as such an important film within the genre, which sadly has only in the last couple of years along with "King Boxer" finally been given the release it deserves, while equally essential for the established far as well as making the perfect starting point for newcomers to the genre

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