THE 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN (1978)

  • Director: Lau Kar-Leung
  • Writer: Ni Kuang
  • Starring: Gordon Liu, Lo Lieh, Wong Yue, Yu Yang, Hsu Shao-Chiang, Wu Hang-Sheng, and Lee Hoi-Sang
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on Amazon Video, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

Today marks the worldwide release of the latest film from the world-bestriding Marvel behemoth, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. As you might guess from the title, the movie, and certainly the comic books it is based on, are heavily influenced by Kung Fu films of the past. The character of Shang-Chi, a member of a secret martial arts organization with a mysterious evil father, in fact dates all the way back to 1973, near the beginnings of what we would consider the “modern” Kung Fu movie. That the character was invented the year after Enter the Dragon was a hit is not a coincidence. However, it is impossible to go to see Shang-Chi without the knowledge of all of the tropes and defining images passed down through the Kung Fu genre.

Even today, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is considered among the most influential of the Kung Fu films. One writer of Shang-Chi stated in interviews that the look of a martial artist fighting with rings on his arms was derived from 36th Chamber. Its influence has been felt more obviously through the years by everything from Kill Bill (which cast this movie’s star, Gordon Liu, as the ancient master laboriously and painfully teaching Uma Thurman martial arts) to the Wu-Tang Clan, which titled its debut album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Within its first ten minutes, I both laughed at the credits sequence of Gordon Liu very dramatically karate chopping a waterfall and also realized “oh, multiple bits of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon are straight up stolen from this movie.” It is, hardly the only movie where that’s the case.

Yet watching The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is very much a campy experience, hard to separate from subsequent parodies. The characters speak in these weird, mismatched English voices, dubbed in with absolutely no regard for whether it matches up with the characters’ mouths. At multiple points in the movie, a character just claps their hands together and sends another character flying (there is never any explanation for this). The blood we see is a very weird shade of bright red that has no relation whatsoever to how actual blood looks. At one point our main character, San Te (Liu), heads into the woods, breaks off a piece of bamboo, and looks at it. We are basically asked to believe that this is the moment nun-chucks were invented. Perhaps what I noticed most by the end is that the sound effects are very loud in comparison to the dialogue and often make no sense whatsoever. For example, we repeatedly hear a loud clanging noise when a metal axe hits the ground, but most of the time the ground is just dirt and that is definitely not the noise that would be made. By the end of the movie, I did find myself wishing I’d watched the thing at a lower volume, I’m not gonna lie.

This last bit may relate to the fact that this movie is (sort of) based on a real-life and/or legendary Chinese martial artist by the name of San Te, who through the centuries has become heavily fictionalized. The story is a simple one: the hero’s town is the subject of brutal repression by the invading Manchu, but he escapes and heads off ro the Shaolin Monastery to learn its techniques of Kung Fu, where he becomes a great master. The structure of the film may surprise some modern viewers, however. Nearly every martial arts movie has some sort of training sequence or montage, where the hero learns his techniques at some ancient temple, monastery, etc. In 36th Chamber, that training montage is basically most of the movie. We watch San Te enter one “chamber” after the other, usually with him failing at first and then quickly (in terms of movie time) mastering whatever he’s supposed to learn. In one “chamber,” for example, he is asked to run across some logs on top of a pool of water to get to the other side. He fails several times and then gets it after the master tells him to bounce off the water like a plate, or something. This type of thing is repeated a minimum of like 13 times.

This structure seems like it could get repetitive, but it works surprisingly well. Some of this is because the movie’s instincts are basically good ones. It knows its fighting is cool, but it realizes that’s not enough to have a story anyone will care about. Instead, it focuses more on San Te’s “inner journey,” as it were. His mastering of the techniques is not because he is some “chosen one,” but because he is better able than his peers to come to some sort of inner mastery. But there is no scene where anyone stands there and tells us that. By the time we get there, the final showdown between San Te and the villainous Manchu general (Lo Lieh) is kind of anti-climactic.

I am thankful, however, that the movie does not choose to show us all “35 chambers of Shaolin” that we are told exist. Instead, told by the abbot (Lee Hoi-Sang) that he can be in charge of any of the first 34 chambers (“but not the 35th,” the abbot intones… this is never explained in the slightest, I’m now realizing), he responds that he wishes to start a 36th chamber, in which he goes out into the world and teaches kung fu to laypeople for the purpose of allowing them to stand up to their oppressors. Hence the title, you see.

36th Chamber was a product of Shaw Brothers, one of the biggest studios of the burgeoning Hong Kong movie scene in the 1960s and 70s. It made movies in bulk, in a variety of genres, and often signed directors and actors to exclusive, old-Hollywood-style contracts. 36th Chamber pointed the way to both immediate contemporaries like The Five Fingers of Death and later martial arts stars like Jackie Chan. In this genre, particularly at its cheesy height, it is likely futile to look for historical accuracy, but I sort of want to note a basic weirdness of this movie anyway. The Manchu are depicted as the invading bad guys, while the current order is repeatedly referred to as the “Ming.” Then the movie has a happy ending where the Manchu invaders are driven off. But historically, the Manchu defeating the Ming dynasty and their descendants ruled over China from the the mid-1600s until the early 20th Century (as depicted in The Last Emperor). So basically, this movie takes place in a sort of alternate history. With lots of kung fu and terrible dubbing.

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