The 36th Chamber of Shaolin does not have a subtle opening. It wastes no time in telling the audience that this is a kung-fu flick.
Ah, the screenplay is by Ni Kuang. Ni Kuang is an extremely prolific writer of science fiction and wuxia, and a personal friend of Jin Yong. I am sure I will bring him up again in this column, so I’ll postpone giving him a proper introduction.
All of this has nothing to do with the plot, it’s just assuring the audience that ass will be kicked over the course of the flim.
Shaw Brothers Studio was the biggest movie company ever based in Hong Kong, and the 36th Chamber of Shaolin is one of their most famous titles. Before their demise in the 1980s, the Shaw Brothers Studio produced over 1000 films. These included titles such as “Hong Kong 73,” “My Name Ain’t Suzie,” “Tropicana Interlude,” “Mr. Funny-Bone Strikes Again” (adapted from a manhua) and “Sexy Girls of Denmark”. However, the Shaw Brothers studio is now best remembered for their martial-arts flicks.
This is the move which launched its lead actor, Gordon Liu, to stardom. In addition to starring in later Chinese-language martial arts flicks, he also performed in the Kill Bill movies as well as in a Bollywood movie.
I admit I am a Shaw Brothers newbie. My explorations are just beginning, and I still don’t completely understand their system of stars and directors. However, I am sure I will review other Shaw Brothers films for this column, so I hopefully will be able to offer deeper insights then.
San Te is a student while the Manchus are oppressing the people. After the Manchu government kills his family, he realizes that book-learning is useless and decides to learn martial arts so he can fight back.
So he travels to Shaolin temple to become a monk and learn their martial arts techniques.
At the Shaolin temple, he spends a year sweeping leaves before his martial arts training commences. And it is a brutal training regimen. He has to pass through the 35 chambers, each taxing his physical capacities in a new way.
After passing through all 35 chambers, San Te requests permission to create the 36h chamber—a chamber where he can teach laypeople martial arts so they can resist the oppressive Manchus.
The fighting in this moving is essentially dancing. It’s choreographed, it shows off the performers’ physical capacities, it is intended to be visually impressive, and it communicates a message. And it is good dancing.
It was actually really hard to get decent screenshots of the fight scenes. It’s all about how the actors move, and the screenshots do not show that.
For example, there is a really cool fight with bamboo stakes, but it is impossible to convey the coolness in screenshots. What makes it cool is that it doesn’t just show off the actors’
dance stage fight skills, it’s also imaginative. It’s not a generic weapon fight. The bamboo stakes are used in unexpected ways. It builds on the training at the Shaolin temple—letting the audience recognize how elements from different fights fit together is pretty sweet.
Another imaginative fight – San Te fights a bunch of goons with lanterns:
On the second viewing, I noticed how much the movie makes use of water. Water is used in many
other dance films too.
If you find the prospect of free tickets to the ballet more exciting than free tickets to a pop concert (me), watched MGM musicals for the dance sequences (me again), or have ever attended a dance film festival (that’s also me), you should try some of these kung-fu flicks.
Gordon Liu’s Performance
The thing which most impressed me about Gordon Liu’s performance was how he portrayed San Te’s development. It is difficult to show the passing of years in a film that is less than 2 hours long, but the way Gordon Liu showed how San Te changed made me feel that years had passed.
This is Gordon Liu as a student:
I realize you can’t tell from the screenshot, but in the beginning of the film, San Te doesn’t seem like somebody who can kick ass.
This is San Te after he has graduated from the Shaolin training regimen.
Again, you can’t tell from the screenshot, but San Te moves with such stillness (oxymoron, I know) and stands with such poise that I really felt that he had matured a great deal.
This, of course, is the highlight of the movie. The various chambers are even more imaginative than the fights. As a viewer, I learned to look forward to each chamber, wondering what bizarre new training technique I would see next.
This is my favorite chamber. San Te has to learn how to move his eyes without moving his head.
San Te has to keep his eyes on the candles.
If San Te moves his head, he will get burned by one of those incense sticks.
Commentary on Contemporary Buddhism
One of the points made in the film is that it’s wrong for the Shaolin temple to hoard its martial arts techniques while the common people suffer outside under the cruel Manchu dynasty. I am no expert on Buddhism, but I know there have been various calls in the past century that Buddhism became too disconnected from the problems real people suffer, and people have tried to reform it to increase the involvement of laypeople and make more concrete efforts to improve the human condition.
The example of this I am most familiar with is the Tzu Chi Buddhist Foundation in Taiwan. It was founded by a Buddhist nun, Cheng Yen, after she saw a poor woman die in childbirth. It is the largest charitable organization in Taiwan, and in addition to providing quality medical care in areas of Taiwan where medical care is otherwise difficult to get, they run recycling centers, provide relief for disasters, and run at least one organic tea plantation which is open to the public (I’ve visited that tea plantation—the views are beautiful).
I don’t know if the filmmakers were consciously putting this message into the film, but I can’t help but think that it is a reflection of modern attitudes towards the religion.
Something Else I Want to Mention
Dropping a lot of flour upon horse riders is cool.
That is all.
Availability in English
It is really easy to get a DVD with English subtitles. This movie is probably better known in the English-speaking world than anything else I have discussed in this column so far. And that observation leads me to my conclusion.
Chinese-language martial arts movies are far more available in English than the novels, TV shows, or manhua. For most people in the English-speaking world, almost all of what they know about Chinese-language martial arts fiction comes from these movies (this, by the way, also applied to me before I started studying Chinese).
Basing one’s knowledge of Chinese martial arts fiction solely on these movies would be like basing one’s knowledge of English-language science fiction solely on blockbuster Hollywood sci-fi movies. Sure, movies such as The Matrix, The Terminator, Forbidden Planet, and so forth certainly represent some of English-language science fiction. But individual 2-hour movies cannot support long, complex plots, nor can they employ the literary devices available to novelists. Even the Star Trek movies don’t demonstrate what makes the Star Trek TV series so outstanding. And blockbuster Hollywood sci-fi movies certainly don’t give viewers a sense of what novels like 1984, The Dispossessed, Dawn, or Diaspora or the short stories of James Tiptree Jr. offer.
This, of course, is not the movies’ fault. But in this column, I certainly hope to poke a hole through the language barrier so English-speakers can peek at just how broad Chinese-language martial arts fiction is.
As for this movie, I actually liked it even more after I saw it for the second time. This is a very good sign. Recommended.
Next time: The Celestial Zone (manhua)
Sara K. thinks it’s a pity that there is no kung-fu musical staring Gene Kelly and Gordon Liu. At least the dream sequence in The Pirate offers viewers a clue what a Gene Kelly kung-fu movie would be like.