In pretty much every Kung Fu film imaginable, there is a training sequence that the hero undertakes to become better. It’s a trope of the genre that became so prevalent, entire films were made around the idea. Once such happens to be the 1978 classic The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, a film that propelled actor Gordon Liu to Shaw Brothers fame and would eventually inspire the likes of the Wu-Tang Clan. Wu Tang’s “Masta Killa” is a reference to the English title of this film. The title of their first album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), is even a reference.
I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Let’s wind the clock back to the mid-70s to set the stage a little better. Actor Gordon Liu had been working with Shaw Brothers Studio and director Lau-Kar Leung on a few projects but was never properly given a starring role. He had an imposing demeanor and looked like a prototypical Buddhist monk, but either because of reluctance on the studio’s part or because bigger stars were making more money, Liu was overlooked for a while.
Lau-Kar Leung, as well, had been with Shaw Brothers for some time and had a working relationship with director Chang Cheh. At the time, he was primarily a choreographer, but a fight between the two during production of Marco Polo led to Leung getting his big break. Since Liu had a close relation with Leung, the two formed a bond of sorts and would set off to create different films together.
After a few more bit parts in films such as Challenge of the Masters and Executioners from Shaolin, Liu would finally be given the leading part in 36th Chamber of Shaolin, rocketing his career to the top of Shaw Brothers’ A-list. The film was a runaway success and put Liu and Leung on the map as some of the most important people in martial arts cinema.
With that out of the way, does the film hold up? In some truly weird fashion, I find that I actually prefer both of its sequels in my older age. When I was younger, the darker tone and more serious nature of this inaugural entry into the Shaolin Trilogy left an indelible mark in my understanding of Kung Fu cinema. It’s not that the film is bad or doesn’t have any redeeming qualities, but there are so many similar movies to this one due to its popularity that it’s hard to look at the original and not compare it to better successors.
Still, 36th Chamber will always have the distinction of kicking off a sub-genre where training montages and martial arts philosophy started to become far more pronounced in films of this type. Some of my favorite movies from Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest are the ones where we see our heroes go through hell and back to learn the ins and outs of Kung Fu. Give me a solid training sequence that then comes back in the finale and I’m happy as can be.
The plot of 36th Chamber of Shaolin centers on the story of a man named Liu Yude (Liu). With the Manchu occupation of China leading to rebellions sweeping the nation, Yude gets involved with a local rebel group that practically costs him his life. After a brief encounter with a Manchurian leader, Yude watches as his father is killed and then flees with some friends of him. They are all aware of the legend of Shaolin Temple, a place where monks become ungodly skilled at martial arts.
With a new goal in mind, Yude ventures out and is nearly killed in the wilderness by the very same Manchurian leader. Knocking on death’s door after a grave injury, the owner of a small restaurant helps Yude smuggle his way into Shaolin Temple, where he then takes refuge for a few days before coming to. While the other monks are initially skeptical of Yude’s desires for revenge, the head abbot takes him in and teaches him the ways of martial arts by venturing through all of Shaolin’s 35 chambers.
If the title didn’t clue you in after reading that synopsis, this story is about the foundation of a new chamber in Shaolin once Yude becomes the legendary monk San Te. San Te was a monk that lived during 18th century China and is often the model for westerner’s interpretation of what monks look like. Little is known about the actual man, but there are plenty of movies about his life that take huge liberties with history.
36th Chamber of Shaolin is the most famous of these. Much like how 2008’s Ip Man kicked off a series of films focused on the legendary teacher, 36th Chamber is responsible for a number of movies based on Shaolin and its rigorous teaching methods. You probably have a vision of Shaolin that was directly inspired by the set design in this film.
The setup and everything is great, but this is a film primarily about learning Kung Fu. Yude is shown as a bumbling fool before slowly progressing into the master he is in the following two sequels (funny note, Gordon Liu would return for Return to the 36th Chamber, but actually play a reverse role where he’s back to being an inept fool. Lee King-chue would portray San Te). Once Yude is within the temple walls, the general plot of trying to avenge his family is practically thrown out the window to make way for more training sequences.
I’m all for that too, but the intro getting to this segment drags on and on. It’s roughly 25 minutes before we’re at Shaolin and then the movie does nothing to really flesh out its characters or plotline. I understand that Yude needs to train, and his will is certainly fiery, but some cuts to look back at the village he left behind could have better set the stakes for his eventual return.
The training montages are at least superb. These are some of the best training segments you’ll see committed to film in any movie from any country. They can be a bit goofy, but that’s part of the charm. 36th Chamber might be more serious than either of its sequels, but it doesn’t forget to have a sense of humor at the expense of what it is: a cheesy Kung Fu film. Liu often falls on his ass to the accompaniment of a wacky sound effect and there’s a whole sequence dedicated to Yude failing to find food. This is archetypal stuff for Kung Fu films, but it’s a joy to see where it all began.
Once the Shaolin bit is over and we return to Yude’s original village, the movie returns to a darker tone. Everyone Yude knew is dead and even the man that killed his father fails to remember him at first. You could almost read it as the film saying that a lust for revenge will destroy your life, but Yude’s transformation into San Te always held a righteous edge. He was clearly out to avenge his village, but he also wanted to pass on the teachings of Shaolin to the average person so they could defend themselves (hence the foundation of a 36th Chamber).
I don’t know how closely that follows the real story of San Te, but it’s absolutely a theme that would emerge in Kung Fu films following the success of this movie. It’s a motif that permeates to this day as major blockbusters from Hollywood are now about reevaluating what tradition is and how it may be holding us back from progress. You could say that Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Black Panther owe thanks to 36th Chamber of Shaolin.
So this movie is ultra-important from a historical context and does feature a very brisk and entertaining middle act, but it can’t help but feel somewhat clunky in its first and final moments. That could be from a prevalence of Shaolin related media that would improve and tweak Lau-Kar Leung’s original idea, rendering this one almost redundant, but I like to think it’s just the mish-mash of styles on offer. What makes the training so excellent is that the movie isn’t so gloom and doom about everything. There’s levity to the process that pushes Yude forward but doesn’t undermine his quest to help those less fortunate.
In the beginning, everything feels bleak as hell, and then the ending goes back to violence and ends on an extremely positive note. Yude’s whole family is dead and everyone he ever knew is gone, but he did it! You can’t help but feel that either something was lost in translation, or that the movie focused maybe a bit too much on the Shaolin bits.
Whatever the case, 36th Chamber of Shaolin is a classic of the genre and a film that deserves to be remembered for what it brought to the table. I’m surprised as hell that 15 years after having originally watched it, I prefer its goofier and more self-aware sequel. I even think the trilogy closer, Disciples of the 36th Chamber, is a better overall film for its shorter length and snappier plot. That doesn’t erase what this first one gave us: a monumental star in Gordon Liu and possibly the greatest Kung Fu director of all time in Lau-Kar Leung.