[pullquote cite=”” type=”left, right”][amazon text=Amazon&template=carousel&chan=that film guy&asin=B002ZPIBTU][/pullquote] Widely considered one of the best kung fu films ever made, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin arrived right in the middle of the genre’s heyday, coming out the same year as Jackie Chan’s groundbreaking Drunken Master. Starring Gordon Liu, who would later go on to become Pai Mei in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, and produced by the legendary Shaw Brothers studio, it remains a classic, even if it has aged in places.
Based on the story of legendary Shaolin martial artist San Te (Liu), the film sees him on the run from the authorities after plotting against the Manchu government. After the deaths of many of his fellow conspirators, he seeks shelter in the Shaolin Temple, and over the course of several years, becomes a master of martial arts.
There’s a reason a lot of martial arts films ignore story altogether and just have the characters meet at a fighting tournament, and while The 36th Chamber of Shaolin does have more plot than many of these sorts of films, it’s still largely there to provide excuses for training and fighting sequences. Not that this is a problem, by any stretch: it’s exactly what you want and expect from a 1970s kung fu flick. We’re not really in this for the plot, we want to see extremely talented martial artists show off their skills, and The 36th Chamber delivers spectacularly in that regard.
A significant chunk of the film is dedicated to San Te learning kung fu at the Shaolin Temple, progressing through the chambers of the title to learn the skill which each chamber teaches. From balancing on a barrel floating in water, to carrying buckets of water to increase his arm strength, to hitting sandbags with his head, there’s a terrific variety of scenes here. Even better, almost all of the frankly bizarre skills he learns at the Temple turn out to be very useful later on, often in extremely unexpected ways, and it’s thoroughly entertaining to see him go from hopeless novice to being able to completely take his opponents apart with one hand.
It’s not all training montages, fortunately, and the fights themselves remain stunning even 35 years later. They’re all shot in relatively wide, long takes, meaning there’s no room for stunt doubles or trick editing to make things easier for the actors, and the skill on display is nothing short of phenomenal. When your story exists as an excuse for the action, the fight scenes have to deliver, and these really are some of the most exciting kung fu sequences in film. San Te’s several battles with a more experienced monk at the Temple, trying to prove his skills, are unquestionably the highlight of the film, and more than make up for the final battle ending rather abruptly.
It’s not perfect: some of the acting isn’t great, and while the story entertains, the seriousness of the first third sits at odds with the relative light-heartedness of the rest of the film. The sound editing in particular leaves a lot to be desired, with the same four or five sound effects being used over and over again throughout. When every punch makes the exact same sound – and a lot of people get punched in this film – it does undercut the action somewhat.
Regardless, these minor flaws don’t by any means ruin the film. Since the rise of DVD and the associated copy protection, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is infuriatingly difficult to find in Region 2 territories: it’s truly a film of the VHS era, a format which was so pivotal to the explosion in popularity of kung fu films in the West.