The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin (Shao Lin san shi liu fang)

Hong Kong (1978) Dir. Liu Chia-Liang

When discussing the “Golden era” of martial arts cinema two studio names usually spring to mind: Golden Harvest and the Shaw Brothers. Both were hugely prolific and successful during the boom period of the 1970’s, but it is a film from the latter which is under review here.

One of their most famous films The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin is a heavily fictional story featuring the legendary Shaolin monk San Te. Set during the Qing Dynasty the province of Canton (now Guangdong) has been taken over by the oppressive Manchu government. Liu Yude (Liu Chia-Hui) is the son of a fishmonger and student who helps the activists with their campaign against the Manchus. 

When the Manchus discover their actions general Tang San-yao (Tang Wei-cheng) leads an attack on anyone involved, closing down the school and destroying Liu Yude’s father’s shop before executing many rebels. Liu Yude is wounded trying to escape and makes his way to the Shaolin temple where he begs to be taught martial arts in order to have his vengeance.

The Shaw Brothers – Runje, Runme, and Runde – formed their first studio in 1925 and were joined two years later by younger brother Run Run, who set up the pre-cursor to the legendary film company we know and love in 1957. Over the years, they released over 1000 films and would feature many notable stars and directors in the process such as Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, Jimmy Wang Yu, Chang Cheh and King Hu among others.

So recognisable is the unique aesthetic and style of the martial arts films that they made, the studio name became a byword for this brand of kung fu movie. These qualities include impressively detailed sets, lavish costumes and hard hitting if steadily choreographed fights, usually involving an antagonist with a long moustache, with dramatic zooms thrown in for good measure.   

The stories of these films are largely functional, which is true of many martial arts films of the period and beyond but, let’s face it we do watch them largely for the breathtaking fights. 36th Chamber is really no different: bullying authority figure wrecks life of lowly commoner who learns martial arts to extract his revenge. The main difference here however is that we are taken behind the walls of the famous Shaolin temple and their austere lifestyle and Buddhist teachings.

With a distinctly philosophical take behind the martial arts training, we are given a fresh perspective on the old formula which gives the film an almost mystical aura about it. At first Liu Yude wasn’t welcome in the temple as he was an outsider but the Chief Abbot decides to let him in, giving him the monk name of San Te. After a year San Te asks to be trained in martial arts and is told he must complete all 35 chambers of Shaolin before being decreed a worthy master.

Each chamber (or level) is dedicated to one area of martial arts being it physical or mental and the students must pass each one in succession. The training regimes range from the sublime – crossing a small pond by stepping very lightly on a tiny wooden barrel – to the sadistic – head butting heavy sandbags or having blades tied to the arms so if they drop you stab yourself in the ribs! 

Naturally being the main protagonist San Te aces each chamber after a shaky start but this is where the film really finds its groove and is at its most enjoyable. Because of how skilled the actors/martial artists are we forget that they themselves had to undergo such stringent training in order to perfect such routines and this film in particular is a testament to that.

Director Liu Chia-Liang (aka Lau Kar-leung) not only had the cast use real weapons (!) but also had them fight at high speed instead of speeding up the footage later as other filmmakers would. This resulted in many injuries to the cast, especially as many of the fights were often done in one long take, but it adds much excitement and danger to these almost balletic sequences.

Another innovation debuted in this film is the three section staff which San Te is shown as inventing, a large pole with three chains working as hinges to allow it to move freely as an offensive and defensive weapon. In both his test fight against the Abbot for Discipline (Hoi Sang Lee) and the film’s chief antagonist General Tien Ta (Lo Lieh) San Te uses this to gain an advantage and secure a victory whilst baffling his opponent.

Because the story is rudimentary many of the characters aren’t fleshed out too well, and that goes for the villains too, whose only notable trait is an arrogant abuse of power. Therefore only San Te is truly endeared to the audience but his journey is a fascinating one to watch as he not only overcomes the trails of the tortuous training sessions but also wins over the cynical Buddhist monks.

Liu Chia-Hui aka Gordon Liu was a highly skilled martial artists but largely a supporting player in Shaw Brothers films before Liu Chia-Liang cast him as San Te. It was a fortuitous move as this role catapulted Liu to stardom in the same year Jackie Chan first enjoyed his breakthrough success with Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow. While Chan went on to become an international icon, many western film fans will recognise Liu from the Kill Bill films.

In case you are wondering why San Te had to complete 35 chambers when the title clearly says The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin, well, you’ll have to watch the film to find out. Whether you are a martial arts fan, young or old, you won’t be disappointed with this hard hitting, hugely fun and subversively spiritual perennial Shaw Brothers classic.