Beware! This review contains spoilers!
Gordon Liu (Liu Chia-Hui) stars in what many kung-fu movie fans agree on being the greatest martial arts movie ever made –1978 classic, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. Here, we take a look at what the Shaw Brothers created!
Gordon Liu plays Liu Yu-De, an impressionable young man. Lo Lieh of various Hong Kong movies plays General Tien. Lastly Simon Yuen cameos as a Shaolin Temple Monk.
Liu Yu-De (also known as San Ta) is a young honest man. During the Manchu occupancy, a freedom fighter is killed in a battle, trying to rid the world of the ruling General Tien. When he valiantly fails and is killed in front of a crowd of people, his death inspires Liu Yu-De to openly (and foolishly) speak out loud of his admiration for this martyr. Liu Yu-De gets himself into trouble with the local warlord Lord Tang, who is ready to take his life after his rebellious comments. To his aid steps an old man Mr Wang, assures Lord Tang that he is a stupid, young boy that doesn’t know what he is saying! After being let off, Liu Yu-De and his friends go to their teacher -Mr Ho’s house, after Mr Wang said something that he didn’t understand. When their teacher explains the meaning of the comment, he realises that these young men could aid his hidden cause in overpowering the local ruling militia. Through various deeds, Liu Yu-De and his friends help their teacher. However, panic strikes when their treachery is soon discovered and now Liu Yu-De plus his friends all flee for their lives. They must leave and never come back -whilst surviving a hot pursual from those that wished to see them dead! Earlier before this, Liu Yu-De heard a rumour that could help him. Could this rumour be true? If so Liu Yu-De must wish on a star for survival first…
The first instance of combat begins with the martyr who is killed whilst battling General Tien. Swords versus axe action happens here. Watch closely, as the axe is a weapon rarely used in kung fu movies.
Next is where Liu Yu-De’s training begins. In the temple he is now known by his new name of San Ta. After getting no-where for a long time, he is finally given the chance to train. Foolishly asking to start at the top, he is brought back down to earth when it is clear he hasn’t got a clue. Here he now embarks with the first skill of water log training. San Ta keeps falling in until a monk imparts some wisdom to aid him in his quest -just so he can get some lunch, harsh way to get some grub! When he gets the knack of this, he again is challenged when the same task is made even harder than before. Again receiving a monk’s wisdom he attempts to pass this tricky situation, but to no avail. San Ta loses sleep that night. The monk’s wisdom looping over in his mind, he takes off to take on the challenge while everyone else sleeps. A dedicated monk for sure. This time lo! He succeeds whilst being watched by the same monk in the background. Giving San Ta his blessing he is told that he can go to the next chamber.
The next chamber is the chamber of strengthening arms. When I saw this I thought that this is old school training…involving pain! San Ta has to fill up two big buckets of water and carry them up a hill to deposit down a waterslide. Sounds hard enough right? Wrong! San Ta has to do this whilst he has daggers attached to his arms, that will stab him in the sides if he gets tired! Needless to say he struggles, however San Ta perseveres and succeeds in not only mastering the technique, but also passing to make the grade for the next chamber…
This chamber is gruelling! San Ta has to master the art of arm training, coupled with an extension of that with forearm training. Here San Ta must pick up a rod which has a heavy weight on the end of it. San Ta has to pick the weighted rod up and use it to strike a gong, faster than the observing monk strikes his wooden block. The test here is not only strength and endurance, but also timing and speed. Gordon Liu is fantastic in this scene. Even when he is struggling you can see it is only a matter of time before he succeeds.
Next we have my favourite: the eye sight test. Now this is not your average opticians test, no sir! Here, San Ta must stand in-between two burning incense sticks, whilst keeping his eyes on a constant moving target. The trick is here that he cannot move his head -only his eyes. San Ta prevails, only to be told that his test isn’t finished. As if he hasn’t done enough already!
San Ta is now ready for the next chamber. The head butt chamber. In this scene we see San Ta get injured for the first time. Constantly having to headbutt moving targets and then placing incense at the Buddha’s statue. This does not look easy and San Ta really does struggle repeatedly. Those were just the basics. Now he is ready to start real training!
San Ta is given access to the Shaolin library. Here he must study the principles of kung-fu movement and attack before practicing them for real. We see many monks practicing in unison. We also get to see a cameo from Simon Yuen (aka. The Drunken Master) as the monk training San Ta.
From here we see San Ta progressing through hand to hand, kicking (leg chamber) and sword fighting. The next phase is stick fighting. This is also one of my favourites: here San Ta must not only pull a stone block with a long staff, but also practice rotating circular discs -whilst not getting cut! It sounds bizarre and you may not understand the description here -all I will say, is that it must be seen to be believed! Finishing this, San Ta must spar with the chamber monk in a duel. Great stuff!
San Ta now has a proposal of his own, which one of the senior abbots disagrees with. To settle this they must duel using weapons. San Ta is no match and fails time and again. However San Ta is a smart man and outthinks the abbot. You’ll have to watch this to see what I mean…needless to say San Ta shows why he should be respected. Fantastic!
San Ta hits the road. He eventually gets into a scrap with one of General Tien’s henchmen and Lord Tang. Gordon Liu is sensational here. Trying to fight the henchman whilst negotiating through all of his opposing men, leaves you speechless at how he does that without getting injured!
The final fight begins when San Ta cleverly gets General Tien in a one-on-one situation. Here San Ta uses a unique weapon effectively, against General Tien’s double sword technique. An engaging ending to an entertaining movie!
Whichever way you look at this movie it’s a classic! Many martial arts movies have training sequences in them, yet few portray such in-depth emphasis on training and substance. We are also able to see, not just the triumphs, but also the failures undergone in the many chambers within the movie. This for me is why The 36th Chamber of Shaolin has stood the test of time. Triumph through repeated failure is an ageless concept, which people of any age and generation can understand and absorb its message. For those that are more into the martial arts aspect, you can see, not only the different forms of Shaolin Temple training but, also, the practical application it has in everyday life, coupled with the timeless philosophy of the Buddha…sublime!
- The last fight scene used real swords!
- Gordon Liu went on to make many sequels after this movie.
- Gordon Liu was already a student of Hung-Gar kung-fu.