Movie Reviews 312 – The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978)

About 20 minutes into The 36th Chamber of Shaolin I thought “What’s the big deal?”. I’d heard so much about how this was supposed to be a classic martial arts movie, a fan favorite and consistently ranking in most ‘best of’ or top 10 lists. Sure it stars Chia-Hui Liu (better known as Gordon Liu to English audiences) but the first act of the film is as generic as it gets. Poor villagers being exploited by corrupt rulers. Young man and his friends vainly try to rebel. Wants to learn how to fight. Seen it all a million times.

This movie really begins when the rebellious youngster Yude (Liu) turns to a Shaolin temple hoping to learn Kung Fu only to be initially rebuffed. The Shaolin are a solitary group and shun the outside world, including all the evil that exist beyond their walls. His request is seen as interference from the outside but one of the monks takes pity on him and convinces the others to let him stay on for menial chores. After one year they reassess his situation and, with some dissent, they allow him to train, which is done by progressing through a succession of ‘chambers’, each intended to teach him a skill or impart a piece of wisdom. Eager to learn, Yude, now given the monk name of San Te, requests to start with the hardest. Upon entering the room with encountering nothing more than chanting monks he is befuddled and confused, It is explained that this last chamber requires enlightenment to even comprehend the significance. He must begin at the start.

He soon learns that the lessons to be learned in each of chambers are not necessarily forms of fighting, but a battle of wits, poise, restraint, determination and intelligence. His tasks sometimes seem impossible such as walking across floating tied bamboo bundles to cross a water filled threshold. Or ringing a bell with a weight tied to a long length of stick in synchronization with monks banging wooden bells … with one hand alone. The trials are both fun to watch and often agonizing. Each trial is lead by a tutor who does not tell the students how to accomplish the task, but makes sure they follow the rules within which the task must be completed, rules that are sure to inflict pain and suffering with every misstep.

But with defiant determination, he makes tremendous progress. His final test is against one of the monks who doubts his skills, which San Te tries over and over to conquer. When finally he completes his trials, and the monks present him with the opportunity to become the tutor in any one of the 35 chambers, but he instead makes the audacious request to create a 36th chamber. His request is to bring the Shaolin teachings to the outside world so that good young men can be recruited and learn Kung Fu in order to defend themselves accordingly. Once again he is denied his request, but is nonetheless allowed to leave and go among the people.

He returns to his old village and begins to teach the villagers what he has learned and in doing so, utilizes all the skills he acquired in 35 chambers.

Exhibiting an exceptional display of skills and battles under the choreography of director Chia-Liang Liu, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is indeed a film that every martial arts movie fan must watch. The wraparound storyline in which two generals abuse their powers is just icing on the cake while providing the justification for the Shaolin instruction. While San Te (and Gordon Liu) take a stern approach to the teaching and his goal to help the victims back home, there is just a taste of light comedy to lighten the mood at appropriate moments. This is not just a movie with a  message about good versus evil, but one with many messages and words of wisdom. Thirty-six, to be exact.

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