It was with a gathering of friends that we watched 'The 36th Chamber of Shaolin', sometimes called 'Shaolin Master Killer' though I don't know why anybody would call it that. And if you know anybody who would address this movie by that title you have my permission to bitchslap them and rip their kung-fu movie fan card considering that words 'Shaolin' and 'Killer' don't belong together. It turns out that my buddies Des and Arv, whom I viewed this movie with, saw this movie in the theater when it was released back in 1978. Clearly they are kind of old. Also watching this movie was Des's lady Aurora who broke down the tenants of Buddhism for us, which is information that comes in handy while watching this film, and she also explained to us the history behind that symbol plastered on a wall of the 'Eye Chamber' that looked a lot like a swastika. It was a swastika actually but it didn't always represent what we've come to know it as. Valuable information to know. And thus we have 'The 36th Chamber of Shaolin' which is a kung fu flick from that era like none that few have ever seen.
During this period of time the Tartars have invaded and taken control of China and this province is ruled over by the brutal General Tien (Lieh Lo). Brutal, but fair. When a rebel general with mad martial arts skills crashes a fascist parade, the fight is initially a little uneven considering it's just this guy against the generals soldiers. The General orders his soldiers to stand down so these two can go head up, man vs. man. Even when the General disables this guy, rendering one of his arms useless, the General pins back one of his own arms and proceeds to finish off this dude with one hand. Fascist rule doesn't get any fairer than that. One thing we know about kung fu movies is that the guy who lands the first punch is usually the guy that wins the fight, and if an opponent at any time bleeds from the mouth… he's dead.
Observing this carnage is San Te (Gordon Liu), a student who has decided to join his teacher and the rebels in bringing down the unjust Tartan Empire. But while General Tien might be brutal but fair, his right hand man General Lin (Chia Yung Liu) is just plain brutal. He finds out who these rebels are and kills them. All of them. Including San Te's old man who was just a humble fish shop operator and had nothing to do with any kind of rebellion. At least that he was aware of. San Te whishes he could've fought back but alas he's just a student and has no skills. San Te has decided he must get these skills and if you are to be trained in the martial arts there's no better place than a Shaolin temple.
Gravely wounded, thanks to General Lin of course, San Te makes it to this temple and the monks, after some reticence, mainly because his mind isn't in the right place, take him on as a pupil. And thus this is what this movie is actually about as San Te begins the long and grueling process of training to master the 35 chambers of the Shaolin. I know the title says 36 but that's something else altogether. Turns out the Force is Strong with this one as he masters the chambers faster than almost any student ever, even though this process still takes a number of years to accomplish.
Eventually San Te leaves the temple having mastered 34 of the 35 chambers, but not necessarily on the best of terms. Remember his head still isn't quite right and then there's that complicated 36th chamber thing, but now it's time for some long simmering revenge. We don't want to spoil it for you but dudes will be bleeding from the mouth.
Considered in many circles of the know to be the greatest kung fu movie ever made, after sitting through 'The 36th Chamber of the Shaolin' for the first time in a long time, it's pretty clear to see why. The first thing that strikes you as director Liu Chia-Liang's film graces your screen are the production values which are a significant cut above from what we were used to seeing from our Kung-Fu flicks out of that era, featuring lush costuming, detailed sets and a minimum of the famous in-camera editing styles with Liu opting for more traditional post production techniques.
However the thing that sets 'The 36th Chamber of the Shaolin' apart, is its focus on the training of the character San Te. Yes it is still a revenge driven Kung Fu flick with a character looking to avenge the death of his master, more or less, but this movie takes our main character from zero to hero in explicit detail. To be honest, my concern was that this movie was going to have us tag along with San Te while he mastered all 35 chambers which would've made this movie a good 18 hours long, but to my relief the movie focused more on his initial training and closed his training with his attempts to defeat one of his teachers which was the best part of the movie as we were privileged to watch San Te conjure up strategy after strategy until he was finally able to pull it off.
Eventually of course it does turn into a revenge quest with dudes bleeding from the mouth and then convulsing on the ground, but considering we spent so much time in training there wasn't a lot of time left for this and to be truthful this revenge quest lost a lot of its impact considering we spent so much time watching San Te prep for his revenge.
While 'The 36th Chamber' isn't going to supplant my favorite Kung Fu flicks, those being 'Snake in the Monkey's Shadow' and 'The Victim', despite the fact that this movie is superior to those in almost every conceivable way, but I was when I twelve saw those and thus they've embedded themselves into my psyche until the end of time, this is still a remarkable achievement in Martial Arts Cinema and worth all of the praise it has received and will continue to receive.