NOTE:Hong Kong films were released alternately in Cantonese and Mandarin, depending on the zeitgeist. Likewise, directors and stars are often known by two different names. Lau Kar Leung is Cantonese; Liu Chia-Liang is Mandarin—same person. This film was recorded in Mandarin, but most Chinese people would have spoken Cantonese…hence—Lau Kar Leung.
If the only Kung Fu films you’ve seen are Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero, or if you’ve seen a few from the ’70s but thought they were boring, incomprehensible, and unwatchable—then The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is for you. It’s in the running for top Shaw Brothers production— along with films like Come Drink With Me and Five Deadly Venoms—and it features some of the best acting, editing, and cinematography in the history of Hong Kong cinema.
So far I’ve only seen about twenty Chop-sockies, but I can say without question that The 36th Chamber is the creme of the crop. Most Kung Fu films fatten 90 minutes with a good half-hour of filler. 36th Chamber pushes two hours, and I’m still begging for more. Its script—by Shaw Brothers mainstay Kuang Ni—has a perfect three-act structure, and it’s plot follows Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey to a “T”. All of this formal elegance gives the film a lot of forward momentum, without the herky-jerky pacing of so much Kung Fu cinema. However, the reason you watch a Kung Fu movie is the Kung Fu, and it’s here that The 36th Chamber really shines.
“I wish I’d learned Kung Fu, instead of studying…”
The film’s action blows away most Kung Fu movies because its director—the great Lau Kar Leung—was actually a practitioner of Shaolin martial arts. He started out as a choreographer, working on many of director Chang Cheh‘s seminal films (The One-Armed Swordsman, Blood Brothers).
In The 36th Chamber Leung directs and does choreography, which gives the film a wonderful aethstetic cohesiveness. The camera itself has a Kung Fu sensibility, and unlike most of these films, the zooms and whip-pans have been well thought out. Often I found myself conscious of the camera’s movement as much as I was conscious of the fighter’s on-screen movement—making Leung a presence in every scene.
In the commentary both the RZA and film critic Andy Klein talk about the long-take being one of Leung’s auteur signatures. Most Kung Fu directors will cut an action sequence after 4-6 moves, but Leung frequently goes as long as 8-12. This meant that the actors have to know their routines really well, and from a Film Theory perspective it creates greater continuity by limiting montage. In the classic Eisenstein vs. Bazin debate, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is clearly on Bazin’s side.
In addition to all of this technical expertise, he was the adopted brother/mentor of its lead—Gordon Liu. Liu himself was a practitioner of the Hung Gar style—one of the most difficult of all Kung Fu styles—before he became an actor. In an interview on the DVD’s special feature he says that he was originally influenced to learn Kung Fu by going to the movies! So, in a bizarre twist-of-fate he went from movie fan, to Martial Artist, to Martial Arts movie star—all with the help of Lau Kar Leung, who gave him his first starring role in this film. All of these factors help give The 36th Chamber some of the most intense and authentic Kung Fu put on celluloid.
No second first impressions.
So: great script, great acting, great camerawork—the cherry on top is the hiqh quality production values. The most common release at this point is from The Weinstein Company’s Dragon Dynasty. I normally don’t mention these sorts of production details, but in this movie they’re particularly relevant because the look of a Kung Fu film is so crucial to its impact. The Dragon Dynasty release does everything that most companies let fall by the wayside:
- Widescreen (the original aspect ratio—no Pan-and-Scan!)
- High quality sound (surround sound)
- Remastered image (incredibly crisp colors, equal to any modern high-cost epic)
- Mandarin with English subtitles (no dubbing!)
These details are icing on the cake. Some great films of the era—like The Seven Poles of Shaolin, also choreographed by Leung—are made unwatchable by poor presses, unlistenable sound effects, terrible dubbing, and fuzzy images. The 36th Chamber is a complete package. It’s a great film presented in a way deserving of such a classic of world cinema. Some Kung Fu movies’s DVDs prevent you from taking them seriously, but this isn’t one of them. Funny, tragic, uplifting, and visually sumptuous—The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is, without question, the best introduction to Hong Kong cinema of the ’70s.