I had never seen or heard of Gordon Liu until I saw Quentin Tarantino’s MAGNIFICENT homage to 1970s grindhouse cinema: “Kill Bill Vol. 1” (2003). Gordon played Johnny Mo, the bald-headed, Japanese sword-wielding leader of the Crazy 88 Yakuza gang that Uma Thurman, the movie’s protagonist, dispatched with bloody style, grace and black-and-white (colour if you get to see the director’s cut/ Japanese import) BADASSERY!! He would return in the second half of the “Kill Bill” saga as the long-bearded, white-eyebrowed Pai Mei (Tarantino’s version of the villain of the same name from “Executioners from Shaolin” (1977) and “Clan of the White Lotus” (1980), which also starred Gordon), the draconian White Lotus priest who taught Uma’s character the dreaded “FIVE POINT PALM EXPLODING HEART TECHNIQUE” (Awesome name, huh?).
Some odd months later, I finally saw the movie that launched Gordon Liu into international stardom and turned him into an icon in the martial-arts film genre: “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin”. My first viewing experience of the movie was provided by a bootleg VHS-rip DVD (yes, kids, old-school martial arts films such as this one were on VHS tapes, and through the ancient art of VHS-to-DVD conversion – a technique still practiced by the monks of the Huacheng Temple in China – they became TT$20 bootleg DVDs) that presented the film with its American title “Shaolin Master Killer” or “Master Killer” for short. Fans of the iconic East Coast hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan should instantly recognize that title as the moniker of Jamal Arief (“Masta Killa”), arguably the most slept-on member in the group (though his 2004 debut album “No Said Date” was admittedly decent).
Anyhoo, my second viewing of “36th Chamber” came in the form of the Dragon Dynasty (a company responsible for restoring and remastering many beloved martial arts movies) DVD for the film. With cleaner visuals, clearer sound design and three audio tracks to choose from (Cantonese, Mandarin and the original English dub ), I was better able to enjoy – and appreciate – the movie on a technical level.
Gordon plays the film’s central character San Te, a legendary Shaolin disciple and folk hero best known for teaching kung fu to everyday people during the Qing (Manchu) Dynasty. He’s introduced as Liu Yu-De, the son of a seafood salesman and a student of ethics at the Chong Wen College in Canton. Raised within the final years of the Manchu Dynasty, Liu Yu-De becomes aware of (and exposed to in some of the film’s early moments) the local rebellion against the violent, fearsome oppression by the Manchus over the citizens of Canton. Liu passionately believes that if Shaolin can be taught to the common people, then they have a chance to defend themselves against the Manchus.
However, the Shaolin Temple is restricted only to monks, and they do NOT involve themselves in worldly affairs. But Liu is still determined to get to the Temple, and through the grace of God….or in the film’s case….Buddha, manages to get there. This determination by the protagonist to make it to the Shaolin Temple is a theme that would re-surface in two other Gordon Liu films: 1981’s “Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang” (the primary inspiration behind the name and ideology of the Wu-Tang Clan) and 1983’s “Eight Diagram Pole Fighter”.
Liu Yu-De, now a monk by the name of San Te, informs his Shaolin elders of his desire to teach kung-fu to the oppressed. Though he is warned not to entertain those thoughts (now that he’s on a spiritual path of peace and righteousness as a monk), San Te’s burning desire to learn kung fu compels his elders to train him gradually in the art of kung fu. This training occurs in 35 areas of the Temple known as “chambers” (Yes, I said 35. The film is called “36th Chamber of Shaolin” for a reason, but I’ll leave it up to you to figure it out for yourself. And no, Harry Potter fans. It’s NOT the Chamber of Secrets!). Each chamber has an instructor in a particular fighting style or weapon, and specific physical challenges that the student must complete in order to get to the next level of training.
It’s the moments within these 35 chambers where the film truly shines. Witnessing San Te using his strength, courage, patience and ingenuity to overcome every challenge thrown at him will inspire – and dare I say, UPLIFT even the most uninterested of viewers. Anyone who’ve seen and appreciated “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin” has at least one favourite “chamber sequence”, and the film provides many memorable ones. My personal favourite is the film’s centerpiece (and, in my opinion, the BEST scene in the entire movie): the Wrist Chamber sequence where San Te learns to strengthen his wrists by striking a gong repeatedly with a 15-pound hammer affixed to a 10-foot bamboo pole – USING ONE ARM. This sequence is masterfully constructed and executed, thanks to the haunting, minimalist sound design (devoid of any non-diegetic music to support it) and the rather convincing physical performance by Gordon Liu himself.
Gordon is FANTASTIC in his role as Liu Yu-De/San Te. He may not possess the near-superhuman physical speed of Bruce Lee, the death-defying audacity of Jackie Chan or the comedic versatility of Sammo Hung, but his ability to express the emotions of his character through subtle facial movements sets him apart from other established martial arts stars. On the subject of stars, “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin” boasts a solid cast of actors, which includes Lo Leih (star of the CLASSIC 1972 Shaw Brothers movie “King Boxer (Five Fingers of Death)” which – FUN FACT – is actually one of Quentin Tarantino’s all-time favourite movies) as the villainous General Tien Ta, Wilson Tong (star of 1979’s “Kung Fu Genius” – awesome title, huh?) who plays Tien’s VICIOUS second-in-command, comedic actor Wong Yue as the lackadaisical flour vendor “Rice Miller Six”, and Hoi Sang Lee as San Te’s incredibly badass superior and antagonist in the Shaolin Temple.
The production value of this film is impressive, even by martial-arts movie standards. This is a polished studio production, and it shows in its detailed set design (particularly the scenes inside the Temple), superb cinematography and epic scope. Similar to other kung fu flicks, “36th Chamber” mixes different musical cues into its soundtrack, the most noticeable being the few that were “stolen” from….believe it or not…..the INSANELY HILARIOUS British medieval spoof “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (1975). Surprisingly, these cues are quite effective in heightening the on-screen action taking place, even if I oftentimes think of the many ridiculous shenanigans “The Holy Grail” offered – like the no-armed, no-legged Black Knight, for example (Google it, folks. Better yet, watch the damn movie because it ROCKS!!!) when I hear them being played. The use of jump cuts in certain scenes to emphasize passage of time may throw off some viewers, the quick zooms (or as I call them – “kung fu zooms”) used during some of the more intense sequences can come off as laughable at times, and some of the “amazing” physical displays of kung fu performed in the film are, admittedly, a bit too implausible to be taken seriously. Fortunately, these issues are minor, and in an oddly effective way, contribute fully to the vibe, visual aesthetic and overall fun of these type of movies.
The impact and influence of “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin” resonated beyond its genre. The titles of the the Wu-Tang Clan’s 1993 debut album “Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers” (my second favourite album of all time – in case you were wondering) and the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s 1995 debut album “Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version” were inspired by this movie, and specific audio samples from the English dub were used in Method Man’s 1994 debut album “Tical”. Recent film homages to “36th Chamber” include the training montage in Tarantino’s “Kill Bill Vol. 2” and the brief Shaolin Temple sequence (which also featured Gordon Liu) in rapper/producer RZA’s (i.e. the leader of the Wu-Tang Clan and a passionate martial-arts movie fan) 2012 debut film “The Man with the Iron Fists”. As a passionate martial-arts movie fan myself, I deeply appreciate and love this movie. It is a remarkably well-written and well-crafted film with layers of emotional depth and philosophical substance. In essence, “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin” is an underdog story, with its main character overcoming the odds and becoming a great martial artist. But underneath the surface, it’s about the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual development that we all go through, and the personal “chambers” we must conquer in order to become the great individual we are all destined to be. One of the greatest martial arts films ever made, and one of my all-time favourite movies – PERIOD, “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin” is a definite must-see and strong recommendation by yours truly.
MY RATING: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars (“Definitely see this movie”)