The 36th Chamber of Shaolin – DVD Review

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Directed by
Lau Kar-Leung

Gordon Liu … San Te
Lo Lieh … General Tien
Chia Yung Liu … General Yin
Norman Chu … Liu Tsai
Billy Chan … Ming official
Lung Chan … Monk
Shen Chan … Wrist Room monk
Siu Tien Yuen … Teacher
Hoi San Lee … Senior Monk

The Movie:

On the road to finding the quintessential Martial Arts film, one must make several stops along the way. Bruce Lee’s entries, such as The Chinese Connection and Enter the Dragon, make strong cases for themselves, as do A Touch of Zen, The Five Deadly Venoms, Drunken Master, Magnificent Butcher, Crippled Avengers, and in recent years, Fist of Legend, Drunken Master II, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. While all of these are very different films, they each brought their own style and substance to the genre, changing it in a way that the entire art-form was different after they came out. With such an esteemed pedigree, few other films could possibly match up, but without question one of those would be The 36th Chamber of Shaolin.

The world in which the film takes place is a turbulent one. The people are oppressed and any outspoken dissidents are immediately executed by the tyrannical rule of the Manchu government. It is with this setting that we are introduced to a young student named San Te (Gordon Liu). He’s an idealist young man who wants to help free the people, but has no means or skills to do, especially after all of his friends and family are either killed or captured in a violent raid by authorities. Taking refuge within the Shaolin Temple, San Te recovers from injuries and begs to learn the art of Kung Fu.

This is the section that sets this film apart from the other Martial Arts movies that came before it. The bulk of the movie deals with San Te’s training, as he must face elaborate trials that train both his mind and body. Director Lau Kar-Leung gives us a plethora of seemingly mundane tasks that have profound effects on San Te’s training, and we see him grow as a person as much as it helps him become a warrior. From carrying water buckets to inventing a new weapon, the sequences are breathlessly staged, but still have a tremendous emotional weight to them which carries you through their particular portion of the story.

I especially love an early sequence in San Te’s training, where he must simply master running across a group of logs that are tied together within a small pool without falling in. Determined to master the balance and agility needed, he tries over and over again, training further in secret, until he is a shining example of the method. Then his training begins again when the logs are untied and he must learn a whole new method of agility and balance. With doses of wit and charm, the sequences are immeasurably entertaining, and brings you together with San Te as if you were both training.

It can’t be overstated just how important Gordon Liu is to this film. As San Te, Liu gives us a tremendous performance going from wide-eyed youngster to fearless warrior, but always making that transition very convincing and likeable. In a way, San Te is a mythical hero in the same way that Luke Skywalker is, that achieves these great things and then brings his art to many who need it, but at the same time Liu always makes him human enough that it is easy to root for him.

Those worried the action in this picture will be too archaic for modern audiences should put their fears to rest. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is filled with tremendous fights, and the training sequences are some of the best ever filmed. A portion of the film near the end of San Te’s training, in which he has to defeat one of this masters, is nearly impossible not to get emotionally invested in, as San Te must constantly go back to the drawing board to find a way to challenge his teacher and defeat him in order to rise to the next level of Shaolin.

It is in the last portion of the film that the director really throws in stunning fight sequences, as the forces of evil must now deal with a San Te that is both enlightened and trained in Kung Fu. We get some pretty loathsome villains as well, especially King Boxer’s Lo Lieh as General Tien. Lieh had greatly improved his screen presences between King Boxer and this film, and makes for a very convincing opponent for San Te in their climactic fight.

For its time period, this is a pretty lavish production from the Shaw Bros. Studio. We are immersed in this world, especially the Shaolin Temple, which is a pretty gigantic set with many different rooms and chambers. We really get a feel for the grandeur of this time period through the film’s visual, with just go to cement just how great this film is.

Those that would wish to only see one Martial Arts film from this period could do much worse than The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. With its training sequences rivaling any other film of this kind, and fight scenes that are as modern as any I’ve ever seen, the movie is ceaselessly entertaining. This is perhaps the best film from an actor that would go on to be one of the biggest Martial Arts stars in the world, and from a revered Hong Kong director that has nearly 30 films under his belt with over 50 years in the film business. On the road to the quintessential Martial Arts film, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is a stop well worth taking.

The DVD:

The Video
For the most part, this is a pretty terrific transfer, with the colors and pictures as stunning as they’ve ever looked on film. There are moments when the film seems to go out of focus, or that the film looks a bit shabby, but I think that has more to do with the elements of the film being perhaps too far gone in its degradation for the Weinsteins to be able to do anything about it. A bigger problem is that on occasions the subtitles for the film will be obviously wrong, which is a much bigger strike upon this disc than anything else, especially for a release this prestigious among the Dragon Dynasty titles. The film is presented in Anamorphic Widescreen with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1.

The Audio
The Audio track is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 and is as good as this title is probably going to sound on disc. The English and Chinese tracks both have a good balance of score and dialogue and are worthy of a film this good.


Feature Commentary by Film Scholar Andy Klein and The RZA – This is a surprisingly good commentary from Klein and The RZA, who obviously has a deep affection for this film and all of the Shaw Bros. Library. He recalls stories about watching this film on TV and just how important this film has been to him over the years. Klein seems to have a good time giving tidbits about the movie’s production as RZA gushes over the film’s style and story. Much like the excellent track on King Boxer, this is a terrific commentary that is able to mix expert and fan on one entraining commentary.

Interview with Star Gordon Liu – Another great interview on these discs, as Liu recalls his earliest experiences with Martial Arts and growing up around learning Kung Fu. He also gives his insights into working with Lau Kar-Leung and others on this production.

Interview with Film Scholars David Chute and Andy Klein – This is another great interview with these two, as each give their particular insights as to why this film is so popular and so important. Chute gives the best example for its longevity, as he talks about how this film was not only imitated in Hong Kong, but that he believes that the movie had an influence over films in Western Cinema that imitated Martial Arts training sequences, such as in The Karate Kid and The Empire Strikes Back.

Interview with The RZA – This is maybe the best of the interviews, as The RZA gives insanely funny stories about skipping school and paying derelicts to sneak him into the theaters on 42nd street in order to watch Kung Fu movies.

Shaolin: A Hero Birthplace – This Featurette talks about the history of the Shaolin Temple and its Martial Arts training. Gordon Liu gives interviews within the Featurette and talk about how the film took elements from Shaolin lore. This goes about 17 minutes.

Trailer Gallery– Much like the other Shaw Bros Collection disc, this one is packed with trailers for this film and other Dragon Dynasty releases, but also has some terrific trailers for other Shaw Brothers classics, such as Return to the 36th Chamber and others.

Music Video for Wu-Tang Clan’s “Gravel Pit”

Commentator Biographies

Posters and Stills Gallery

The DVD Lounge’s Ratings for
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin
(OUT OF 10)