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The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin
cast: Liu Chia-Hui (alias, Gordon Lui), Wang Yu, and Lo Lieh

director: Liu Chia-Liang

89 minutes (18) 1978
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Momentum DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by James A. Stewart
In February this year I reviewed King Boxer: Five Fingers Of Death, a Hong Kong kung fu movie from the prolific Shaw brothers. For April, it is the turn of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (aka: Shao Lin san shi liu fang). The Shaw brothers were involved in almost 500 productions and in amongst this canon there are sure to be some very dodgy movies, but this is not one of them.

When reviewing kung fu movies it is formulaic to describe the plot as, well, formulaic. It seems to happen every time. I suspect that this is more down to my historical naivety when it comes to the timeline of the kung fu movie genre than lazy plotting by the writers and directors. In essence, The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin does follow a very familiar outline in its story.

The rebellious San Te escapes from a brutal massacre and stumbles to the nearest Shaolin temple. There he is taken in by the monks and embarks upon training in the disciplines of kung fu. There are 35 'chambers' for San Te to learn before he can truly become a master of the art. When he completes what, at times, is a brutal and harsh programme of training, he invents a 36th chamber. Furthermore, he proposes to take this new method to the masses to allow them to defend themselves against the oppressive regime.

As San Te becomes more immersed in his education in the martial arts, he also finds out more about himself. He becomes introspective and, in many ways, his journey to enlightenment is more aligned to the aims of kung fu than roundhouse kicks and death defying jumps. But don't worry; the action is still pretty impressive and bountiful.

This is a classic piece of kung fu movie-making in the tried and tested 'apprentice becomes the master' mode. The transition from cocky rebel to 'master killer' is fascinating to watch as San Te's training stretches across ten years. The trials are ingenious at times, and in many cases, not without historical context. Water, sharp objects, blunt but dense objects, and fire, are used to good effect as our hero endeavours to reach the level of master.

San Te is originally driven by a quest for justice and revenge against the Manchus, but as his character develops the search for himself becomes more powerful. There are a plethora of familiar faces in this movie, perhaps most notably Kill Bill's Gordon Lui - and a few more familiar faces that fans of the genre will no doubt pick up on.

The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin is more ass-kicking fun than you could shake a death star (no, not that one) at. It is a joy to watch, and like King Boxer it is overacted, unnecessarily dramatic at times and suffers from some ropey dubbing. But, these are vital ingredients in the most successful of kung fu movies, and anyway, they are offset by the superbly well choreographed action scenes, the ingenuity of the threads underpinning the plot - including its genuine historical context - and the underlying simplicity and beauty in the story.
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