Monday, April 12, 2010

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978)

Thoroughly badass Shaw Bros. film about a young man who, after watching his family slaughtered by a corrupt general, dedicates his life to revenge via mastering the martial arts. Gordon Liu, Pai Mei AND Johnny Mo from Kill Bill, plays the pissed off youngster, who seeks the tutelage of the monks of the Temple of Shaolin. Once there, they inform him that to truly master martial arts, he must be put through a rigorous testing regiment involving 35 chambers, which contain trials that focus on various aspects of warriordom. While all 35 chambers are not all shown (mercifully), we see enough of his testing that we are not only familiarized with several of the philosophical backbones of the Shaolin temple, but are in awe of the physical prowess the monks must possess, especially Liu's, for making it all seem real, rather than effortless. These scenes are paced well, with Liu's San Te clearly excelling at certain tests, but needing to find his footing in others. Most of the time, his ingenuity leads to solutions that had not been seen before, leading him to be the most prized student of the academy until graduation, where he implores the head Abbott to instate a 36th chamber to train laymen. His quest to bridge the gap between physical empowerment and secularism is at the heart of the film, beyond his revenge plot, and does much to make this more than a kickass kung fu film. That being said, the fights are all fairly unique, and are exceptionally well choreographed; I especially adored the final battle scene, which takes place in the mountains, far from civilization, with the natural beauty being far more powerful in its subdued, unglorified state than, say, the overly stylized fight at the climax of House of Flying Daggers. The closeness of the relationship between Gordon Liu and the director, his half brother, Chia-Liang Liu, is tangible, with the acting, staging, and camera working, seemingly effortlessly, in perfect synergy.

Highly recommended for fans of HK kung-fu movies, particularly those out of the Shaw Bros. camp. Based on the strength of this one, I believe I'll be checking out the array of collaborations between Gordon and Chia-Liang Liu.

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