Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin

Gordon Liu.
Even film buffs who don’t normally watch martial arts movies may enjoy this 1978 classic that made a star of Gordon Liu (aka  Chia-Hui Liu).

He stars as Liu Yude, a student who joins rebel forces to fight against the tyranny of the Manchus in 17th century China. When his family and friends are killed, a wounded Liu escapes and finds his way to a Shaolin temple. Liu’s hope is that he can train with the Shaolin monks—who are renowned for their martial arts skills—and teach their techniques to his fellow rebels and defeat the Manchus.

The chief abbot rules in Liu's favor.
Liu is almost rejected at the outset, but the temple’s chief abbot overrules his brothers and grants the young man sanctuary because of his strength of spirit. For the first year, Liu—who is given the new name of San Te—does nothing but menial tasks like sweeping the temple. When he finally inquires about learning martial arts, he’s told that he must master 35 “chambers,” that doing so requires many years, and that most of the monks never complete this training regimen.

Undeterred, San Te starts with the 35th chamber, the most difficult one…and fails miserably. As he undertakes the other chambers, he gradually comprehends the importance of speed, balance, vision, strength, and humility. He goes from the weakest student to the best and rapidly works his way through the first 34 chambers (although it still requires several years). When the chief abbot offers him the opportunity to become the master of any chamber, San Te asks if he can create a 36th chamber—which sets into motion the final third of the film.
San Te (on right) defending a lethal blow.
There have been dozens of kung fu films where the protagonist mastered a “special technique” in order to defeat his enemy. However, I can think of no other genre movie with such extensive and engrossing training scenes. Part of the attraction lies in the training events. To learn balance, San Te must jump from floating log to floating log to cross a body of water. To strengthen his wrists, he must repeatedly strike a bell with a large stone attached to a flexible rod. I especially love the details in the scenes. As Liu tries various positions to strike the bell, we see other students waiting behind him, blue and deep red bruises covering their wrists.
San Te striking the bell using only his wrist,
Gordon Liu conveys intensity and determination as San Te. As he tries to figure out how to defeat one of the abbots in a fight, one can almost “see” him thinking. It’s no wonder his strong performance catapulted him to martial arts stardom. (Casual moviegoers may remember Gordon Liu best from Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies, where he played two roles. One of them was as the kung fu master who trains Uma Thurman’s character in Kill Bill, Volume II…a sequence likely inspired by The 36th Chamber of Shaolin.)

My only complaint about The 36th Chamber is that the training sequences are so good that the final third of the film is a bit of a letdown. It still includes some amazing fight scenes; the choreography is so intricate that I felt like I was watching a ballet. Director Lau Kar-Leung had extensive experience as a fight choreographer and actor. He and Gordon Liu were brothers (the latter was adopted).

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin was produced by the Shaw Brothers, the studio home of many kung fu classics (but not Bruce Lee’s films). I remember watching a 60 Minutes segment in which studio co-owner and producer Run Run Shaw was interviewed. At that time, his studio was the largest in the world and almost all their films were shot there. Run Run Shaw died in 2014 at the age of 107.


  1. A superb film on many levels, required viewing for anyone who calls themselves a movie fan. I saw it in a college film class on Asian cinema in 2004.

  2. This sounds really good, the last third notwithstanding. I'm keen to see the training sequences you described.