In my quest to find a fight film to unseat Raging Bull as the greatest movie of all time (everybody take a drink—podcast joke people, come on!) I stumbled upon the 36th Chamber of Shaolin.
Originally titled “Master Killer” when it was released in the USA on VHS at some point after its Asian theatrical release in 1978, the film follows the story of San Te, a young student who is naïve about human nature and man’s domination of man; his insulated upbringing gives him no understanding as to why the Manchus wish to dominate the Han Chinese.
However, eventually he has no choice but to understand—his teacher is a revolutionary, and challenges them to understand what it means to be dominated and why one should fight to be free. Later, when San Te publicly remarks that Han Chinese rebel crucified in the town square was a hero, he—under the threat of being imprisoned himself, has to apologize to the Manchus for his transgression.
This event strikes him to his core, and he begins to ask questions. He involves himself in the revolution as an errand boy. During this short period, his teacher remarks that if only the Shaolin would teach kung fu to the people, they could fight the Manchus.
Soon, San Te’s teacher becomes the target of the Manchus—fellow students are killed, and even San Te’s own father becomes the victim of his associations with Han rebels.
On the run, San Te is determined to get to Shaolin temple to learn kung fu, and seek refuge from the Manchus hunting him.
What has been summarized thus far is roughly a half-hour of exposition mostly to serve the purpose of the rest of the film—to show the world of martial arts training, self-discipline, and self-discovery.
While the story is relatively straightforward and uncomplicated, it achieves a remarkable technical realism. This is thanks to Lau Kar Leung, the director more famous for Jackie Chan’s “Legend of Drunken Master,” who keeps his comic sensibilities to a minimum here to weave a no-nonsense tale for the very purpose of introducing people to authentic Hung Gar training, discipline, and values.
Fans of extremely realistic films will enjoy this picture—even in spite of its 70’s Hong Kong set-piece feel. The realistic aspects of the film have everything to do with the execution of martial arts and what training is involved. It is said that Lau Kar Leung wanted to make a film that actually showed martial arts training in its entirety–not the five minute sequences training occupied next to sequences of kung fu fantasy in films by earlier Hong Kong directors like Chang Cheh.
The film is uncompromising in achieving this vision, which may make non-martial arts enthusiasts yawn, but is deeply rewarding for viewers seeking films about martial arts, films about fighters in general, or even the psychology of fighting.
Fight films are few and far between. Good fight films are even fewer. “36th Chamber of Shaolin” is in that small pantheon of fighter-flicks that deliver.