It’s a rare privilege to discuss existential considerations in the context of an action movie, but that’s exactly why the Hong Kong production The 36th Chamber of Shaolin won a place in the pantheon of martial-arts cinema. The picture has some exciting passages of violent action, and the basic plot takes the familiar shape of a revenge saga, but the storyline also explores notions of dignity and harmony and transcendence. Viewers accustomed to Hollywood’s treatment of martial arts, which often reduce ancient tradition to cutesy “wax on, wax off” slogans, will find something new here. It’s no accident that The 36th Chamber of Shaolin has a significant cult following that even stretches into the world of hiphop—members of the iconic rap act Wu-Tang Clan, including Quentin Tarantino collaborator RZA, have cited this movie as a touchstone.
Set in feudal China, the story follows a young man named Liu Yude (Liu Chia-Hui). He’s a student at a martial-arts academy run by a teacher who agitates against the oppressive Manchu government. When government operatives including a corrupt enforcer invade the school, murdering the teacher and several students, Liu escapes but vows revenge. Determined to increase his martial-arts skills, he makes a harrowing journey to the remote Shaolin temple, where monks are rumored to have perfected almost superhuman fighting abilities. Demonstrating humility and perseverance, Liu eventually wins entry to the Temple and is renamed San Te. (There really was a Shaolin monk named San Te, and the movie’s storyline, though wildly fictionalized, was inspired by his life.)
The moment Liu becomes San is also the moment when The 36th Chamber of Shaolin becomes truly interesting. Fitting the Buddhist principles of patience and serenity, the movie shifts gears from a violent adventure tale to a methodical exploration of personal growth through grueling physical training. Even the simple task of walking from living quarters to the temple’s dining hall is a pivotal test, because the monks install a moat between the two locations and fill it with tethered logs, so acolytes must learn to center themselves in order to glide over the obstacles. San proves his mettle by discovering a new way of moving across the logs, inspiring his teachers and fellow students alike. Then San begins his journey through the 35 chambers of the temple, each of which indoctrinates students in a different martial-arts skill. Some of the chamber sequences are mesmerizing, because the training combines elements of combat, dance, resistance, and other physical disciplines, sharpening everything from eye/hand coordination to mental focus to muscle tissue. Once San completes the 35th chamber and receives an invitation to teach at the temple, he has spent years transforming himself from a headstrong youth to an impressive adult.
What keeps these sequences from seeming episodic is the revenge angle. Through each challenge and trial, we know the protagonist is focused on a singular goal. Hence the 36th chamber of the title, a proposed expansion of the temple’s influence by teaching Shaolin martial arts to outsiders—and hence the film’s exciting final act, San’s adventure outside the temple. Elevated by Chen Yung-Yu’s rousing score and expertly filmed by director Liu Chia-Liang, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is an action film that periodically approaches the level of poetry, even though it has one foot planted in spirituality and the other in violence. The picture was followed by two sequels, Return to the 36th Chamber (1980) and Disciples of the 36th Chamber (1985), though neither is as highly regarded as the original.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin: GROOVY