I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin

tn_36thchamberaka SHAOLIN MASTER KILLER

So you got these fuckin Tartars goin around oppressing people, right? No surprise there. Humiliating people, publicly executing people, fucking with innocent people’s seafood shops and all that kind of crap. I mean let’s be honest here, we all know how these fuckin Tartars are. And in a Shaw Brothers classic like this, we know Gordon Liu is gonna do something about it.

There’s this classroom of kids (played by adults) and they’ve been learning about the importance of their country and standing up to their enemies but they can’t figure out why they’re learning this in the classroom and then watching the Tartars pull this kind of crap. Are those lessons just words or are they concepts they should really live by? They decide on the second one and when they try to stand up and make a difference, they are rewarded with a serious assbeating.

But Gordon gets away, and you know what he always does when he gets away. He finds his way to the Shaolin Temple where the monks patch him up, then he demands to stay and become a monk, and then he asks to learn kung fu.

Most of the movie is about Gordon learning lessons of kung fu, having to pass 35 “chambers” before he has mastered shaolin kung fu. Most of them are not fighting, but things like jumping across a bundle of sticks floating in water, then jumping across just one of the sticks. We see him grow and build his powers until he has finally mastered all 35 chambers. Then he has to defeat one of the other monks in a duel in order to take charge of any one of the chambers. This takes several tries and in the process he invents the 3-section staff, one of the most badass kung fu weapons you’re gonna see. It’s like super nunchucks. I would like to thank Gordon Liu for inventing the 3-section staff. Also could you give me lessons is my next question, let me know Gordon, you got my email.

When he finally earns the right to become a master, he requests that his chamber be the non-existent 36th chamber, where he teaches shaolin kung fu to everyday average joes or gordons who just want to live a humble life and defend their seafood shop from the god damn Tartars. His request is rejected but he goes anyway, shows back up at home with his yellow monk robe. Take that fuckers.

You kind of expect everybody to be freaking out on their classmate coming back as a shaolin master, but nobody seems to recognize him, they just call him master. They do a real good job in this movie of showing a transformation. He really has a poise and seriousness when he comes back that makes him seem like a different person from the goofy kid he was at the beginning. And of course the last section of the movie is about him recruiting a couple promising students, teaching them a couple tricks and then launching an assault on the fuckers who wronged him in the beginning.

All of the fights in this movie are great, lots of different weapons and styles are used. These are not big elaborately choreographed battles though for the most part, which is why I like EIGHT-DIAGRAM POLE FIGHTER (not the porno, the Shaw Brothers movie) a little better. But some might prefer the simplicity of this one. It depends on what kind of Gordon Lui going to the Shaolin Temple and demanding to be trained so he can get revenge movie you are looking for.

I love this one though because it’s just a great, elemental type story of training to become a master. I like the theme of bringing the knowledge to the people. I think this movie is actually pretty deep, it’s about toiling to learn the great knowledge of the masters and then sharing that once elite knowledge, empowering your people to overcome their oppressors. It could be applied to so many situations besides kung fu. It’s what we gotta do now, in fact.

On the other hand this movie could just be about teaching people self defense, which is like an episode of Oprah or something, so it’s not as deep. When you’re going into the parking lot at night, hold your keys between your knuckles in case you have to punch a guy, and that kind of stuff. I like my interpretation better though. So lay off, Oprah, if you’re reading this. (thanks for reading though, let me know if you want to use my book for your book club.)

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Friday, June 24th, 2005 at 4:48 am and is filed under Martial Arts, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

2 Responses to “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin”

  1. Yeah actually the Abott doesn’t turn down Gordon’s request he just does a “plausible deniability” thing for the sake of the temple.

    Oh you want to leave the temple to teach the people kung fu? That’s absolutely not allowed! In fact, we are so upset you suggested this that we are going to kick you out of the temple! Now whatever you do don’t go teaching anyone any kung fu even though there won’t be like any kind of observer sent along with you to make sure you’re not teaching the people kung fu like you said you were going to do and like we said with a wink and head nod was NOT ALLOWED, NO SIR.

  2. Oh wow. #6 on the Badass Digest and this one hasn’t received more than a single comment for its review? Well that ain’t fair.

    So first I’m going to go into what didn’t work in this film, and then I’ll say why none of it matters.

    So the film starts off with Gordon Liu plus soon-to-be-dead master, soon-to-be-dead classmates, soon-to-be-dead father, soon-to-be-dead mother, and probably a soon-to-be-dead second cousin or two who I missed because, honestly, not a single one of these characters (including Liu’s character himself at the start) is memorable in any way. They’re just disposible cannon fodder to show just how evil these Tartars really are.

    I gotta be honest here… I’m not a fan of this. First off, the Tartars are no more interesting than the disposible family / friends / classmates etc. They’re basically assholes. They’re not honorable (occasionally they have one-on-one battles with weaker opponents, but it’s more out of sport than any sense of honour) and there’s no moral ambiguity to them. They’re not particularly fun either. Don’t expect any smiling evildoers here. These guys sure as hell aren’t Hans Gruber (from #5 on the Badass Digest) or Mr Han (#14). They don’t have any sense of fun. They’re just a bunch of killjoy control-freaks.

    Moreover, there’s no tension here. We know full well that the untrained resistance have no chance in hell against the Tartars, and it’s obvious within the first ten minutes who’s going to die (pretty much everyone who’s not Gordon Liu). Later on, we know that the Tartars have zero chance against The Greatest Shaolin Monk Evar(TM), so there’s not much tension to that either. In fact, pretty much the only source of tension within the film is because it looks as though Liu’s actions might actually put the Shaolin Temple itself in peril. Y’know, him going around in full monk garb killing Tartars and all. (Wait, why exactly did he do that again?) But that’s a very brief danger that’s soon shown to be a red-herring.

    And yeah, I know it’s pretty obvious that the good guy has to win in the end, like many action movies, so you could argue that the same criticism applies to ANY similar movie. But I don’t really think that’s fair. Nobody watched “Die Hard” for the first time thinking “Wow, Gruber could totally win this!” after all. We knew that Bruce would prevail, the only question being how he’d do it and what he’d have to put himself through in order to do so. (Plus: would his wife take him back in the end, would Karl go off the deep end after his brother was killed, what happened to Argyle, etc. Y’know, character-related stuff.) None of which “The 36th Chamber” really has.

    And you know what? NONE OF THIS MATTERS. Because the real meat and drink of this movie is the Shaolin Temple section. And boy oh boy is this good.

    The meat and drink of the movie, as the title and opening (Liu practicing with weapons that, as far as I can recall, don’t appear anywhere else in the movie?) would suggest, is the Shaolin temple section. I freakin’ love this. Liu’s transformation, from beginning to end, is just fantastic. All the varied characters that he meets – great. The screwy sense of moral logic that the Buddhists have (which, as Jhudsui pointed out, is pretty much a case of “We approve what you’re doing but it doesn’t agree with our religion. Here’s a punishment that conveniently allows you to do everything we can’t officially give our approval to, without any oversight from us”) is great. The character who makes decisions like this, the Abbot, is great. The various “masters” are all great.

    My favorite character of the temple section (and therefore the whole film) is the Chief Justice, a cold and somewhat bureaucratic monk who is suspicious of Liu’s motives from the start. In a lesser film this character would be a stock antagonist, much like the Tartars are. (In a really bad movie he’d be “the mole” and turn out to be working for the Tartars the entire time.) In this movie however, the character constantly treads the line of dismissing Liu’s requests because of his suspicions of him, and dismissing them because he thinks Liu genuinely has more potential and needs to get better. At some points in the film it’s not clear which side of the line he’s on, but when Liu finally proves himself the Chief Justice smiles as he steps down and bows to the Abbot to grant Liu’s wish. I freakin’ love this.

    So many other things to love about this section… Liu’s home-made weapon, with which he eventually proves himself. His slow acceptance of the customs of the monks. The fact that the head monk scolds him for breaking those customs, but then scolds Liu’s fellow pupils for making fun of him. The fact that whenever anything important happens there’s always a Greek chorus of monk masters and a guy with a gong. The fact that half of the “masters” seriously seem to be stoned for the entire running time of the movie (what was in that incence again?) And of course the occasional bit of funny-stupid: the fact that a freakin’ army of monks end up jumping into a lake by doing the exact same thing over and over again, like a pack of penguins; and the fact that their master shows them what they’ve been doing wrong by skimming a bowl along the lake’s surface. Ok, this is dumb as a post, but it’s also funny as hell.

    In short: this movie is an hour or more’s extended cut of The Best Training Montage Evar(TM), topped and tailed by a “framing story” that’s basically complete crap. We’ve all seen this exact same thing done many, many times, often better; and again, it doesn’t matter in the slightest. You don’t go to a movie like “36th Chamber” because of the cliche’d uninteresting revenge device or the cliche’d uninteresting bad guys. You go to see it to see the birth and development of a hero and the people who help him get that way. And in this aspect “36th Chamber” succeeds brilliantly.

    Damn, this deserves more discussion here than it’s getting. It’s absolutely a worthy entry on the Badass 100 for me.

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