Quality film news, reviews and features
18th July 2007 00:00:00
Posted by Eamonn McCusker

The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin

DVD Video Review

And there is a 36th chamber? Not until one young man enters the famous Shaolin Temple in pursuit of the knowledge of the kung fu masters within with one intention...to take it outside of the Temple, to train laymen in their ways and to defeat the corrupt generals who are tearing his home village apart. The 36th chamber of Shaolin is all that exists outside of the Temple and San Te is determined that he will be the one to build it. But the Shaolin monks, who have kept their knowledge secret, are not so keen that he leave. A desire for vengeance, though, is a powerful emotion.

San Te (Gordon Liu) actually begins the film as Liu Yu-te, a young student of Teacher Ho (Wai Wang) who watches a powerful group of Manchu generals occupy the village where he grew up, his father owning a fish store. From their public torturing of rebels to their destruction of his school, General Tien Ta (Lo Lieh)and Tang San-yao (Wilson Tong Wai-shing) are hated but the villagers are powerless, particularly when the rebel General Yin (Lau Kar-wing) is captured and hung in the village square as an example to anyone who intends on following his lead. Declaring Yin a hero, Liu Yu-te joins his teacher in the rebellion but Tang San-yao acts quickly, killing Teacher Ho and all those sympathetic to his cause. With his father's shop destroyed in the search for messages from the rebels, Liu Yu-te leaves the village in search of help but, finding one, travels to the famous Shaolin Temple to learn kung fu. But the journey to enlightenment is hard and despite his progression through the thirty-five chambers of Shaolin, there may be no way back for the young monk now known as San Te. And certainly no way home.

The apparent aim of director Lau Kar-leung in making The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin was to create a martial arts drama that was realistic in the time and effort that is needed to learn an art such as kung fu. No Karate Kid-styled picking up of a martial art within a long summer here, Kar-leung aims for authenticity with a training regime within the Southern Shaolin Temple that lasts for seven years, beginning with learning to balance on a raft of sticks - as well as some humility - long before unarmed combat and the art of fighting with weaponry. Despite a running time of close to two hours, there isn't enough time to reveal the inner workings of all thirty-five chambers and so Kar-leung chooses a handful - the aforementioned raft, the carrying of buckets of water up a hill, the striking of a bell and the following of a candle attached to a large metronome. As straightforward as these sound - and the Shaolin monks have a habit of making the tasks within their chambers very simple indeed - each one is made difficult by a testing of the novice's skills in kung fu. So, the carrying of buckets of water, as easy as that may be, is made difficult, deadly even, by the Shaolin monk strapping knives about the novice's arms, which will pierce their skin should the buckets not be held outright. Again, in a later chamber, San Te learns to watch an opponent by only using his eyes and not the movement of his head by having two large sticks of burning incense placed close by either ear. A moment of comedy is added later in the film as San Te and the other novices develop the strength of their skulls by butting heavy bags of sand. Cue a group of novices confused both by the methods in the task and by the blows sustained within it.

If this makes The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin sound dry, that's really not the case. Yes, most of the film is concerned with the training of a novice monk but not only is it bookended with two scenes of high action - an early sword fight between Lau Kar-wing and Wilson Tong Wai-shing opens the film whilst the return of Gordon Liu to the village is accompanied by much bloodshed - but the scenes of training in the Shaolin Temple are well-staged, mixing action and humour with some sense of the order of the Shaolin Temple. Hence, any excitement is balanced with the need to place the training in a particular order. As much as we might want to get to the kung fu, The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin is paced such that it only comes late in San Te's training and where another film might end with his success in the thirty-five chambers and the Shaolin monks wishing him their very best as he leaves to restore order to his village, this one does not. The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin prefers to stall San Te's ascension to a seat of some importance in the Temple by a Justice Officer who asks that San Te beat him in a fight before he take it. Given how often The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin has overturned convention up to that point, it comes as no surprise to learn that San Te does not succeed, at least not at his first attempt.

The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin is well-regarded in martial arts circles, not as flashy as Enter The Dragon but manna from heaven for those who hanker after a more realistic portrayal of martial arts. By any stretch, the seven years that San Te spends in the Shaolin Temple is still a short time to master a martial art - being awarded a black belt ought to be thought of as only finishing an apprenticeship and that can still take ten years or thereabouts - but it's still a good deal longer than the traditional martial arts feature, where syrup-slow reflexes are honed in weeks. By choosing to frame his film in such a way, director Lau Kar-leung has produced The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin to not only be a, "love story of the spirit", as he called it, but a love letter to the legend of the Shaolin Temple and their legacy of martial arts. Knowing that success in kung fu comes from within, Kar-leung dwells on the fight San Te has with his own spirit and how his initial failure comes from his inability to bring his heart, and not his fists, to the tasks at hand. That The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin brings that internal conflict to film so successfully, as well as the bloodshed that opens and closes it, it ends a very satisfying film and a rare treat within the genre.



Transfer

Back when I reviewed the Region 3 release of The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin, I noted that the DVD was let down, "...by a lack of detail in the background of the image...blurring and fuzziness to the picture." This is all the more obvious when looking at a comparison between this release and that in Region 3:


R1 Dragon Dynasty Release (Above) / R3 Intercontinental Video Release (Below)



R1 Dragon Dynasty Release (Above) / R3 Intercontinental Video Release (Below)



R1 Dragon Dynasty Release (Above) / R3 Intercontinental Video Release (Below)



R1 Dragon Dynasty Release (Above) / R3 Intercontinental Video Release (Below)

As you can tell, this release is a considerable improvement over that from Intercontinental Video. The image is much clearer, colours are more natural and there is no longer the softness about the picture that there was previously. Now fully restored and with an absence of print damage, this release shows how best to prepare a film for issuing on DVD and makes clear the care with which Dragon Dynasty produced this version.

The audio tracks are also good with Dragon Dynasty offering Cantonese, Mandarin and English Mono, which are a touch harsh on occasion but really nothing very much to complain about. Everything is clean, clear and to the point and though there is a very small amount of background noise you would have to listen hard to find it worthy of taking issue over. Finally, there are English and Spanish subtitles.



Extras

Commentary: Much of what there is on this disc will only be of interest to those who are fans of The Wu-Tang Clan, such is The RZA's place in the bonus features. He's alongside critic Andy Klein for this commentary and the two present different takes on the film, with Klein offering more knowledge of the making of it and the history of those involved in its production whereas The RZA comes with a fan's point of view, talking about his first viewing of it, what he knows of star Gordon Liu Chia-hui and his fondness for kung fu cinema. As you'd expect, then, there isn't a great deal of overlap between the two. Klein comes both with an academic knowledge of martial arts movies and a liking for them but The RZA is sketchier on details but is audibly impressed by what he sees on the screen, even to saying, "Woah!" during the fight scenes. The contrast between them works well. Klein could have been dry on his own whereas The RZA would have been intolerable were he not accompanied by someone to break up his obvious love of the film. Unsurprisingly, The RZA, whose Wu-Tang Clan named their first album Enter The 36 Chambers, also makes some effort to explain why kung fu cinema was adopted by hip-hop even if it was only a very brief movement.

Shaolin: A Hero Birthplace (16m41s): If you have any knowledge of martial arts, it's a fair bet that you will have heard of the Shaolin Temple, said to be the birthplace of kung fu and, therefore, the source of many martial arts practiced today. This begins with a short background to Shaolin before, with the assistance of Gordon Liu Chia-hui, it goes into the making of the film, its sequels and how the presentation of the harsh training involved in learning a martial art is central to the success and reputation of the films. Gordon Liu Chia-hui is particularly interesting in this, sounding very humble in explaining how he bore a responsibility to present Shaolin kung fu throughout the world and so knew that he had to be among the very best practitioners so as not to uphold the reputation of the Shaolin Temple.

Interview Gallery: There are three interviews included here and they begin with Gordon Liu Chia-hui (17m00s) in which he describes his learning the Hung Gar style of kung fu before filming began, through his early days in the film business and on to the success of The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin and its sequels. Next is an interview with critics David Chute and Andy Klein (7m56s) who spend their time talking about director Chia-Liang Liu as well as the format of the film, being largely concerned with San Te's training in kung fu, something that had not been seen before in the cinema in such detail. Finally, The RZA (10m14s) appears to talk about how he and Ol' Dirty Bastard would watch double bills on 42nd Street before porno took over and, like the commentary, goes into detail on the days of watching kung fu on television, doing on the moves on the streets after and his seeing The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin.

Trailer Gallery: There are three groupings here, the first being one for The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin featuring a Theatrical Trailer (3m53s), the Home Video Trailer (1m08s) and one for its release as Master Killer (35s). The second group features other movies from the same filmmakers and includes six trailers, Disciples Of The 36th Chamber, Five Shaolin Masters, Shaolin Mantis and Return To The 36th Chamber amongst them. There are also trailers included for One-Armed Swordsman, King Boxer, My Young Auntie, Born To Fight, Infernal Affairs 3 and Seven Swords.

Finally, there is a Stills Gallery and a concert video for The Wu-Tang Clan's Gravel Pit (2m08s), in which it might seem as though there's more people on the stage than in the crowd but which is actually quite paltry compared to the thousands on appear on their bloated Wu-Tang Forever album.
Details and Specifications
DVD Video Review

Region: 1

Certificate: R

Distributor:
Dragon Dynasty

Running Time:
116 mins approx
Soundtracks:
English Mono
Cantonese Mono
Mandarin Mono

Subtitles:
English
Spanish
English SDH

Director:
Chia-Liang Liu

Main cast:
Chia Hui Liu
Yu Wang
Lieh Lo
Chia Yung Liu
Norman Chu
John Cheung
Wilson Tong
Hang-Sheng Wu
-- more --
Ratings
Film
8
Video
9
Audio
9
Extras
6
8