The majority of martial arts flicks that came to Western shores during the 70s and 80s were brutally kung fu chopped and edited to within an inch of their lives. Audiences wanted a load of punches and kicks for their buck, and that’s exactly what they got. When it was released in 1978, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin was one of the lucky few that slipped through the cracks, presenting a more accurate portrayal of the various traditions behind king fu combat. But many years and plenty of bootleg versions (in all their pan and scan glory) undermined the unique qualities of the Shaw Brothers’ martial arts classic. After such ruthless treatment the film has now been given a much deserved restoration.
On quick examination, you would be forgiven for thinking you had seen this film before: an oppressed village ruled by a tyrannical regime, a young man (played by 23-year-old Gordon Liu) who escapes with the intention of eventually returning to rid it of its evil rulers… The archetypical revenge plot is in full motion until Liu’s character reaches the Shaolin Temple to practise the ancient techniques of Shaolin kung fu. There he is renamed ‘San Te’ and learns that the art is not taught as a tool of vengeance.
Where many kung fu films feature a few obligatory scenes of schooling, The 36th Chamber evades the usual genre trappings. By dedicating the whole of the second part to the training San Te endures at the varying chambers, it forges a new template in which there is a greater reflection on the honing of all skills, from the physical to the intellectual and spiritual. Through the series of trials San Te undergoes a rebirth and refinement of the soul, rather than becoming the kind of barbaric assassin that the inappropriate American title Master Killer suggested.
Under the direction of Liu Chia-liang (aka Lau Kar-Leung, an expert martial artist himself), a potentially tedious second act instead highlights the artistry of kung fu. Using wide shots for the fight scenes and with a refreshing lack of quick cuts, the film constructs a faithful representation of kung fu, including the culture that surrounds it. Filming primarily on the Shaw Brothers’ soundstage, Liu captures a real sense of authenticity unrivalled by other productions of the time. The restored print reveals a surprisingly beautiful and detailed film that was hiding behind years of neglect, a grand vision inspired by Hollywood film design of the 40s and 50s.
The restoration gives The 36th Chamber a new lease of life. But this writer couldn’t help feeling a certain nostalgia for the familiar deterioration of the footage that made each shot different from the last, and for the scenes that started somewhere in the middle, adding to the confusion caused by the already incomprehensible plot. These flaws have been ironed out, and with them some of the joys of bunging a beat up video cassette into your VCR and asking for nothing more than to see some random, kick-ass kung fu fight scenes. To get some of this back, forget about your cinephile principles and switch on the English language option. The kung fu dub transports you to a time when these films were like nothing you had ever seen before: a true culture clash.
Also available on DVD on 23 February 2009: King Boxer (1972). The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and King Boxer are both drawn from the catalogue of Hong Kong’s legendary producers the Shaw Brothers. They are the first two releases on Dragon Dynasty, the DVD label founded (at the suggestion of Quentin Tarantino) by Bob and Harvey Weinstein specifically to release the very best of Asian cinema and newly launched in the UK by Momentum Pictures.