Tuesday, January 24, 2012


(Return to) The 36th Chamber of Shaolin

Which is your favourite kung fu movie? No prizes for guessing which mine is. It's always been Enter the Dragon which Bruce Lee never saw in the theatre — he died three weeks before the film was premiered in 1973. His death, at 32, wasn't just premature, it was profoundly tragic. There are quite a few unforgettable moments in the film — Lee's fair play, inimitable catcalls, unblinking eyes, lightning reaction, flying kick, amazing skill with nunchakus, duel in the Hall of Mirrors, and even one liners. In one scene, as Lee prepares to fight O'Harra (Robert Wall) and avenge his sister's death, O'Harra shows off by flinging a board in the air and smashing it with his fist. A grim-faced Lee retorts, "Boards don't hit back."

However, this post, which is offered as a part of Tuesday's Overlooked/Forgotten Films at Todd Mason's blog, is not about Enter the Dragon or the spate of martial arts flicks that followed, most notably, Drunken Master (1978), Snake in the Eagle's Shadow (1978), Mad Monkey Kung Fu (1979), and Snake in the Monkey's Shadow (1979). It's about two other kung fu movies, the first of which is considered the greatest martial arts film ever made — The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978) and Return to the 36th Chamber (1980) — directed by Chia-Liang Liu.

Last week, I watched both these films after a gap of nearly three decades. I remember, the first time I saw it I was awestruck by The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and the gruelling training that San Te (Chia Hui Liu) goes through. He might as well be training to become a Navy SEAL.

A still from The 36th Chamber of Shaolin.

San Te, wounded in an uprising against the brutal Manchu government, approaches the fortress-like Shaolin Temple and begs to be trained so that he can go back and avenge the deaths of his family and friends. The temple of peace-loving Buddhist monks run by a kind abbot is initially reluctant to accept him because he doesn't belong to their fold. Later, however, he is allowed to enter the monastery and trained in its famed martial arts technique. San Te trains long and hard and often fails, only to rise and excel in each department, and quickly make his way past the other disciples to reach the 35th chamber. After completing his training, San Te goes home to help his people bring down the oppressive regime. Mission accomplished, he returns to the Shaolin Temple where he opens the 36th chamber to train ordinary people in martial arts.

If director Chia-Liang Liu romanticises The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, he lends a comic touch to Return to the 36th Chamber which is not a sequel though it might seem like one.

In this film, released in 1980, Chao Jen-Cheh (Chia Hui Liu again) is hired by poor workers to reclaim their wages from the owner of a chemical factory where they are employed but ill treated. Jen-Cheh must pretend he is a Shaolin monk and kung fu expert but his impersonation, with a dose of slapstick, is soon exposed by the boss and his thugs. Filled with remorse, the well-meaning Jen-Cheh promises the workers that he will return only after he learns kung fu at Shaolin.

As in The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Jen-Cheh tries to trick his way into the temple but with little success. He pleads with the kindly abbot who sees potential in the upstart and assigns him two tasks with a purpose only the monk knows.

A scene from Return to the 36th Chamber.

First, he must wash his soot-stained face at the well. In the absence of large wooden buckets, which are taken by the official pupils, he must tie one end of a rope to his waist and the other end to a rock which he must then lift and throw into the well and quickly try and wash himself when the water splashes over. Jen-Cheh masters the art of ‘drawing water’ with a rock after dozens of failed, albeit comic, attempts. He learns his first martial arts lesson. But he doesn't know it.

The second task is what makes this film worth seeing. The abbot orders Jen-Cheh to build a bamboo scaffolding all around the interior of the temple. As the young man goes to work on the scaffolding, he watches the pupils train under him. He begins to imitate their actions with little other than his bare hands and feet and bamboos and twine. Jen-Cheh takes a year to build the scaffolding — and train himself in martial arts of the Shaolin temple. But he doesn’t know it. When the abbot sees the scaffolding, he quietly tells Jen-Cheh to pull it down. Jen-Cheh can’t believe it, but the abbot knows that the young man is ready.

Jen-Cheh then returns to his hometown and takes on the factory owner and his thugs with a superb display of martial arts tactics (the start-stop-start-stop technique of fighting associated with most kung fu movies) which he learnt from the rooftops of Shaolin Temple. He even calls it rooftop kung fu.

Chia-Liang Liu, who directed the two Shaolin films and also directed himself in Mad Monkey Kung Fu, is average with comedy. The martial arts expert who brought comic timing to, well, martial arts films is Jackie Chan who acted in popular films like Snake in the Eagle's Shadow and Drunken Master. His brand of slapstick is permanently etched on kung fu movies.


  1. Enter the dragon is probably my favorite too. Though not strictly a kung fu movie, I did much like the movie Lone Wolf McQuade.

  2. Charles, LONE WOLF McQUADE sounds awfully familiar. I'm going to check it out.