Howdy all you Supercultists out there on the interwebz! I’m Bad Movie Professor Cameron Coker (BS in “Fighting the Man!” with a minor in “The Wu-Tang Clan”) and I’ll be posting my hype-tacular speeches every week along with some long lost speeches from past Supercult Shows!
This week Supercult, injured and starving, crawls through the mountains on its hands and knees, hides away in a food cart, to be carried by Shaoilin monks up into the mountains…in order to get to the nearest Red Box and rent The 36th Chamber of Shaolin!
Liu Yude is a simple student but his activist teacher inspires him to join the rebellion against the oppressive Manchu government. Little do they know that their uprising has not gone unnoticed and after a brutal massacre orchestrated by General Tien Ta that leaves his teacher, friends, and family dead, Liu decides to travel to a secluded Shaolin temple to learn Kung-Fu and master the skills that will bring him revenge and his people freedom. It’s the Kung-Fu classic that started it all: the 36th Chamber of Shaolin!
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, also known as The Master Killer and Shaolin Master Killer, is a 1978 Shaw Brothers kung-fu film. In 1960s China, wuxia films, films that combined the martial arts and narratives of wuxia literature and the fantasy and supernatural aspects of Chinese mythology. These films often utilized animation and special effects to draw large audiences to theatres and modern interpretations of the style can be seen in films such as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, House of Flying Daggers, and even the American animated film Kung Fu Panda.
The Shaw Brothers along with their competitors led the charge to dethrone this style with their own more realistic form of entertainment. The kung-fu explosion coincided with Hong Kong’s economic boom in the 70s, and at their peak the Shaw Brothers were producing over 30 shockingly high quality films per year. Their studio produced some of the first and greatest Kung-Fu films of all time and the development of the genre helped give rise to stars like Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee. Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA once said, “the difference between a Shaw movie and a regular martial arts movie is like the difference between cornflakes and frosted flakes…if it’s Shaw Brothers, you know it’ll be dope.”
And Dope this film most certainly is. Directed by veteran Shaw studio actor, action choreographer, and martial artist Lau Kar-leung the film is based on Chinese folk hero, San Te, a legendary 18th century martial arts disciple who trained as a Shaolin Monk and was bestowed the title of San Te or “Three Harmonies”. Lau insisted that his favorite martial arts student, the relatively inexperienced Gordon Liu, portray San Te in the film and the result is a more realistic, philosophical, and political take on the kung-fu film. The character Liu Yude is born a fishmongers son but after narrowly escaping death he literally crawls his way through the woods and up the mountains to the Shaolin Temple where he heard they teach kung-fu. Although Shaolin is traditionally closed to outsiders, Liu’s tenacity earns him a chance to progress through the 35 training chambers and master the Shaolin arts.
Yeah, that’s right. 35 training chambers. A full hour of the film is devoted to training sequences (something most films gloss over with a five-minute musical montage), but somehow there’s never a dull moment. It is one of the longest and most impressive training montages ever put to film. While early chambers focus on training individual parts of the body, later chambers are devoted to skills with specific weapons and mental discipline. But beyond the audacious yet compelling historical narrative the 36th Chamber of Shaolin is a technical masterpiece. Lau insisted on shooting all of the fights at regular speed during a time when most directors of the era used sped-up film for their more intense and difficult to execute stunts.
On top of that Lau liked doing long continuous takes of the action, sometimes involving as many as 20 different actors performing difficult and complex actions. Liu reportedly suffered several injuries during filming, and it’s easy to see why. The blades those guys are handling are real and neither the actors nor the camera shy away from the action. It’s a breathtaking ballet and a testament to Lau and Liu’s perfectionism. The result is a film that feels raw and unedited. This uncompromising editing style was later honed by Jackie Chan to give his films the same raw, and often painful realism. In comparison, the over-edited American action flicks of today give off the feeling that every punch is pulled.
The 36th Chamber is simply bad ass. So bad ass in fact that it generated two sequels, the audacious kung-fu comedy “Return to the 36th Chamber” in 1980 and the shallow, but nevertheless entertaining “Dischiples Of The 36th Chamber” in 1985. But under the perfectly seasoned crust of The 36th Chamber’s execution and hypnotic physicality is a juicy, medium-rare, thick-cut slice of genuine emotional resonance. The 36th Chamber is not your average revenge plot. It seamlessly fuses Chinese history, allegory, and folklore, with a powerful message of social justice and the struggle against an oppressive government, a message that was not lost on many African Americans who were struggling against their own version of the Manchu’s during the civil rights movement.
The Harvard Film Archive calls the The 36th Chamber an “exhilarating rendition of the legendary dissemination of the Shaolin martial arts”. It not only helped start a wave of kung-fu classics that has yet to die out, but The 36th Chamber and the rest of the Shaw Brother’s films were massive influences on Western culture and modern kung-fu directors such as the Wachowski’s, Quintin Tarantino, Ang Lee, and the Wu-Tang Clan. The debut album of the group was titled Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), there’s a member of the group named Masta Killa, and RZA himself does the audio commentary for the DV and Blue Ray of the film alongside film scholar Andy Klein.. It is ranked 2nd in Paste magazine’s list of the 100 best Martial Arts Movies of All time, beating out Enter the Dragon, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Drunken Master. Gordon Liu was propelled into stardom by his role and went on to work on over 100 films and TV series and was featured in both Kill Bill films, first as Johnny Mo, the leader of the Crazy 88 and then as kung-fu master Pai Mei. The film has a 7.8 on IMDB and a 95% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Kung-Fu film fanatics everywhere will be alternating between gibbering excitement, and confusion at this film’s inclusion in our celebrated ‘So Bad They’re Good’ lineup. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is not a bad kung-fu movie. It’s not even a good kung-fu movie. It is arguably the greatest kung-fu movie ever made. So why is the Supercult Show watching it?
YOLO, B-!^*#&$ we do what we want!
The Supercult Show is proud to present, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin!