Chang Cheh (FIVE DEADLY VENOMS, ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN) wasn’t the only great director making quality kung-fu films for the Shaw Brothers in the 1970s. Lau Kar-leung, who had an extensive (and distinctive) background in martial arts was also starting to make his mark in the second half of the decade. Starting as a fight choreographer for Cheh’s films – including THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN – he soon graduated to directing and began casting his father’s pupil (and godson) Gordon Liu in his films. While his first film EXECUTIONERS FROM SHAOLIN turned some heads, it was THE 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN (aka MASTER KILLER) which gained both the director and star international prominence.
Of course, Lau Kar-leung, along with his brother Lau Kar-wing (also a notable director), was destined to be involved in martial arts. Their father Lau Cham was a martial arts master, and student of the legendary Lam Sai Wing (aka Butcher Wing) who would be portrayed by Sammo Hung in THE MAGNIFICENT BUTCHER. Oh, and did I mention that Lam Sai Wing was a student of Wong Fei Hung? Yeah, that’s some serious legitimacy. Kar-leung is the real deal, and he took a much more realistic approach to choreography, as well as featuring lots of interesting (and awesome) weapons in his films. He would later go on to clash – both onscreen and off – with Jackie Chan when directing DRUNKEN MASTER II (aka LEGEND OF DRUNKEN MASTER), which led to him walking off before the final fight scene was complete. Kar-leung is still doing choreography – he worked on Tsui Hark’s SEVEN SWORDS in 2005 – which is damn impressive for a guy in his mid-70s.
I remember my first experience with ENTER THE 36TH CHAMBER very well. I had recently began to track down the older films of Jackie Chan, and was digging through the kung-fu sections of various video stores to see what I could find. Picking up MASTER KILLER (and, at the same time, SHOGUN ASSASSIN) must have been divine providence. I was transfixed from the opening credits, stylized to show Gordon Liu practicing various martial arts styles (a Lau Kar-leung trademark). It was dubbed, full screen, and jaw-droppingly awesome. It expanded my scope of what a martial arts movie should be, and made me hungry to go outside the Golden Harvest films I had been devouring and open my mind to other Shaw Brothers films. In short, it changed the way I viewed martial arts cinema, and I have trouble being very objective when it comes to a film that meant to much to my development as a fan. Thankfully, it lives up to the hype.
We’ll talk about Gordon Liu at length in a future ENTER THE FIST column, but needless to say – he’s the whole show here. While he had made impressive martial arts films previously, his role as the rebellious Shaolin Monk San Te (and his bald head) would become his trademark, and would be repeated and referenced in many of his future films. His performance is peerless, mixing his impressive legitimate kung-fu credentials with an appealing innocence and and defiant streak that makes his progress through the various training chambers completely engaging.
But what makes this movie so darn special? While the plot is certainly interesting, and the fight scenes – particularly those at the end – are memorable, it’s the chambers themselves that would forever influence future kung-fu films, and a heck of a lot of hip-hop groups at the same time. We’ll get to those chambers in just a little bit, but first let’s look at the storyline.
Gordon Liu is San Te, a young student in Canton who – along with some classmates – is pulled into the rebellion against the Manchu government by an idealistic teacher. While they have a great time helping pass along secret messages, eventually they are found out and the Manchus – led by the great Wilson Tong (who doesn’t get to show off his fancy footwork here like he did in THE VICTIM) – start rounding up the students and killing them. Oops. While San Te’s friends are killed, he manages to escape – barely – and attempts to get to get to the Shaolin Temple on a badly injured leg. He hides inside a basket of vegetables where he eventually tumbles out in front of a group of confused monks. They treat his wounds, but threaten to toss him out on his ass, before deciding to show a bit of mercy and let him stick around. It’s not like they have to pay the guy.
San Te finds himself cleaning and sweeping and doing the lowest possible gruntwork, but eventually gets a little frustrated with the lack of kung-fuing. So, he asks a monk what the deal is, and discovers that he could start learning at any time, he just needed to ask. In fact, there are 35 chambers from which to choose. See. That’s why you should always ask questions. San Te, being a brash young idiot, decides to go right for the top chamber – which features monks with superhuman abilities. They basically use the force to knock him over, and he runs off, convinced that it might be best to start at the bottom.
This would be a good place to mention that San Te was an actual legendary Shaolin martial arts disciple from the 18th century. While much of the history of the Shaolin temple and its influence on kung-fu has been exaggerated by films like this one, San Te was believed to have created a training hall in the Shaolin Temple for regular folks to learn kung fu. The San Te in this film is obsessed with the idea, thinking that if he were able to learn – and then teach – kung fu to the people of his village, then they would be able to fight back against the Manchus. The Shaolin monks are resistant to the idea, for obvious reasons, but.. well.. you’ll see.
This is where the film gets awesome. The training sequences in this film are legendary, and have been imitated countless times – particularly in most future films featuring the Shaolin temple. You see, there are 35 different chambers, and each chamber is meant to train the Shaolin monks in a specific skill, or develop a particular part of their body. We see San Te enter each chamber, and his initial attempts usually end in disaster. Then we see him improve at each skill, eventually mastering it before moving onto the next chamber. Most notably is the sequence where, in order to strengthen their arms, students are required to affix knives under their biceps while carrying buckets of water up a steep embankment. They can either keep their arms outstretched, or risk piercing their sides with the blades. Ouch!
But that’s just one of the chambers. In another San Te is asked to rhythmically bang a gong using a lengthy bamboo pole with a weight attached. Starting at the middle of the pole, his wrist strength increases until he can grip just the end and maintain the rhythm. Oh, and don’t forget the chamber that tests vision, where two lit sticks of incense are placed at both sides of San Te’s head, while he’s asked to follow a rocking candle with his eyes. And head movement leads to immediate cheek burning, These monks don’t mess around.
I won’t describe all of the chambers, but it’s important to note that these sequences are meant to take place over a period of years. As San Te makes progress, he’s given his own chamber to oversee, and he rapidly becomes one of the temple’s most impressive students. Eventually he’s given the opportunity to oversee any chamber that he wishes, but is challenged by a Shaolin Officer (played by the awesome Lee Hoi San) who suggests that San Te’s promotion be delayed until he can beat him (and his twin blades) in a one-on-one fight. While San Te’s skills have obviously shown great improvement, the Officer beats him easily, leading to repeated confrontations where Gordon Liu gets to show off his prowess with a variety of weapons. Continually beaten, San Te comes up with the idea of an entirely new weapon – the three-sectioned staff – which eventually leads to success.
This section is amazing because not only does it show San Te’s progress up to this point, it also shows how his ingenuity and original thinking allows him to overcome even the most daunting obstacles. Just like with his training, he’s presented with a problem, and then is expected to work hard and discover a solution. It also allows him to win the respect of the Officer, who had shown skepticism regarding San Te’s rapid ascent since his entrance into the temple. Finally having earned the teaching position of his choice, San Te shocks everyone by suggesting instead the creation of a 36th chamber which would focus on teaching Shaolin martial arts to regular citizens.
The old guard in charge of the Shaolin Temple will be having none of that, so they send San Te out into the world, where he immediately starts recruiting students to train in kung-fu. It’s a bit jarring to find ourselves suddenly resuming the plot after the hour long (and five year!) Shaolin sequence, but San Te is a completely different (and more developed) character now. And after all of that training, it’s time to kick some ass. San Te encounters a blacksmith, a bamboo cutter and a flour seller and teaches them all the ways of the force. I mean, kung-fu.
This would be a great time to mention that the evil General Tien, the supreme baddy of the story, is played by the late Lo Lieh, who gained immortality by starring in KING BOXER (aka FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH). While he was a good guy in that film, Lieh specialized in playing villains, and this guy is a super asshole. Which makes his comeuppance oh so sweet. While San Te first makes short work out of the bullying Tang San-yao (Wilson Tong), stopping short of killing him, the big fight is saved for General Tien, and it’s a doozy. Using the skills assembled from his years of Shaolin training, San Te dominates the fight, ending with General Tien being stabbed to death (accidentally) by his own men. The film ends with San Te training with his friends in the new 36th chamber of shaolin. Hey! That’s the title.
THE 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN was a phenomenon in Hong Kong, and found a cult audience in North America under the title MASTER KILLER. It launched Gordon Liu as a major martial arts star, which was nice since he had earlier been groomed to be a star in the US in the film THE ULTIMATE WARRIOR (directed by ENTER THE DRAGON’s Robert Clouse), but the lead was instead given to the similarly bald (but english speaking) Yul Brynner. While Liu would play variants of the role continually for the rest of his career, he also appeared in the two official sequels to THE 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN: RETURN TO THE 36TH CHAMBER (also directed by Lau Kar-leung, and featuring a similar plotline of a youth working to be accepted by the Shaolin monastery) and DISCIPLES OF THE 36TH CHAMBER in 1985, where Liu returns to the role of San Te but takes a back seat to Hsiou Hou playing a boastful, arrogant variation on Fong Sai Yuk. The film’s influence can be seen on a number of american productions, included the (ridiculous) AMERICAN SHAOLIN (which I actually saw before I saw MASTER KILLER) as well as on Quentin Tarantino’s KILL BILL films – which featured Gordon Liu in dual roles.
It’s a film that truly has it all. An intricate, well paced story. Dynamite choreography. Inventive (and influential) training sequences. And a wonderful central performance by Gordon Liu, who makes for a sympathetic, expressive lead while still showing plenty of restrained charisma. If you’re having trouble getting into the unique Shaw Brothers style, this is one of the very best starting points. Simply as good as it gets.
NEXT WEEK: ENTER THE DRAGON (1973)