In a nutshell, Bored & Dangerous says: “I’m not all of a sudden inspired to binge on 70s kung fu movies, but The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is more than enough to make me understand why it captured the imagination of so many people.”
The main reason I started this blog was to make me watch more movies, and to vary the kinds of movies I watched. The first part of that has been well and truly accomplished with me watching hundreds of movies for the first time, instead of falling back on old favourites over and over again. But l’m not sure if I’ve varied my selections enough. I still watch mainly American movies, with directors, writers and actors that make them a pretty safe bet. So this year, I’m forcing myself to seek out more international movies. With Foreign Language Weekends, every weekend(ish) during 2016, I’ll review two(ish) non-English language movies.
“I wish I had learnt kung fu instead of studying.”
Being a movie lover is about more than high brow classics and the golden years. It’s about a love of all cinema. And even though I know that, I don’t indulge in enough B-grade, genre cinema. A browse through Bored and Dangerous would show that while a lot of the reviews for those kinds of movies are positive when I do see them, I rarely take on horror, I’m not that big into action, and besides a brief obsession in my pre teen years, martial arts has never been hugely on my radar. But thanks to Quentin Tarantino becoming the king of nerd cinema, and the RZA bringing the genre to hip hop, I feel like kung fu movies are an important part of being a movie lover that I need to explore more. Which is why I watched The 36th Chamber of the Shaolin.
(Disclaimer: I have no idea when this movie is set, and Google is giving me bubkis. so let’s just go with “Olden Days”). In olden days Hong Kong, the oppressive Manchu government manages to supress a rebellious uprising in a small village, supported by a local school teacher. To punish the teacher, his students and many of their friends and family are killed. One of the few lucky enough to survive is Liu Yude (Liu Chia-Hui), who flees the village, looking for refuge at the temple of an order of Shaolin monks.
At first rejected, Liu Yude is eventually allowed to join their order where he takes the name San Te. After a year of menial servitude, San Te lets the abbot know that he wants to learn the ancient ways of Shaolin kung fu so he can help the helpless, like the people of his home village, defend themselves against their oppressors. His noble intentions are enough for the abbot, and San Te begins his training.
From the opening titles sequence of Liu Chia-Hui performing a solo exhibition of his kung fu prowess, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin was everything I expected to be, and totally new all at once. There’s the obviously overdubbed sound effects and oft parodied “yelps” that have become the calling cards of these movies, but there’s also straight faced sincerity to it as well. Those sounds weren’t put there to be made fun of for decades later, they were put there to heighten things for great action and tension.
The other thing that confirmed my assumptions of this kind of movie, while surprising me at the same time, was the training. If The 63th Chamber was made today, the destruction of the village would be an action packed first act, complete with a total and epic devastation. The second act would be about training with he monks, but a lot of time would be dedicated to a forced, clichéd mentorship, with most of the physical learning being crammed into a rushed montage sequence. Then, San Te’s revenge would take up way too much time while going way too over the top with action and set pieces to close things out.
In The 36th Chamber, the training is the movie. The sacking of the village is just enough to give the main character enough motivation for us to follow his journey to the next step. The final battle is just as economical, and I would even say deliberately a little anti climactic, and all the more affective for it. It’s the middle section, the training, that gets by far the most focus. We see San Te’s trials and tribulations in such long, excruciating detail, it makes his accomplishments feel a lot more earned and triumphant than I ever expected.
I’m not all of a sudden inspired to binge on 70s kung fu movies, but The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is more than enough to make me understand why it captured the imagination of so many people. And why its characteristics are still so recognisable and easily parodied today. It’s such a unique and intricate genre with such a specific language, that I’m finally starting to understand its importance in film history.