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Friday, January 22, 2016

Movie Talk - The 36th Chamber Trilogy

Well, it's cold here in TN with this snow. I think it’s time to get some straight-up kung fu action. Today, I’ll be looking at the 36th Chamber of Shaolin trilogy done by Shaw Brothers Studio. The movies all involved the legendary monk, San Te. The star of these movies is martial artist Gordon Liu. While he was already in movies like these, it’s the 36th Chamber that people will remember him for the most. I first saw snippets of his movies on this video that talked about martial artists a long time ago.

I first heard about the original years ago. When I found it at f.y.e., I bought it. It was a while before I saw it though. Over the last few months, I’ve noticed that Netflix has put on different kung fu-related movies. I saw that the latter two movies were on there, so I decided to give them a watch. There are some other Shaw Bros. movies that I saw on Netflix that aren’t related to the 36th Chamber. I’ll get to those some other time this week. By the way, I watched them all undubbed. I think this is my go-to thing with foreign movies since most old-school dubbing is pretty terrible.

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin was released in 1978. Liu plays as Liu Yude and is later known as San Te. He gets interested in helping a rebellion fend off the Manchu government in his province. The government retaliates and all of San Te’s family and friends are killed. After he himself gets injured, he finds the Shaolin temple. They reluctantly take him in and he later is able to train in the 35 chambers of Shaolin. When he finishes his training, he is exiled because he wants to use his skills against the Manchu government.  He returns home to build a rebellion against the oppressors. After he ultimately beats the bad guys, he makes the 36th Chamber in order to teach the common folk.

I don’t know if I could say it’s one of the best martial arts movies around. I’d have to see a heck of a lot more before I say that. What I will say is that this is pretty good movie. The story was pretty good. We follow San Te’s transformation from a young man to a pretty cool monk. Liu pulled off the look of a hero pretty well. A lot of the movie is spent on his training and those were some really good scenes. In fact, all of the fight choreography was really good here. The fighting really doesn’t get good until the second half, but it continues to get better from there.
Headbutt of Death!

I did have a couple of qualms while watching it again. After his time at the temple ends, we kind of go into rush mode. This definitely happens with the final battle. It’s all too brief especially after the battle. After San Te headbutts the general, the movie is pretty much over. We get no idea on how everything happened afterwards. We end up at the 36th Chamber right after the headbutt. I thought it was weird when I first saw it. Even though the last part of the movie is a little weird, I really liked this one.

Return to The 36th Chamber
This “sort of” sequel was released in 1980. This time, Liu plays another character, Chu Jen-chieh. Chu is a good-hearted con man whose family and friends work at a fabric dyeing mill. When the boss decides to cut wages and hire Manchu mercenaries to “improve” work, his friends ask him to pose as San Te to help get their money. This works at first but Chu is found out. He decides to travel to learn kung fu and ends up coming upon the 36th chamber. He even meets San Te who’s played by someone else this time. Unfortunately, Chu’s antics cause him to only do scaffolding for the temple.
What was with that dude's teeth?

Somehow, he’s able to learn kung fu by watching the students and practicing those moves while doing his roofing. Eventually, he ends up getting kicked out of the temple. He returns home thinking he didn’t learn anything. It turns out that his friends and family are worse off than they were before. Luckily, he and his people realize that he’s got the skill. He ends up heading to the mill and using those skills (“Rooftop kung fu!”) on the corrupt Manchu bosses.

This one wasn’t great but it was far from bad. Unlike the first movie, this one is pretty much a comedy. I think that we also didn’t have any noticeable deaths here too. It plays up the slapstick in a big way with the characters, the dialogue, and the action. It was a little jarring at first but I came to like most of it after a while. I thought Liu’s character here was alright for the most part.  It would have been interesting if Liu also played San Te here as well. I bet they could’ve gotten away with it later on if the cinematography was more advanced. The fight scenes are where this movie really shines. The scenes in the temple were pretty cool and the fights at the end were really entertaining and fun to watch.

There were a couple of things I wasn’t too enthused with though. Some of the comedy did get a little grating. I get they want to tell a whimsical story, but it did get too silly at points. There really wasn’t much to the villains of the movie either. They were just money-grubbing buttheads. I thought the ending was abrupt as well. I felt like the movie stepped on the brakes and told me to get out and walk home. Still, this was an entertaining movie with some good funny moments and cool fight scenes.

Disciples of The 36th Chamber
The final film in this trilogy was released in 1985. Liu returns as Monk San Te but it’s a limited role. The lead character in this movie is Fong Sai-Yuk played by Hisau Ho (Hou Hsiau). Fong Sai-Yuk is also another legendary martial artist from China’s past and has been the subject of other movies. In this one, Sai-Yuk is a really rebellious youth who can’t keep staying out of trouble. When his antics almost get his parents’ school closed, he and his brothers are sent to live at the Shaolin Temple where San Te teaches kung fu. Since he already knows kung fu, Sai-Yuk also acts up at the school and this gets the Manchus involved. The Manchu governor tries to use Sai-Yuk’s gullibility in order to take out the Shaolin. Luckily, the Shaolin aren’t so easily defeated.
San Te looks peeved with Sai-Yuk. I wonder why... oh yeah, Sai-Yuk's an idiot.

This one wasn’t as good as the previous two. There were things I liked about it though. The whole look of the movie was pretty good. While Liu is only in a limited role, it was cool to see him doing his thing as San Te. I actually liked Sai-Yuk’s mother better than Sai-Yuk himself. She even kicked a decent amount of butt here too. I even liked the villains here. They were a bit crafty this time around. The fight scenes also rocked as usual. Everyone was kicking butt in this thing. The final fight scenes were really cool.

As for the negatives, some of the comedy fell flat for me. There are some funny moments though. The biggest complaint I have about this movie is the main character himself. Fong Sai-Yuk is really annoying as the main lead. He’s impulsive, arrogant, and an overall ass… that’s me being nice. It would be fine if he was somewhat sympathetic, but he just comes off as just pathetic and annoying throughout the whole movie. He even doesn’t learn anything or grow as a character at the end. I seriously considered watching something else because of that bozo. Overall, Disciples has good things in it, but Sai-yuk almost makes the movie unwatchable at times.

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Overall, the 36th Chamber trilogy provides a lot of good things. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll fawn at the sweet choreography, and you’ll cringe at the bad moments. I may be done with the 36th Chamber, but I’m far from done talking about movies done by The Shaw Brothers. Next time, I’ll be looking at three movies the studio did back in the 70’s. Until then, Peace, God Bless, and don’t be an overall... bozo to people. I’ll be nice to y’all.

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