36th Chamber of Shaolin, The

China (1978), 115 minutes
Starring: Gordon Lau, Lo Lieh, Wong Yu, Norman Tsui, Lee Hoi-sang, Lau Kar-Wing, Hsu Chang
Reviewer: Teri Tom
Genre: Comedy, Martial Arts
Rating: 5
I suppose if I had to recommend only one movie as an introduction to the Chinese martial arts genre, it would have to be The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin. You can’t ask for a better place to start than a tale involving the birthplace of kung fu, the Shaolin Temple. Gordon Lau is San Te, a Han rebel in the 1600’s who has since become the stuff of Chinese folklore and legend. After his family is murdered by Ching Dynasty Manchurians, San Te seeks refuge and martial arts instruction at the Shaolin Temple.

It’s been said that this is the prototypical training film, although many others dealing with similar material preceded it. Even Rocky (1976) predates The 36th Chamber by two years, but it’s a tried-and-true formula that, given a Shaolin angle and Gordon Lau’s performance, can’t possibly lose.Just for the record, some have commented on Lau’s physical inferiority to Bruce Lee – I dunno, though, folks, Gordon looks pretty cut up to me. Hello?! Didn’t y’all see the opening sequence? Physiques aside, Lau is absolutely endearing as the eager beaver monk in training. We all love the in-your-face explosiveness of Bruce Lee, but Lau is equally charismatic in his own quiet, elflike way. His on-screen enthusiasm and perseverance are infectious as all get-out. Certainly an inspiration for anyone who’s had to learn something from the very beginning – that would include all of us, wouldn’t it? And unlike Mark Hamill’s uneasy transformation from Tatooine farm boy to Jedi Knight, Lau is totally convincing at every stage of his transition to full-fledged monk.

The training sequences themselves are fascinating and sometimes quite painful to watch – with great names like the Sword Chamber, the Leg Chamber, the Wrist Chamber. That wrist room, by the way, involves an exercise that my own sifu makes me do, so I really felt that one. Yeeeee-ouch!Now one thing The 36th Chamber does nicely is balance humor with drama. After all, this is in many ways a revenge film, but it also has a light touch that is never misplaced or forced.

If I have one complaint about this movie, it’s that the fight scenes are just not my cup o’ tea. I have an actual physical reaction to them. There are some people that just love this old-school stuff, but, frankly, that kind of stilted rhythm (ONE-TWO-THREE-FOUR!!!) makes me a bit nauseous.

On a final note, The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin brings up questions regarding the martial arts. Protecting the integrity of an art is important, but sharing that art is a necessary part of preserving it – something the Shaolin monks were reluctant to do. Similarly, Bruce Lee would often say that Jeet Kune Do was not for the masses. That he did not develop standardized criteria for his art, however, has led to the criminal misrepresentation and near-total destruction of JKD. It has forced some of his first generation students to step out of the shadows in an attempt to recover what has been lost. At what point does catering to the masses compromise integrity, and is refusal to share knowledge equally detrimental?No doubt you’ll be hearing more from me on this subject, but for now, I am sure of one thing. Bruce was big on physical fitness, so I’m off to the Leg Chamber. See you in the gym.

Read the review of Return to the 36th Chamber