Return to the 36th Chamber

China (1980), 99 minutes
Starring: Liu, Wang Lung-wei, Chen Szuchia, Hui Ying-hung, Hsaio Hou
Reviewer: Teri Tom
Genre: Comedy, Martial Arts
Rating: 4.5

All sequels should take a cue from Return To The 36th Chamber. In the action and martial arts genres, there is the disturbing trend of giving us more of all the wrong elements – more dark themes, more blood, more violence, more severed limbs. I’m not sure why that is. Perhaps writers think they should further explore characters, give them dark pasts, whatever. From Superman II to Lady Snowblood, this seems to be the case.That’s what makes Return so refreshing. Instead of rehashing what made the original 36th Chamber so great (click to see Teri’s Review of the original movie), we get an outright parody of the first film. It’s nice to know that at least in 1980, filmmakers weren’t taking themselves too seriously.

Gordon Liu doesn’t even reprise his role as the legendary monk San Te. That role is played by another actor, and Liu ends up portraying a well-meaning con man who has a run in with the local Manchu bullies. He resolves to no longer take the easy way out. In order to save his village, he’s going to learn kung fu at the Shaolin Temple!
What follows is a hilarious series of mishaps as he tries to con and schmooze his way into the Temple. Previously known for his wide-eyed eager beaver San Te in the 36th Chamber, Liu’s comedic genius is a wonderful surprise in Return, where he demonstrates some impeccable timing and great clumsy gracefulness. Highlights include a demonstration of piggyback kung fu and what must be the longest, most exhausting bath scene on film. The precedent was also set here for the wax-on-wax-off training methods used in The Karate Kid, which, by the way, is another movie that could’ve used sequels with a lighter touch.
As a result of its 180-degree turn, I found myself loving Return To The 36th Chamber just as much as the original but for entirely different reasons.