Martial Arts Gold is a short season of classic Shaw Brothers martial arts films being broadcast on Film4 in the UK each Friday from January 15th to February 5th. Every film is being presented at its original aspect ratio and in its original language, complete with English subtitles. The season kicked off with Lau Kar-leung's iconic 1978 film The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. I'll be putting together a review for each film in the season, as well as for the films shown in a second season due in March and April.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin [HKMDB]
Hong Kong, 1978
Directed by Lau Kar-leung
Starring Gordon Liu, Lo Lieh, Wilson Tong
Few martial arts films from anywhere in the world are praised as highly as The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and the accolades it receives are entirely deserved. In this classic Shaw Brothers film from martial artist and director Lau Kar-leung, Gordon Liu stars as a revolutionary student in Manchu-dominated Canton. When the rebel group of which he is a part is discovered, Liu Yude narrowly escapes its decimation by the vicious Manchu officer Lord Tang (Wilson Tong). With his friends and family dead, Liu Yude flees to the legendary Shaolin Temple in a bid to learn kung fu from the Buddhist monks that reside there.
36th Chamber is often called the ultimate kung fu training film and it's an apt title. One of Lau's principle aims in making the film was to present a more realistic idea of martial arts training, and to underscore the sheer investment of time and determination that mastery of a martial art demands. Appropriately, a hefty part of the film's running time is made up of training sequences, in which Liu Yude – renamed San Te upon becoming a Shaolin novice – endures and masters the gruelling challenges of the Temple's 35 formidable chambers.
Particularly in Western martial arts films, training is seen as something of a nuisance. Eager to skip to the fighting, directors tend to relegate years of learning into brief montages. Instead, Lau really places his emphasis on training and crafts some hugely absorbing sequences which take place over the five years San Te is gradually growing in physical, philosophical and spiritual capability. Crucially, the monks' trials are interspersed with subtle visual humour which lightens the film and adds significantly to its charm.
The interior workings of the Shaolin Temple and the rigorous nature of its training aren't the only elements in Lau's film, however. The sections in the outside world which bookend the film are packed with stellar fights and really sell the changes Gordon Liu's character undergoes. The opening section of the film deftly depicts a society in terror, reigned over by General Tien Ta, who is played by kung fu screen legend Lo Lieh. When considering this section's focus on a student movement opposing a repressive government, it's hard not to think of current events transpiring today in Hong Kong.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin may not have the most incredible fights in martial arts cinema history, and Gordon Liu may not have all the charisma of Bruce Lee, but the film's overall effect is superb. The brilliant opening sequence in which San Te trains alongside the titles promises a thrilling journey which the rest of Lau's most famous film delivers on with aplomb. In short, believe the hype: this film is essential viewing for anyone with an interest in martial arts cinema.
Martial Arts Gold on Film4 continued with:
January 22nd: King Boxer (1972)
January 29th: Come Drink With Me (1966)
February 5th: One-Armed Swordsman (1967)