Milestone Movies : The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978)

Hong Kong’s great gift to cinema

by Brannavan Gnanalingham

Hong Kong action films from the 1970s and 1980s have had such an immense impact on how modern audiences watch action films, that it would be almost impossible to overstate their influence. Aesthetically, thematically and narrative-wise, many of Hollywood’s biggest successes would have felt entirely different if it were not for Hong Kong.

However, it would also be simplistic to assume that Hong Kong films ccan be lumped together as one homogeneous cinema. The term encompasses everything from John Woo’s balletic, operatic camerawork – which managed to make violence look ‘sexy’ – to the kung fu films that spawned global stars like Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan. One film that typifies the genre is the 1978 film The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, a film that was initially seen as just another factory product of the prolific Hong Kong studio, the Shaw Brothers.

The film is a standard melodrama when the plot is broken down. A boy witnesses his family get killed by tyrannical invading forces, and is injured while escaping. He trains himself to be a fighter at a Shaolin monastery, and fights for revenge/redemption. The boy is played by Gordon Liu with an intensity that belies the operatic nature of the story, and the film’s immediate impact was obvious. There were a number of sequels, and 36 Chambers won a hard core cult status that included commemoration by hip-hop group the Wu-Tang Clan, and the casting of Gordon Liu as the kung-fu master in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill.

The film also won critical acclaim, with some calling it the greatest martial arts film ever made. In its wake were a number of “Shaolin films”, and martial arts movies that focused on the training of fighters. Commercially it never had the impact that films like King Boxer or Enter the Dragon had, nor did Gordon Liu become a global superstar that other fighter/actors were able to become. However, it helped write the rules of action cinema, and epitomised the appeal that action films have had on audiences ever since cinema’s conception.

Kung-fu exploded in popularity in the 1970s. The increased educational opportunities in increasingly cosmopolitan cities to learn the martial arts contributed considerably, but the martial arts also gained considerable exposure through film. Narratives of forgotten and downtrodden people gained considerable resonance with global audiences, and the post-colonial tension underneath many of the seminal films (specifically those from the-then British colony of Hong Kong, or the American blaxploitation re-workings) meant the genre won fans all over the world. Kung-fu aesthetics carried onto other action films – and the increased emphasis on physicality and the human body became obvious in 1980s American films, and in and other cinematic action traditions as well.

Like musicals and comedies, action films tend to interrupt the narrative to show-off a ‘spectacle’. The pleasure the audience derives from these type of genres is primarily from the spectacle of a set-piece (not necessarily from the rest of the film – though for many, the amalgamation of the narrative-stopping spectacle and the narrative is important). That’s why bravura action scenes often define an action film, whether it be the chariot race in Ben-Hur, the car chase in The French Connection, or the bank robbery in Heat. Kung-fu films are no different in this regard. Famous examples include the hall of mirrors scene in Enter the Dragon or the burning floor of Master of the Flying Guillotine). The success of the film depends on how good the fight or the fighter is, rather than how good the story itself is.

The 36 Chambers of Shaolin however sets up the training as the primary focus of the film, rather than the fights. The chief pleasure in the film is watching San Te (loosely based on a real-life rebellious Shaolin monk) progress from a studious boy to a mentally and physically hardened fighting machine. Unlike Bruce Lee we don’t necessarily assume that the protagonist is a capable fighter – San Te has to earn his stripes in front of the camera.

As a result, kung fu is shown to be a far more complex and disciplined activity than it had been shown previously, and the action scenes have to be ‘earned’ by the characters’ training, rather than simply being an excuse to punctuate the narrative. The film’s director, Lau Kar-leung, had always been open about trying to appear more ‘realistic’ in his depiction of kung-fu. He resented the shoddy and simplistic construction of kung-fu in the films that he had grown up with (and later worked on) and sought to show the rigour which comes with kung-fu. The film as a result doesn’t rely on short-cuts in explaining fighting success: San Te isn’t someone who learns an easy-to-kill manoeuvre, or someone who can fight in spite of highly contrived circumstances against him – he’s simply someone who has worked hard. Few action films have so effectively shown the mechanics of fighting, and the preface necessary for victory.

San Te’s physical transformation became humanised as a result, and the audience was able to empathise with San Te’s quest. Whereas a fighter like Bruce Lee was inevitably going to win no matter who he fought, San Te had to lose a number of times before he could triumph. (This kind of ‘human’ construction allowed for a figure like Jackie Chan to become a global kung-fu star. It became a familiar set-up in later Hollywood films, most obviously in The Karate Kid and in many other action films as well. Starting off the film as a “soft-bodied” ethics student, San Te has to learn to use his body to defeat evil (the film tries to stress that this is not in a fascistic way – though given that action film audiences gain pleasure from the violence, action films are inherently fascist, even in most cases where the plots comment critically on the consequences of violence.

However, San Te also has to use his mind, and his past training, in order to be an effective fighter. The film shows him learning and mastering new tasks (the individual chambers of the Shaolin temple) whether it be bouncing off a log in water, or fighting with a sword. His clumsy initial attempts are a great source of comedy, whereas his later mastery of kung-fu is highlighted by the film’s rigorous depiction of San Te’s work ethic. A number of other beloved action heroes initially start off as “soft-bodied” figures, whether Peter Parker in the Spiderman comics, or the emotionally broken John McClane of the Die Hard films. It also predicted the rise in the 1990s and enduring appeal of “softer-bodied” action heroes – as American action films moved away from the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone towards a more ‘real’ (or at least, more vulnerable) action hero.

36 Chambers however, does manage to subvert the violence that commonly drives the action films it has subsequently inspired. San Te spends years mastering his technique – but as if like a martial arts Hamlet, San Te is also forced to wait and wait and wait for revenge. Once he is finally in a position in which he is physically capable of revenge, he has to turn his back on the teachings that allow him to take his revenge. (The film’s alternate title, Shaolin Master Killer doesn’t really fit in with the Buddhist purpose of Shaolin training).

This decision ends up subverting the purpose of the training, while highlighting the cost of having to do ‘right’ (e.g. in the film’s eyes). Though the film concludes that a person must stand up for what he believes in despite the rules, it also depicts a world of rules and order as being crucial to a person’s development.

The film also appeals for the aesthetic construction of the set-pieces. The final showdown on the mountain is obviously a narrative contrivance – is that the two participants run off on horses only to dismount on an empty but beautiful mountain), yet like wuxia-pan films and many other kung-fu films, the blend of human bodies and nature becomes an integral part of a climactic depiction of violence. The fighting is also spectacular. Intensely choreographed scenes involving weapons, human bodies moving at their extremes, and camerawork that gives the actors enough space to show off their talents. The training itself is also moodily shot, given the elemental accompaniments to the tasks (there is a lot of water, fire and sky for example) and the swooping camerawork.

The film’s subsequent popularity with kung fu connoisseurs has been enhanced by its recent re-release on DVD, along with a number of other key Shaw Brothers kung-fu films. However, its influence extends far martial arts enthusiasts – it re-wrote the rules surrounding the construction of action narratives, approaching violence with more realism, and depicting the opportunity costs and tension inherent in being able to fight. Perhaps the film’s greatest achievement was turning a depiction of kung-fu into a kind of “36th Chamber” in its own right – through the discipline and skill required to recast a hard-to-empathise-with genre, and selling it to the world.