Monday, July 6, 2009

The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin (Shaw Brothers Collection)

Region 2 Spain

Lau Kar-leung directs this revenge thriller, widely considered to be the greatest kung-fu flick of all time. Liu Yu-te (Gordon Lau Kar-fai) is a gentle ethics scholar until his family and friends are brutally slaughtered by a band of Manchu troops. Vowing revenge, he ventures to the fabled Shaolin temple hoping to become a one-man martial arts killing machine. Rechristened San Te, his first year at the temple is spent largely doing menial chores. His begins training during his second year, which involves passing through 35 chambers where he learns the finer points of kung-fu through grueling and excruciating tests. After a year of training, he moves on to learn about weapons. He soon proves to be the finest student in the history of the temple, mastering the entirety of the training in mere five years. He is cast out of the temple, however, for wanting to teach his skills to the masses. Once out of the temple, he assembles a team of fighters and sets out to get revenge.

This 1978 cult favorite has rightly earned a reputation as one of the great kung-fu films of the 1970s. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin has all the elements of a classic martial arts film: a downtrodden hero who transforms into a kung-fu wizard, complex training scenes that allow the viewer to witness the development of his skills, and an exciting finale that finds the hero giving his powerful tormentors their just desserts. This listing of elements might make the film sound like a pro forma effort but The 36th Chamber of Shaolin nimbly sidesteps such a pitfall thanks to lean, effective storytelling: Ni Kuang's script gets the audience on the hero's side by carefully detailing all the challenges he faces on his way to revenge, and Lau Kar-Leung's direction places an emphasis on his training so the viewer vicariously experiences his metamorphosis from student to master. The end result of their combined efforts has a surprisingly epic feel, yet The 36th Chamber of Shaolin never becomes dull thanks to taut pacing and a superior performance from Gordon Liu; his dashing yet intense persona makes him a compelling focal point and his physical skills make the character's development into a martial arts master believable. His charismatic performance is nicely supported by a gallery of players: Hoi San Lee adds a paternalistic touch to the film as one of the senior monks, and veteran kung-fu star Lo Lieh makes a suitably imposing villain as General Tien. In short, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin delivers enough action to please the kung-fu crowd yet is strong enough in its storytelling and performances to win over those viewers who aren't automatically wowed by martial arts action.


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