In the 1970s, cinema was rapidly diversifying, with movies of vastly different budgets and tones–not to mention other cultures–making their way to the United States. It was no longer just the art movies from the different countries that came over; their grungier exploitation movies were too.
One of these genres that took off in a big, bad way were the period-set Kung Fu movies made in Hong Kong. These were as ubiquitous as samurai movies were from Japan. Easily one of the best of these, and one that inspired everyone from Quentin Tarantino to the Wu Tang Clan, is 1978’s The 36th Chamber of Shaolin.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin was alternately known as The Master Killer and Shaolin Master Killer and contains one of the longest and most impressive training montages ever put to film. It was directed by Liu Chia-Liang who had been the fight and martial arts choreographer for a number of movies including the One-Armed Swordsman series, Hammer Films‘ horror/kung-fu hodgepodge The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, and perhaps the best title ever conceived, Master of the Flying Guillotine. While these movies are certainly silly, when Liu began directing, he strove to make the martial arts film more serious, less gimmicky. To that end, he focused on the Shaolin temples and their rigorous and devout training regime, and boy does it pay off.
The movie stars Liu Chia-Hui aka Gordon Liu, who you’ll know from playing Crazy 88s leader Johnny Mo in Kill Bill vol. 1 and Master Pai Mei in Kill Bill vol. 2. Here, the young Liu plays a student who is made to join the rebellion against the Manchu government. When his school is destroyed and his friends and family killed by the tyrannical General Tien Ta (Lo Lieh) and his cronies, the student goes off and seeks refuge at the Shaolin Temple. Now, regular lay people were not allowed to join the Shaolin monks, but the head monk takes pity on the boy and allows him sanctuary. The student’s heart is full of hate and revenge and he wants to train in the art of Shaolin Kung Fu to take his vengeance.
This begins what is easily the coolest training montage in the history of cinema–in my humble opinion, of course. The student, who gets the name San Te, begins to train in the 35 different chambers of the Shaolin arts. These are ways to strengthen the body and exercise the mind and are, if I may, hard as shit. As you can see in the above trailer, some of the training includes bashing your head against bags of sand, using only your eyes to follow movement and if you move your head you get burned, and all manner of things that would make me fall down and cry immediately. The one you don’t really get to see in the trailer is carrying buckets of water up a staircase with your arms extended. This is hard on its own, yes, but the monks strap blades to the inside of the students’ arms so that if their arms drop even a little, their bare sides get cut. It’s brutal.
Eventually, San Te becomes not only proficient in the chambers, but downright excellent at them, honing his body and mind to the art of devotion and fighting. He even invents a new kind of weapon, the three-section staff (which is actually credited to the real historical figure of San Te). But before he can achieve the highest level, he is suddenly cast out of the temple because his master still senses the hatred of the Manchu in his heart. San Te leaves and returns to his home village where he sees other disaffected members of the community, some of whom are very capable of fighting in their own right but perhaps lack discipline. San Te begins training them in secret, because training of non-monks is prohibited, and they wait to take on General Tien Ta and begin the 36th Chamber, which is teaching of the arts to civilians.
This movie is simply badass, and it made a star out of Gordon Liu and a bankable director of Liu Chia-Liang — much of that success is due to the actor’s physicality. The entire opening credits sequence features Liu in front of a blank background performing routines that show off his muscular form and perfect martial arts. It’s hypnotic to watch, as is listening to Liu’s distinctive “hya” exclamations. It makes the audience aware right away of what kind of impressive skills we’re about to see, and the fact that the movie starts before he’s that good only makes us long for him to complete his training and become that opening sequence B-A again.
Not only was this movie influential to Quentin Tarantino in the sequences of the Bride’s training in Kill Bill 2, but it was also one of the seminal works that inspired the New York hip-hop outfit Wu-Tang Clan. RZA is a massive devotee of the film and of Kung Fu movies in general, and the group’s debut album was named Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). There’s also a member of the group named Masta Killa. RZA himself does the audio commentary for the DVD and Blu-ray of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin along with film scholar Andy Klein. Many times during this track, RZA will offer a piece of knowledge Klein had never heard. Dude knows his Shaolin.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is one of the best action movies ever made and arguably the best in the Kung Fu genre, being as influential as any of Bruce Lee’s canon and inspiring many, many other such pretenders to the throne. Two sequels were made–the comedic Return to the 36th Chambers in 1980 in which Gordon Liu portrays an impostor to San Te, and Disciples of the 36th Chamber in 1985 which has Liu playing San Te again–but both pale in comparison. You can’t beat the original Master Killer.
Images: Shaw Brothers/Dragon Dynasty