From sports dramas to martial arts movies, the training sequence tends to get short shrift. Trainer or coach or sensei offers a little inspirational speechifying, a few sage words, some orders (going through the emotions), there’s a little sweaty practice (going through the motions), and then it’s on to the main events, showdowns, and battle-offs. But what’s best by far about The 36th Chamber of Shaolin—the second in Metro’s three-film Kung Fu Summer series—is its drawn-out middle act, where our hero struggles to learn Shaolin Kung Fu the gruelling way, failure after half-advance after small success.
Chia-Liung Liu’s 1978 film plunges us into a bit of a muddle, what with the swampy plot and ’70s zooms and overwrought fight-scenes (best appreciated as choreography, though the grand finale has its thrilling action moments). Basically, the Manchu government, led by a brutal general, targets the school where Liu Yude (Chia-Hui Liu) studies; he escapes town and smuggles himself into a Shaolin temple, desperate to learn kung fu so he can vanquish the tyrants.
In that temple, with its mix of Buddhism and martial arts, the movie finds its keen-eyed focus. It’s a year until Liu Yude, now the monk San Te, is even allowed in the kung-fu chambers—room after room of muscle-straining, soul-exerting training in a specialized skill. There’s the perfection of quickness-of-step by jumping on logs, then mere sticks, to cross a small moat; there’s arm-strengthening with blades strapped to the underside of monks’ biceps, cutting into their ribs if they can’t keep buckets of water hoisted high. (And the sandbag-butting chamber will make any concussion-conscious viewer cringe.) There’s a mysticism to all this concentration and repetition and tediousness—inner will meets outer strength. After five years and 35 chambers, San Te even loses his fights versus the monastery’s Justice Officer until he invents a three-jointed bar and defeats him at last.
The 36th Chamber is the world outside—student turns teacher, bringing shaolin to the common man, fighting back against tyranny, etc.—but it’s those 35 training-rooms inside the temple, not the predictable hero’s crusade outside it, which makes The 36th Chamber of Shaolin worth the effort.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin
Directed by Chia-Liang Liu
Originally released: 1978
Metro Cinema at the Garneau
July 30-31, Aug 4