The 36th Chamber of Shaolin Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: December 6, 2022 (as part of Shawscope: Volume 2)
Audio: Mandarin, Cantonese, and English DTS-HD Master Audio Mono
Subtitles: English, English SDH
Run Time: 115:54
Director: Lau Kar-leung
When his school’s rebellion against the occupying Manchu government is met with violence, a young man named Liu Yude (Gordon Liu) escapes to the local Shaolin temple, seeking sanctuary and the training he needs to fight back. After numerous rejections, he begins to win over the monks as he succeeds in the temple’s brutal training trials.
In the annals of martial arts cinema few filmmakers’ work matches the scope of Lau Kar-leung (aka: Liu Chia-Liang), who crawled up the Shaw Bros. Studio ladder as actor and fight choreographer, struck out as first-unit director on enduring hits, like Challenge of the Masters (1976) and Heroes of the East (aka: Challenge of the Ninja, 1978). While fans (myself included) might consider Lau’s collaboration with Jackie Chan, Drunken Master II (aka: Legend of the Drunken Master for its re-edited US release, 1994) or The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (aka: The Invincible Pole Fighters, 1984) his greatest works, it’s difficult to point to a more influential movie than The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (aka: The Master Killer and Shaolin Master Killer, 1978). The film sits alongside King Hu’s Come Drink with Me (1966), Lo Wei & Wu Chia Hsiang’s The Big Boss (aka: Fists of Fury, 1971), and Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) as vital contributions to martial arts cinema. More specifically, Lau’s film, along with former collaborator Chang Cheh’s Five Deadly Venoms (aka: Five Venoms, 1978), set the tone for the final stage of Shaw’s dominance over the Hong Kong film scene.
Often slavish to their formulas, the studio’s influence waned into the late ‘70s as trends changed and rival studios, like Golden Harvest, took over. In response, Shaw Bros. embraced gimmicks, infused wuxia with other genres, and ballooned the scope of their action. Lau’s experience as a performer and choreographer set him ahead of his contemporaries, but his creativity and fondness for structured fighting styles made him the perfect director to introduce audiences to the new Shaw Bros. in all of its glory, gimmickry, and wall-to-wall action. He also cared about the intersection of history and folklore behind martial arts theater, which made his best films seem timeless and helped achieve critical approval. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin was his second film as director to specifically reference the Shaolin tradition, after Executioners from Shaolin (1977) and followed by Shaolin Mantis (aka: The Deadly Mantis, also 1978), Return to the 36th Chamber (1980), Disciples of the 36th Chamber (1985), and Martial Arts of Shaolin (1986). Additionally, Heroes of the East had the alternate title Shaolin vs. Ninja. These were only the titles that Lau was directly responsible for and do not include the many other Shaw and non-Shaw offshoots of the concept.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin’s (fictional) idea of training challenges with seemingly zero practical application to martial arts would enter the American pop culture lexicon soon enough, thanks to John G. Avildsen’s The Karate Kid (1986), but was philosophically similar to the room-by-room battles seen in Bruce Lee’s unfinished final film, Game of Death (final release co-directed by Robert Clouse), which, despite having been filmed in 1972, wasn’t officially released until the same year as Lau’s film. Modern viewers might recognize both concepts as something video games would swipe for their own narrative structures, along with tournament stories and the earlier Japanese variation, in which a samurai wanders the countryside, looking for the ultimate sword-fighting challenge (as seen in Hiroshi Inagaki’s The Samurai Trilogy [1954, ‘55, ‘56], for example).
In his essay The Autarkic World of Liu Chia-Liang, found in A Study of the Hong Kong Martial Arts Film (presented by the HK Urban Council, 1980), author Roger Garcia offers additional explanation as to the meaning of the chambers and choice of historical setting:
The progress through the 35 chambers represents not only a learning process, but a passage through history …The Shaolin Monastery itself becomes an archive, a preserver of tradition. This function is emphasized in the film by the Manchu occupation and threat to China, a historical situation against which the Monastery becomes a rallying point. Deprived of his (own) history, Liu must learn and acquire another.
The late-stage Shaw films that followed The 36th Chamber of Shaolin tended to grow increasingly grim and bloody. Martial arts/horror fusions, like Sun Chung’s Human Lanterns (aka: Human Skin Lanterns, 1982) were standing side-by-side with increasingly gory wuxia flicks, like Cheh Chang’s Five Element Ninjas (aka: Super Ninjas, 1982). Comparatively, Lau’s film doesn’t fully commit to a single tone, instead finding its value in textured storytelling. The first act’s depiction of Manchurian political violence is dramatic, but then Liu enters the safety of the temple and his training, though sometimes sadistic, is playful, leading back into the (often literal) darkness of the outside world. Interestingly, the official sequel, Return to the 36th Chamber (1980) greatly expanded the comedic elements, while another revisiting of 36th Chamber of Shaolin’s themes, The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter, also directed by Lau and starring Liu, replaced comedy and sweetness with dire straits and insane levels of violence.
The film would also be the international breakthrough for star and Lau’s ‘god brother,’ Gordon Liu (born Sin Kam-hei and aka: Lau Kar-fai). Following a short run of bit parts and supporting roles, he played the legendary Wong Fei-hung for Lau’s Challenge of the Masters, then paired with the director again for Executioners from Shaolin. After 36th Chamber of Shaolin, he grew into the face of Shaw Bros. and something of a good luck charm incarnate, affording him starring roles and cameos well into the studio’s collapse. He and Lau collaborated on almost every single one of the director’s Shaw-funded movies and paired again for the fantastic Chow Yun-fat buddy cop vehicle, Tiger on the Beat (1988), where Liu and Conan Lee engage in a chainsaw battle that may be the single greatest on-screen fight of the 1980s. Liu continued working as an actor, first-unit director (Shaolin and Wu Tang  and Shaolin vs. Vampire ), and stunt/action choreographer/coordinator into the ‘90s, after which his career entered a second phase of international stardom, thanks to roles in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Volume One (2003) and Kill Bill: Volume Two (2004).
Chinese Martial Arts Cinema: The Wuxia Tradition by Stephen Teo (Edinburgh University Press, 2009)
The 36th Chamber Shaolin is an enormously popular film and, as such, has had a healthy life on home video, including DVD and Blu-ray releases from multiple countries, but we’re going to focus on the easiest to find North American release from the Weinstein Company and Vivendi Entertainment’s cursed Dragon Dynasty line. Besides Dragon Dynasty’s ties to Harvey Weinstein and collaborator Bey Logan, none of the imprint’s HD transfers were any good and 36th Chamber Shaolin was one of their worst. It used the same Celestial Pictures base scan that most everyone else did, but the transfer was interlaced and was somehow 25 fps (I’ve never heard of a PAL HD transfer, but I guess it happened?). I was going to include screencaps here, but the breadth of the problem isn’t easy to illustrate with still frames (it was also extremely difficult to find the same frames on both discs, due to the time codes never matching). Just trust me: it is very bad.
This new Arrow transfer, currently only available as part of their Shawscope: Volume 2 collection, is listed as being a new 4K restoration by Celestial Pictures and L’Immagine Ritrovata. It has a lot in common with the old transfer, aside from the interlacing, especially in terms of overall detail. Its advantages are in its balanced levels and richer colors. The Dragon Dynasty disc tends to blow-out white levels and blob-up blacks and shadows. There are still issues with grain fidelity and digital smoothing, yet these are minor compared to not only the Dragon Dynasty transfer, but all Celestial Pictures branded Shaw Bros. releases, which tend to be overprocessed. I don’t have any of the older European Blu-rays on hand for a direct comparison, but am pretty confident saying that this is the best 36th Chamber of Shaolin has ever looked on home video and I expect that Arrow will release this disc outside of the Shawscope box set at some point.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is presented with Mandarin, Cantonese, and English audio options, all in their original mono and uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio. Like their Italian counterparts, Hong Kong filmmakers were still shooting most of their movies without on-set sound, so all tracks are dubbed in post. In this case, the cast appears (I think) to be speaking Mandarin, because the lip sync on that track matches best, but it and the Cantonese track are essentially the same in terms of audio quality. The English dub, which holds nostalgic value for many viewers, features decent performances, but has too much noise reduction, which muffles the vocals and all but entirely erases the music during some scenes.
Commentary with Travis Crawford – Crawford, a contributor to Film Comment, Fangoria, European Trash Cinema, Eyeball, Asian Trash Cinema, and Shock Cinema, among others, just passed away this past July. This posthumously-released track is in line with his other commentaries, covering every inch of the film, its cast & crew, its context in the greater history of martial arts cinema and the Shaw Bros. legacy, and the Hong Kong New Wave that overtook the industry, while also offering a Cliff’s Notes version of the studio’s history.
Select-scene commentary by critic Tony Rayns – The author, critic, and screenwriter covers similar ground to Crawford, but from a different point-of-view, that of a cultural historian as much as a movie critic. Ryans covers three scenes in total.
Master Killer (20:51, HD) – The first of two interviews conducted in 2003 by Frédéric Ambroisine features star Gordon Liu, who chats about his training and his relationship with the Lau family, before running down a section of his Shaw Bros. career film-by-film, complete with clips.
Kung Fu Cinematographer (28:34, HD) – The second Ambroisine interview was conducted in 2006 with cinematographer Arthur Wong, who discusses the differences between HK and ‘overseas’ film sets, the Shaw Bros. method and the physicality needed to move with the action, and shares behind-the-scenes anecdotes from the movies he shot.
Shaolin: Birthplace of a Hero (16:02, SD) – The first of two featurettes produced by Celestial Pictures in 2003 and featuring Liu. This one explores Liu’s character, Lau’s directing, and developing the 35 trials.
Elegant Trails (6:23, SD) – This second Celestial Pictures featurette was made in 2006 and is a short profile of Liu.
Tiger Style: The Musical Impact of Martial Arts Cinema (37:22, HD) – A brand new historical overview of kung fu (and spaghetti western) cinema’s influence on hip-hop, reggae, funk, disco, and other musical genres, featuring DJ and music historian Lovely Jon. The only thing holding this featurette back is the fact that Arrow obviously couldn’t secure the rights to include the music being discussed. It might be worth having a YouTube search open and utilizing the pause button.
Cinema Hong Kong: Sword Fighting (50:21, SD) – This is the second installment in a three-part, English language documentary produced by Celestial Pictures in 2003, It features interviews with Liu, Lau, Cheng Pei-pei, John Woo, Sammo Hung, Kara Hui, David Chiang, and others discussing, what else, sword fighting in Chinese/HK cinema.
Alternate opening credits from the American version titled Master Killer
Trailer gallery – Hong Kong Mandarin and English trailers, German theatrical trailer, US TV spot, digital reissue trailer.
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.