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The 36th Chamber of Shaolin(1978)
One of the most revered martial arts films of all time, this is the story of a young man who joins the Shaolin Temple when the Manchus kill his family.
For more about The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and the The 36th Chamber of Shaolin Blu-ray release, see the The 36th Chamber of Shaolin Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on March 31, 2010 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Director: Chia-Liang Liu
Starring: Gordon Liu
» See full cast & crew
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin Blu-ray Review
Everybody is kung fu fighting in 'The 36th Chamber of Shaolin,' but fans might be fighting mad over this less than spectacular Blu-ray.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, March 31, 2010
The Shaw Brothers were Hong Kong's equivalent to the family dynasties which ruled Hollywood's Golden Era studios. Brothers Run Run Shaw and Runme Shaw learned from their Los Angeles filmic brethren and created one of the most organized, efficient studio systems outside of California. With scores of top actors and behind the scenes personnel signed to exclusive contracts, the studio pioneered what would become known as the martial arts or kung fu film, For every latecomer like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, kung fu freaks could usually point to at least a handful of Shaw Brothers films which could rightfully be seen as forebears.
Perhaps no film is more lovingly remembered in the Shaw Brothers' oeuvre than 1978's The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, a film which has attained iconic status for its portrayal of a street kid earning his kung fu chops in the temple of Shaolin in order to help inspire his countrymen to overthrow their Manchu oppressors. The film made a star out of Gordon Liu, who plays the hero, San Ta (as it's transliterated in the subtitlesŚyou'll also see it as San Te), a somewhat fictionalized character culled from an actual historical personality. Liu's adopted brother Lau Kar-leung (also transliterated as Liu Chia-liang) directed the film, also elevating his status to the front rank of Hong Kong action directors. Martial arts lovers have been eagerly anticipating Shaw Brothers product finally making it to Blu, and legions of adoring fans have probably been salivating over the prospects of seeing Liu literally kick butt in high definition. Sadly, both the Blu and perhaps even the film itself will end up disappointing those not willing to give in to late 1970's cheesiness and a frankly pretty shoddy transfer.
Now, some 32 years after The 36th Chamber of Shaolin's release, so many of its tropes have passed into the kung fu film lexicon that it's perhaps impossible to view the film at times as anything other than high camp. With Kar-leung's nonstop use of whiplash inducing zoom lenses, and Liu's wide-eyed, hyperbolic performance style, this is the sort of film Woody Allen mercilessly lampooned in What's Up, Tiger Lily?, despite Shaolin's more historical setting. And yet, as with all who aspire to kung fu greatness, the film has a pure heart and some fantastic action sequences, and it's for those that fans have probably returned to it again and again over the intervening decades, even as the film, in retrospect, becomes more and more quaint.
Kar-leung spends more than half the film setting up San Ta's backstory and then his slow education in a Buddhist temple, where he is first scorned by monks and then slowly instructed in their ways. The long sequence of San Ta's training is fun, and in fact often quite funny, as the hapless youth has to master such tasks as jumping onto a floating log in a moat-like channel in order to get to his dinner, and later having to lift incredibly heavy barrels of water, with long knives strapped to his biceps which will carve into his sides should he fail in keeping his arms high enough. There are the requisite wise elder monks, who inerrantly nod approvingly as San Ta slowly learns to master his body and the elements. Those with a jaded eye may be apt to giggle slightly to themselves in such moments, but Liu's athleticism helps to make San Ta's progress believable, at least in that surreal fantasy world sort of way that seems to define so many kung fu films.
While many adherents of the film have insisted The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is the most realistic portrayal of kung fu training ever caught on film, the film itself resolutely refuses to take itself overly seriously, which is to its lasting benefit. Liu's travails with "KP" (kitchen patrol) and later his repeated failures as he struggles to master the intricacies of the chambers are repeatedly, if sometimes understatedly, played for laughs, with playful, glockenspiel inflected underscore to add to the fun. The training sequences, whether played for laughs or not, remain one of the main calling cards The 36th Chamber of Shaolin has proffered to this genre's adherents, rightly or wrongly. (It's instructive to note that Shaolin's sequels were played more deliberately for laughs).
Where this film really earns its chop-socky props is in the final fifty minutes or so, when the action sequences really kick into high gear as San Ta moves through some of the most challenging chambers on his quest for martial arts perfection. Both the Lamp Chamber and Baton Chamber sequences are outstanding, with some elegant choreography and great editing amping up the excitement quotient. Unfortunately, the Head Chamber sequence which is sandwiched between these two is perhaps unintentionally funny, as the monk trainees bash their heads into punching bags and stumble through an obstacle course.
The film closes its final 15 minutes or so with San Ta out in the real world again, having been exiled from the monastery under false pretenses so that he can provide inspiration to his countrymen. This leads to some outstanding one on one battle sequences, where Liu's incredible athleticism and Kar-leung's directorial expertise finally find full flower. While many fans continue to fawn over the training sequences, which are in fact the bulk of this film, action aficionados will flock to these final battle segments for the visceral thrills they offer.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is a surprisingly intimate film, despite its martial arts pedigree. With a magnetic, if sometimes frankly hokey, lead performance by Liu, and just enough pageantry playing out in the background to give at least the illusion of the epic, the film may in fact garner more laughs than gasps of amazement from today's more inoculated youth. Those who grew up with the film will no doubt love the fact it's out on Blu, though they may be mightily disappointed by some aspects of this release, as will be discussed below. Time, and indeed technology itself, aren't always kind to things we remember fondly from our youths, so forewarned is forearmed as you kung fu fight your way through The 36th Chamber of Shaolin.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin Blu-ray, Video Quality
A lot of kung fu film fans have no doubt eagerly been awaiting Vivendi's line of Dragon Dynasty Blu's. Unfortunately, if The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is any indication of what's in store down the line, Vivendi has drastically underestimated the tolerance level of high definition aficionados. Somewhat unbelievably, this is a 1080i transfer, which in and of itself isn't horrible, except that the source elements of this ShawScope (OAR 2.39:1) film vary widely in consistency, and combing artifacts do rear their ugly heads from time to time. Colors (especially reds) bloom repeatedly, leaving large swaths of the screen seeming to literally bleed outside the lines of their colored objects. Even worse, the final 15 minutes or so of the film undergo a rather substantial quality change, with inconsistent contrast and an overall yellow sheen. The entire film in fact looks rather soft, and while some may be excited enough with an anamorphically enhanced Blu that at least isn't downright horrible, my hunch is the more shall we say persnickety videophiles are going to be really, really disappointed with this effort, especially for a film which is so widely beloved. Is it better than a standard def DVD? Probably--a little. Though the fact that I'm even asking that question should be warning enough that there's not enough of a difference here to even really mention.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Though this Blu does come with a dubbed English track, stick with the original Chinese, even if it (like the English) is delivered via a standard Dolby Digital 2.0 mix. This certainly would have been a fun film for a 5.1 retrofit, especially in the foley-centric baton sequences, but what's here is reasonably robust, without that thrilling rumble on the low end that a lossless track provides. Several actors were obviously post-dubbed, even in the original language track, and so there is the odd disparity of seeing lips not quite synched to the soundtrack, but dialogue is clear and at times at least passably directional. Sound effects and underscore are well mixed into the proceedings, and there were no egregious dropouts or annoying hiss. The English dub is simply laughable, with lame voice "actors" spewing ridiculous dialogue. Of course, if you're in the mood for a good laugh, you may want to opt for that track on a repeat viewing.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The Blu-ray features the SD extras of the Special Edition DVD:
The Commentary by "film historian" Andy Klein and the Wu-Tang Clan's The RZA is a pretty sad, lamentable affair. Why these two would want their repeated "I don't know"'s and incomprehensible babble to be memorialized for the ages is anyone's guess. They love the film, that much is obvious, but they impart no really insightful information and frequently sound like any two yahoos you'd pull off the street to discuss a flick. You know you're in trouble when the next extra is biographical tidbits about the two, just so that you know who they are. (The Wu-Tang Clan took its name after the film).
Shaolin: A Hero's Birthplace (16:40) is an interesting history lesson about the legacy of Shaolin in the world of kung fu.
An Interview With Star Gordon Liu (16:17) finds the star reminiscing about his childhood and life in kung fu films.
An Interview With Film Critics David Chute and Andy Klein (7:42) is nominally better than the Commentary track with Klein, offering some background and perspective on kung fu films as a genre, and including some nice, if brief, clips from several films.
Interview With the RZA (9:47) is also at least a little better than the Commentary, letting the Wu-Tang Clan member talk about his own history with kung fu movies.
Music Video for Wu-Tang Clan's "Gravel Pit" (2:07)
A gallery of posters and stills as well as the theatrical trailer round out the supplements.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin may not in fact be the "all that" that some who grew up loving the film insist. It's still a lot of fun and provides an intriguing, if probably highly fictionalized, look inside kung fu training rituals. Unfortunately, this Blu-ray suffers from a muddy, soft transfer with no lossless audio, and with SD extras simply ported over from DVD. It's enough to make you want to kickbox a Vivendi exec.
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