No film production company on the planet is responsible for turning out more great kung fu movies than Hong Kong's Shaw Brothers Studios. Their list of classic titles includes such movies as The One-Armed Swordsman, King Boxer and Five Deadly Venoms. To this day, one of Shaw Brothers greatest films is The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (a.k.a. Master Killer, a.k.a. Shaolin Master Killer), starring Gordon Liu and directed by Chia-Liang Lau, better known to American fans of martial arts flicks as Lau Kar-leung. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin proved to be immensely popular, leading to the inevitable sequels, Return to the 36th Chamber, and Disciples of the 36th Chamber.
Gordon Liu, star of the first two 36th Chamber movies reprises his role from the original film, Shaolin monk San-Te. Liu is just a supporting character (unfortunately), as Disciples of the 36th Chamber focuses its attention on Fong Sai-Yuk (Hou Hsiao), a gifted martial artist with no discipline and a rebellious streak that frequently gets him into trouble. Sai-Yuk runs afoul of the dastardly Manchus, which threatens the kung fu school run by his family. Sai-Yuk's mother convinces San-Te to accept her incorrigible son in the 36th Chamber, hoping it will give him the discipline he lacks. Instead, it merely brings out more of the rebel in him, leading him to make a seemingly never-ending series of stupid decisions. Thinking he has allied himself with the Manchus, Sai-Yuk has actually betrayed the Shaolins, leading to an epic battle between the righteous monks and the nefarious agents of oppression.
Like many Shaw Brothers films, the original 36th Chamber of Shaolin was a serious kung-fu flick with some humor thrown in for good measure. Return to the 36th Chamber served as almost a satire of the martial arts genre, as it made an attempt to embrace the growing popularity of comedy in kung-fu movies. By the time Disciples of the 36th Chamber came along in 1985, the popularity of Jackie Chan and his unique brand of martial arts comedy had been firmly established (at least within Asia), and most other filmmakers were trying to ride that particular trend. And while it may have worked for certain movies, Shaw Brothers seldom seemed to have the right comedic sensibilities to make an all-out comedy, often resulting in disappointing genre mash-ups that never quite succeed as either kung-fu movies or as comedies.
Disciples of the 36th Chamber is not a terrible film so much as it is an uneven and problematic movie that relies too much on comedy that isn't all that funny. By the time Shaw Brothers made this film, the production company had already seen its better years pass by. Yes, there were still good movies produced by the Shaws in the 1980s, but things were not the same as they had been in decades earlier. Disciples of the 36th Chamber is representative of the studio trying to hold on to its former glory, while chasing after the successes of other companies. And in the end it simply makes for a movie that is more of a historic curiosity than it does a memorable movie that is entertaining.
The single biggest problem with the film is Hou Hsiao's performance as real-life martial artist and Chinese folk hero Fong Sai-Yuk, who was taught kung-fu by his mother. Not as popular a film subject as Wong Fei-hung, Fong Sai-Yuk still managed to be the main character in a handful of films, including two popular movies starring Jet Li. But in Disciples of the 36th Chamber, Fong Sai-Yuk is perhaps the most unlikable hero of any martial arts movie ever made. As played by Hsiao, Sai-Yuk is arrogant and stupid, and even the though Shaw Brothers movies aren't always known for great character depth, the entire film is populated by one-dimension characters recycled from past productions.
There are, however, some saving graces to be found in Disciples of the 36th Chamber. Gordon Liu makes the film immensely watchable whenever he is on screen (which is not often enough). And though the comedic script is by and large dull and sometimes confusing, there are some good action sequences. Following the most tried and true of all Shaw Brothers formulas, the final reel is a show-stopping fight extravaganza in which every lame, boring and confusing moment that had come earlier is quickly forgotten.