If you are a true fan of martial arts flicks, then you no-doubt have seen this film in at least one of its several incarnations, which includes the alternate titles Master Killer and Shaolin Master Killer. If, however, for some strange reason you have never seen this movie, then you can't, in any way, shape or form, consider yourself to be a true die-hard fan of kung fu films. As harsh as that may sound, the reality is that for every genre and sub-genre of film you can imagine, there are only a very small handful of films that are essential viewing within that particular group. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is one of those films.
With the popularity of Bruce Lee and films like Five Fingers of Death (a.k.a. King Boxer) in the early 1970s, there was a flood of chop sockey cinema that was dumped in inner-city and Chinatown movies theaters all the way into the 80s. Produced by the legendary Shaw Brothers studio, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin was one of these countless films. It had been a huge hit in Hong Kong, before it was edited, dubbed and released in the United States under the title Master Killer. At the same time films like Master Killer were being played in double and triple and quadruple features at rundown theaters and drive-ins, local television stations were still airing feature films during the day on Saturdays. Many stations, including Channel 5 in New York, and Channel 12 in Portland, where I moved when I was in junior high, began showing kung fu films, including Master Killer.
Like so many others who had become fascinated with kung fu films in the 1970s, I watched Master Killer simply because it appeared, at least as first glance, to be more of the silly, asskicking entertainment that made up many of my Saturday afternoons. But the reality is that the film was very different from all the others I had seen, and was really the only one to make any sort of lasting impression. Years later, when I went back and started rewatching martial arts films, this was the film I wanted to see again. When I finally saw it as The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, probably a decade or more later, it was totally familiar, while at the same time a completely new experience.
The plot of 36th Chamber comes from the standard template of Hong Kong's cinema of vengeance. Gordon Liu stars as San Te (although his name at the beginning is Liu Yu-te), an unassuming student who witnesses the brutality of the Manchus as nefarious General Tien (Lo Lieh) kills a rival. This prompts Liu to become involved in the rebellion to overthrow, but the cost of his involvement is the massacre of his family. With nowhere else to go, Liu flees to the Shaolin Temple, hoping that the monks there will teach him the kung fu skills he needs to avenge his family. At the temple Liu is renamed San Te by the monks, and he eventually begins the difficult training that involves mastering all 35 chambers used to teach the Shaolin kung fu.
A standard element in many martial arts films was the obligatory "training" sequence where a student of questionable skills eventually learns to become a master. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin took this standard convention, and turned it into the foundation of the film's second act. Where a training sequence may have lasted somewhere around 10 minutes in another film, 36th Chamber uses the concept and turns it into a way of charting the growth of San Te's character. In scene after scene of some of the most memorable moments to grace Hong Kong cinema, San Te masters one chamber after another, quickly moving toward his goal of becoming a fighter who can take revenge for his family. But as he masters each skill involved with the individual chambers, San Te begins to grow as a person, profoundly influenced by the Buddhist teachings of the Shaolin monks. When he finally has moved through all the chambers, and passed his final test, San Te is given the opportunity to oversee the instruction at any of the 35 chambers. Instead, he asks to create a 36th chamber, one that can be used to teach kung fu outside the temple to everyday people, so that they may protect themselves from the tyrants who rule the land.
What is profound about The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is that while it follows many of the conventions established in other martial arts films, it moves beyond those standard trappings. In countless other movies San Te would have simply learned to fight and gotten his revenge. But director Liu Chia-Liang (a.k.a. Lau Kar-Leung) takes the genre to another level by developing San Te's consciousness along with his fighting skills. This is evidenced by the protagonist's journey from wanting to merely exact vengeance for the death of his family to his desire to teach others, so that they may protect themselves and fight against oppression.
The most popular heroes of martial arts films were always the flawed and the oppressed that grew into greatness through much trial and tribulation, despite their weakness. But at the same time, it was always difficult to find much depth or dimension within a majority of the martial arts heroes of Hong Kong films, especially as they played in the U.S., heavily edited and poorly dubbed. In making the journey to America, many films lost whatever heart and soul they may have had--if they had any in the first place. But no editing or poor dubbing was able to remove the heart and soul from 36th Chamber of Shaolin, and even as Master Killer, it emerged as a classic with the genre.