By Malice Intended of Planet Ill
The best martial arts films carry messages of empowerment and revolution. In his quest for vengeance, the main character masters a craft that allows him to rise up against his oppressor. If he chooses to spread what he has learned to others, he ascends to the rank of hero. His knowledge becomes the key to physical and spiritual emancipation. Such stories portray the martial arts as not just a means of combat, but a way of life. The films of Lau Kar-leung communicated this sentiment with humor and heart.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (also known as The Master Killer in North America) was released by Shaw Brothers studios in 1978. It is widely considered one of the greatest and most influential films of its kind. It marked a turning point in the careers of director Lau Kar-Leung and star Gordon Liu. Both attained new levels of international acclaim in the wake of its release.
Return to the 36th Chamber was released by Shaw Brothers studios in 1980. It is a sequel to The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, reuniting Kar-Leung and Liu and offering a similar story to its predecessor, this time told from a comedic perspective. Both films are shrouded in the mystique and mythology of Shaolin, but which one emerges as the true classic?
In The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Student San Te (Gordon Liu) flees to the Shaolin temple after his school has beenliquidated under the oppressive rule of the Manchu Government. San Te plans to master Kung-Fu and seek vengeance on those who persecute his friends and family. While at the temple, he begins a rigorous training regimen that takes him through 36 “chambers” which hone his martial skills to razor’s edge sharpness. He then returns to his hometown in order to offer his people the gift of self defense.
San Te’s training sends him through a physical, mental, and spiritual metamorphosis. Upon first entering the temple his mind is focused on revenge. While mastering each chamber, he becomes physically fit and mentally alert. His senses are heightened and his spiritual understanding expands. He then sees the true value of martial arts as a means to serve and protect the people.
In Return to the 36th Chamber, beggar and con man Chu Jen-Chieh (Gordon Liu) poses as Monk San Te in order to frighten off the Manchu overseers who enforce oppressive working conditions at the fabric dyeing plant where his friends are employed. When his ruse is exposed, Chu ventures to Shaolin in order to learn Kung-Fu. Upon arriving at the temple, he performs carpentry and construction tasks for Abbot San Te (This time portrayed by Lee King-Chue).
Return to the 36th Chamber tells an almost identical story to its predecessor and offers a similar message. The only thing that has changed is the mode of presentation. The film is a slapstick comedy, deriving much humor from the clueless nature of its protagonist. That he does so unknowingly is very reminiscent of a similar plot device used in The Karate Kid, which Return predates by four years.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin maintains a reputation as one of the Shaws Brothers’ better regarded productions, exerting an influence that can still be seen in martial arts cinema. It turned star Gordon Liu into an international cult figure and inspired the title of the Wu-Tang Clans debut album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Wu-Tang member Master Killer named himself in honor of the film’s alternate title.
Return to the 36th Chamber is a rare sequel that does not represent a steep drop off in quality from its predecessor. Though not as widely known or as celebrated, it is considered a delightful and fun follow up. It inspired the title of late great Wu-tang member Old Dirty Bastard’s debut album Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version. The raunchy humor found on that album reflects the slapstick comedy of the film. Both The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and Return to the 36th Chamber portray the creation of a superhero, but which hero truly deserves the designation of master?
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