Experience really can make all the difference: Samuel Fuller’s films could only have come from a real-life war veteran, and Bull Durham could only have been written by someone who had actually slummed it in minor-league baseball. Likewise, all of Lau Kar-keung’s films benefit from the actor/director’s martial arts expertise; his first masterpiece, 1978’s The 36th Chamber of Shaolin reflects a lifetime’s worth of commitment to the craft. The son of a martial artist, who was himself a disciple of the legendary Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-Hung, Lau began practicing his father’s Hong Quan fist style at the age of nine. After more than a decade as a stuntman and choreographer, before and during the Shaw Brothers era, Lau stepped into the role of director and quickly emerged as one of the studio’s most promising talents. 36th Chamber was his fifth film, and the one that set him apart, thanks to its deep reverence for the devotional process and transformational potential of the Chinese martial arts and their attendant philosophies.
As the film teaches us repeatedly, the rewards of kung-fu come only to those who wait. The opening establishes the conflict between the brutal occupying Manchurian government and local pockets of resistance, most notably a professor sympathetic to the rebel cause. In the first of the movie’s nods to the value of both pedagogy and self-improvement, the professor reveals his dangerous political associations to his students only upon their asking him how they might strike back against their oppressors. While these scenes are often viewed as relatively uninspired compared to what comes later, their feeling for life under occupation is uniquely forceful when juxtaposed against other films from the Shaws’ canon. After some of the rebel activities are traced back to Liu Yu-Te (Lau’s childhood friend and regular leading man Gordon Liu), Yu-Te’s father and many of his classmates are swiftly executed by the savage Machu general Tien Ta (Lo Lieh).
So begins Yu-Te’s flight to the legendary Shaolin temple, a Buddhist monastery high in the mountains that represents the last stronghold of martial arts knowledge in the area, the practice having been outlawed by the occupying government. After an agonizing journey, The Grand Abbot allows Yu-Te entry into the order solely out of respect for his commitment to making it there, but warns the young upstart that his goals of revenge and political resistance are out of step with the monastery’s strictly non-secular concerns. Lau establishes the dichotomy that defines much of the film here: Shaolin’s view of kung-fu as an inward process of spiritual purification versus San Te’s (the name given to Yu-Te by the order) desire to wield it as a democratic source of collective power. Even after securing his place in the temple, patience remains a virtue for San Te (and for us): The young monk spends a full year sweeping the floors before even asking for the chance to train, and the next roughly -45-minute stretch of the film, which is devoted entirely to San Te’s progression through the temple’s 35 training chambers, represents a piece of perversely delayed gratification that also paradoxically became the very reason for its vast popularity and influence, relative to contemporaries.
Upon being accepted as a student, San Te foolishly requests to start his training at the highest chamber, which he finds is entirely devoted to studying and reciting Buddhist sutras. The lowest chamber, on the other hand, simply requires the students to cross a small pool of water by skipping across a bundle of logs floating on the surface. Lau proceeds to spend 10 full minutes following San Te’s attempts to master the feat, first on the bundle and then on a single piece of wood. When he tries to cheat the system by climbing the wall and going around, he’s slammed back down by an abbot, who remarks, “The wall is low, but the power of Buddha is high!” Lau’s point is clear: there are no shortcuts to transcendence. Likewise, San Te’s eventual conquering of the chamber through his focus on “strength, balance, and speed” works as fitting shorthand descriptor for Lau’s filmmaking.
If Chang Cheh (Lau’s Shaw Brothers counterpart and former boss, who had made his own Shaolin movie, Shaolin Temple, two years previously) viewed kung-fu primarily as a vehicle for masochism and sacrifice, Lau’s elegant style points to a more graceful worldview. His widescreen framings, zooms, and rack focuses are in top form throughout, but it’s during the section of the film concerning the trial of the temple’s first chamber that Lau really establishes himself as, with little hyperbole, the greatest editor of action in the history of cinema. Each movement and cut leads perfectly into the next, each new setup reframing and revealing rather than obscuring his performers’ astonishing athleticism. The camera works in perfect rhythmic concert with the cutting, as intricately choreographed to follow these bodies in lightning-fast motion as the performers themselves. For all the discussion of martial arts philosophy, the expressive beauty of the action itself speaks most eloquently to the unity of body and spirit.
The rest of the temple scenes follow San Te through a series of increasingly absurd and imaginative training chambers, all of which are carried off with the same riveting concentration as the first. What for other filmmakers might be a quick montage on the way to a climactic confrontation is, for Lau, the point in itself. It’s a testament to the filmmaker’s belief in this point that the outlandish construction of these set pieces never clashes with the more serious concerns of San Te’s journey. Lau’s camera both stylizes every inch of screen space and cuts through everything incidental to its intensely focused gaze, arguably the most potent distillation of his career-long obliteration of the false boundaries around high and low art. Amazingly, the movie’s first full-fledged fight scene doesn’t come until 80 whole minutes in, pitting San Te against the skeptical Justice Abbot (Lee Hoi-Sang) in a three-round duel that may also be the film’s high point in terms of actual combat.
San Te eventually reaches kung-fu master status, after 7 years of training, and quickly entreats the Shaolin abbots to allow him to establish a 36th chamber — one that exists outside the temple walls, in which he can train regular people in the Shaolin ways to defend themselves against their oppressors. The monks refuse, though their punishment of San Te for suggesting such a thing — leaving the temple to collect donations — conveniently enables him to do just that. The film then speeds towards its predestined conclusion, though there are plenty of pleasures in seeing San Te fulfill his belief in the liberatory potential of martial arts by recruiting allies in the fight against Tien Ta.
Discussing 36th Chamber in context requires sorting through its vast influence, as most viewers today (this writer included) come to the film already carrying the associations of the Wu-Tang Clan and the Gordon Liu-starring Pai Mei chapter of Kill Bill, Vol. 2. Perhaps it’s the more outwardly high-minded historical and religious signifiers that separated the film from the pack at a time where kung-fu movies were considered little more than disposable fodder for drive-ins and late-night television. Or perhaps it’s just the undeniable feeling that it represents some kind of culmination — of lives and traditions that extend far beyond the screen, and of a filmmaker who, like his protagonist, took it upon himself to spread his gospel of action far and wide.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.