Lau Kar Leung, 1978
Starring: Gordon Liu, Lo Lieh, Yung Liu Chia, Norman Chu
Shao lin san shi Liu Fang aka Shaolin Master Killer is one of the most beloved martial arts films of all time and helped launch the careers of star Gordon Liu and director Lau Kar Leung. San Te, a student, is swept up in the rebellion against the evil Manchus. When his friends and family are killed during an uprising, San Te heads for the closest Shaolin temple, determined to learn kung fu and avenge his father. Though the monks forbid revenge, he is accepted into the temple only because he almost died getting there and one of the elders takes pity. Eventually he begins his training through the thirty five chambers of the Shaolin temple, each teaching and honing a different skill. After five years, when he graduates, he is expelled for wanting to create a 36th chamber where he will teach common people to defend themselves. After accidentally defeating the evil Manchu leader, he begins his school and is accepted back into the temple.
With excellent direction by Lau Kar-Leung and lovely if functional cinematography by Huang Yeh-tai, this helped kick off Lau's long career for Shaw Brothers. Though initially fight choreographer for the great Chang Cheh and other non-Shaw works like Master of the Flying Guillotine, this is where Lau really came into his own. The film became so popular that it resulted in a trilogy and was followed by Return to the 36th Chamber, where Liu appears again in a new role. This was followed by Disciples of the 36th Chamber. All these films deal with the fictionalized character of real historical monk San Te, who was supposedly the first to teach kung fu outside the temple. Though the synopsis is not new and borrows from some of Chang Cheh films such as Shaolin Temple, this is likely due to Lau's long involvement as Chang's choreographer until he was promoted to director by Run Run Shaw. 36th Chamber includes themes that Lau would pursue throughout his career, namely the history of kung fu, the intellectualism and spirituality of fighting, and redemption rather than revenge.
There is one reason and one reason only to watch the film and that is Gordon Liu. Also known as Lau Kar-Fai or Liu Chia-Hui (though born Xian Jinxi), he trained at Lau Cham's Hung Ga school until he rose to fame. Lau Cham was a student of the famous Wong Fei-hung and is also father to Lau Kar-Leung, making Lau and Liu adopted brothers in a loose sense. In one of Liu's earliest films, he actually starred as Wong Fei-hung in Challenge of the Masters. Liu's lean, bare-chested form complete with a monk's mandatory shaven head became a Shaw Brother's trademark image and guaranteed his future fame. Though his acting isn't the most mind blowing I've ever seen in a kung fu film, his naive, yet stubborn charm and ability to kick ass without actually kicking anyone's ass is one of a kind.
The film is innovative because it departs from the standard revenge plot in that it loosely follows this formula for the first third of the film, but completely discards this halfway through in favor of a more philosophical approach. San Te makes good on becoming a monk and though he does create the 36th chamber, he never becomes a killer. Because of this lofty intellectualism, at times this feels like a serious, humorless training film with little actual fighting and nary a drop of blood, but don't be misled. There is some excellent kung fu, particularly where weapons are concerned. Though Liu is the shining star, there are also some nice cameos. Lee Hoi San appears as a Shaolin Officer who effortlessly wields double blades and Wilson Tong is barely given a chance to show his skills as the ruthless leader of the Manchus. Lo Lieh is aged, but excellent as the evil General and manages to hold his own for most of the fighting scenes.
Be wary of which version you purchase or view on DVD. There's an earlier Crash Cinema DVD titled Shaolin Master Killer that is absolutely horrible. It has a terribly aged print and some of the worst English dubbing I have ever heard. It's the version I grew up watching, but please avoid it at all costs. The excellent Dragon Dynasty DVD is far superior with a beautifully restored transfer and Mandarin and Cantonese language tracks in addition to the English dub. There are some nice special features, namely an interesting -- if rambling and not particularly well-researched -- commentary by RZA and Andy Klein, a film critic. There's also a Dragon Dynasty Blu-ray disc that is similar to the DVD release, but allegedly this Blu-ray transfer does ShawScope little favors. Either way, the film is mandatory viewing for all fans of martial arts cinema.