36th Chamber on DVD

Sunday, 15 February 2009 08:47

“The 36th Chamber of Shaolin” (hereafter known as “Chamber”) is one of the first two films to be released on the new kung fu movie label “Dragon Dynasty”. Anybody who has seen Lau Kar-Leung’s classic will know why. Amongst other reasons, it features an uncomplicated plot with a handful of key characters, is light on dialogue (good for subtitle haters!), and has plenty of action. Essentially, it is a very accessible martial arts movie.

Gordon Liu (“Kill Bill”) stars as Lui Yu-de, a lowly school pupil who witnesses his home town being strangled under a tyrannical Manchu tartar regime. The occupying force reacts with an iron fist when local rebels try to mount a defence, by sweeping through the entire town, killing those who refuse to bow to their will as well as those even suspected of harbouring rebels.

The 36th ChamberLui Yu-de manages to escape into the local countryside but only after he has witnessed his father’s death at the hands of the enemy. Filled with anger but powerless to respond, he realises that the only way he can avenge his father and the town is to learn martial arts at a nearby Shaolin temple.

The majority of the movie is spent telling the story of Lui Yu-de’s journey through the temple’s many chambers, mastering new disciplines whilst also growing as a person. In one sense, “Chamber” is one long montage sequence as witnessed in countless other kung fu films (and “The Empire Strikes Back”, an example noted by the expert commentators on the DVD).

The hero begins his martial arts training as a complete novice, with no coordination, stamina or power, and with a bit of a cheeky, selfish attitude to boot. It does not take him long to realise, however, that learning a martial art takes time, patience and a massive amount of diligence. Early on, his fellow monks and the instructors make fun of him, but before long he is outstripping the former, and delighting the latter. As his reputation grows, Lui Yu-de is renamed San Te out of recognition for his accomplishments, and he comes ever-closer to his goal of being powerful enough to take on the Manchu enemy.

Like the hero of the piece, “Chamber” succeeds in virtually everything it sets out to achieve, although as previously mentioned it is not a deep or particularly moving saga. It is also not a hugely violent or bloody example of the genre.

Having said that, the early scenes of destruction at the invaders’ hands do more than enough to ensure the audience is rooting for the underdogs. Gordon Liu - looking very much like a young, steely Yul Brynner - is supremely watchable, at first as the bumbling fool and later as a master of his art. The lead actor is evidently a highly-skilled martial artist, but he manages to make the seven-year journey of his character completely believable.

One might think that scene after scene of combat training would become dull, but in reality the opposite is true. Each new skill and progression is presented in an entertaining and intriguing new way. Some of the chamber challenges resemble rooms from The Crystal Maze in their deviousness. For example, whilst learning about peripheral vision and tracking a target, the hero must stand with his head inches away from two smouldering stakes whilst following a metronomic light with his eyes. If he moves his head at all, he gets burnt!

In another chamber, he has to jump, roll and sprint about a dark room full of tree stumps with mirrors nailed to them, punching and kicking those that catch the light of a candle, rather like the modern-day ‘whack-a-mole’ arcade game but on a much larger scale. More often than not, San Te does not succeed in the challenges until he has worked out the best techniques in his mind, as well as developed sufficient skill, accuracy and strength in his body. Watching him learn is genuinely exciting.

Part of the movie’s charm is that it does not take itself too seriously, despite the revenge plot stringing it all together. It is also eager to promote the idea that martial arts are primarily a defensive measure, and come with a philosophy of dedication, inner and outer strength, and character-building discipline. It is certainly not one of those Western-style kung fu films where the hero’s talents are purely gauged by how many heads he or she can crack open! It comes highly recommended to both fans and newcomers to the genre, and ironically, despite its age feels like a breath of fresh air.

Special features include an audio commentary by Wu-Tang Clan’s The RZA and film critic Andy Klein, interviews with the star and genre critics, concert video for WTC’s “Gravel Pit”, a stills gallery, trailers and commentator biographies.

The DVD is released on 23 March 2009, RRP £12.99, or less from www.culttvstore.com

 

Last modified on Thursday, 10 May 2012 16:37

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