“The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin” is a 1978 Kung Fu action film, mixing up a melting pot of action, politics, Buddhism, comedy, high drama and lots of cool moves. This is a film for men by men filled with men! The only female character is one of the students at Mr Ho’s college, who pops up occasionally, but atypically in this historical setting, a woman gaining an education! Apart from this one brave participant for femininity, this is a man-tastic film!
Buy This Title
The late director Lau Kar-leung (also known known as Liu Chia-liang) was and is one of the great action choreographers of cinema. He worked his magic from the golden age at Shaw Brothers with “The One Armed Swordsmen” in 1967, up to the modern kung fu era with his kinetic choreography in the 2005 wuxia film “Seven Swords”. His fight choreography is masterful, but he eventually took the step into direction, and started to craft his own action epics.
“The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin” is one of Lau Kar-leung’s finest Kung Fu genre explosions. Hip Hop martial arts alchemist RZA, is impeccably obsessed with “The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin”. Not just satisfied with being a kung fu master, a director, an actor and choreographer, Lau Kar-leung also dipped his toe into script writing, and penned four films individually or in collaboration. Several of these films are of great interest, for delving into the psyche of Lau Kar-leung. There is the dark cynicism of “8 Diagram Pole Fighter” which contrasts with the action comedy of “My Young Aunty”. The most important skill to any kung fu action choreographer is his or hers martial arts skills. Lau Kar-leung’s extended family is a cauldron of high class kung fu pedigree. He was learning kung fu at the age of 5 from a genuine grandmaster, his father Lau Cham! Lau Cham studied Hung Gar kung fu under Lam Sai-wing, who was a student of the legendary Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-hung! Lau Kar-leung was the real deal when it came to kung fu skills.
Lau Kar-leung is well known for his collaborations with his father’s godson, the kung fu fanatic, Gordon Liu, who trained with Lau Cham. Lau Kar-leung provided him a few supporting roles and he worked his way up to a leading Kung Fu hero, his boyish everyman charm and his intense physicality winning over the audiences. Permanently in a state of baldness, as he constantly played Kung Fu fighting monks, Gordon Liu is one of the great faces of the genre. He worked on many Lau Kar-leung films and eventually ended up in Hollywood to feature in Tarantino’s Kill Bill!
Lau Kar-leung developed another creative collaborative partnership with the prolific and remarkable science fiction novelist Ni Kuang. Ni Kuang should be a more familiar name in cinematic circles, as he has crafted hundreds of scripts for Hong Kong cinema. Ni Kuang penned “The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin” filled with action and bursting with irony. As a young man, Ni Kuang was a talented functionary of The Communistic Party of China, but when he queried some of his orders, he got the unhealthy feeling that a purge could be on its way! He made the dash for freedom and escaped to Hong Kong. He is well known for his criticisms of communism within his novels. The script to “The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin” is loaded with a healthy dose of cynicism. Ni Kuang’s eye for scepticism bursts out in its full unsubtle splendour in the dialogue. In the early 1990s, he made the move to America, the home of capitalism, to continue a new era of his career. Unfortunately for Ni Kuang, he never felt completely settled in the USA. Ni Kuang ironically returned to Hong Kong in 2006, now under Chinese sovereignty and communist control, though with ‘special’ autonomy arrangements! What is interesting about Ni Kuang is the sheer amount of classic kung fu films he was involved with scripting, either as sole writer or in collaboration, many for Chang Cheh. He is the acknowledged creator of Chen Zen, the nationalist Chinese hero played by Bruce Lee, Jet Li and Donnie Yen. He worked on “One Armed Swordsman”, “The Five Deadly Venoms”, “8 Diagram Pole Fighter” (with Lau Kar-leung), “House Of Traps”, “Five Element Ninja”, “Boxer From Shantung”, “Shaolin Martial Arts”, “Black Magic”, “Dirty Ho”, “Executioners From Shaolin”, “Crippled Avengers”, “Invincible Shaolin”, “Just Heroes” etc.…just to give a flavour of his body of work!
Information about the cinematographer on this film is somewhat sketchy. Huang Yeh-tai is credited as the cinematographer, though this seems to be his only film credit. Arthur Wong is also credited on imdb, and he is one of the great technicians of cinematography on the Hong Kong scene. As there is much photography of merit in “The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin”, Huang Yeh-tai was a talent, but what happened next is a mystery. Arthur Wong’s participation is unclear too, but whoever the cinematographer was, the scenes in the monastery are superbly framed.
A bald, bare chested Gordon Liu practices kung fu forms, with rings on his arms. This abstract studio based scene is beautifully shot. Lithe muscles rippling, he kicks and punches his way through the form, expressing consummate stance. In a stunning shot, Gordon Liu’s furious fists punch through a waterfall, in slow motion. This is superb kung fu, with Liu’s raw power brought to the fore. This is a magnificently arty beginning to this classic action film.
General Yin is exhorted to do or die, for patriotism, by deranged intelligentsia type, Mr Ho. Mr Ho is a rebel intellectual so incompetent, that he encourages this skilled Han Chinese warrior into a senseless plot, but it makes for a great opening action scene! They devise a plan to assassinate The Inspector General Tien Ta, when he arrives to oversee the execution of captured rebels. This particular tactic seems a waste of the General’s military expertise, but it looks like Mr Ho needs a propaganda victory. General Yin must be a man at the end of his tether, as he agrees to the task, raising the flag for National Liberation against the Qing overlords.
The Inspector General, with his entourage of Manchu soldiers, arrives at the town, in a well ordered external shot. The rebel warrior now launches his attack, flying down from a highpoint, smashing his pole axe into The Inspector General’s caravan, but it is a trap! This is a dangerous stunt, performed with gusto by Lau Kar-leung’s brother, Lau Kar Wing, who plays General Yin. The action shot of Lau Kar Wing leaping into the trap is marvellously dangerous, brimming with uncooked energy. Cleverly, The Inspector General is disguised as one of his soldiers, so the caravan is empty. His soldiers now surround the rebel. General Yin is a Han Chinese General from within the Manchu military bureaucracy. The Inspector General’s cunning is backed up by his well-organised intelligence network. Thus, he’s expecting the attack, but is surprised by the perpetrator. With the rebel General Yin surrounded, kung fu genre expectations now need to be fulfilled! The villainous General now has to demonstrate his individual toughness and skills, by challenging his adversary to the duel. This is a Lau Kar-leung showcase fight scene as The Inspector General, with his two swords, takes on General Yin and his pole-axe. The fighters duel in syncopated rhythm, a musical form of the action choreography that was the fashion in the late 70s Hong Kong action cinema. There is a musicality to the punishing rhythm of the fighting. Lau Kar-leung is one of the greatest action choreographers in the history of cinema, so he takes this musical style of action to another level. The Inspector General is getting the upper hand, and reveals his skill and confidence by fighting using only one hand, a classic trope of the kung fu genre. He just doesn’t want to defeat the rebel; he wants to humiliate him, publicly! General Yin is defeated by this clever antagonist, The Inspector General.
In a college classroom, Mr Ho, the national liberation demagogue, is subdued. Liu Yude, portrayed by a be-wigged Gordon Liu, is among the students of his class. The class turns to talk about the execution of the Han Chinese patriots by the cruel Manchu autocrats. Mr Ho grabs this opportunity with both hands and tells his students that this is, ‘a sacrifice in a righteous cause’. The teacher likes to utter such simplistic self-righteous epithets, to any potential rebel, though his big words cannot match his woeful planning skills. Three of the students are curious, including our protagonist Liu Yude, and go to see what is happening in town. They see General Yin being tortured, crucified with ropes and they can’t decide if he is dead or alive, much to their horror! Liu Yude is heard by a Manchu overlord, which opens him up to some trouble. Uncle Wang intervenes and gets the student to apologise to the aristocratic villain. Uncle Wang gives them some advice, ‘bend you head or die’. He is a pragmatist trying his best to survive. Perhaps he is a coward to keep quiet and make the best of it, but he intervenes on the students’ behalf, at great risk to himself.
Back at the college, pragmatism is not on Mr Ho’s mind. He needs cannon fodder for the rebellion, especially when the students are in a state of confused anger at the horror they’ve just witnessed. Mr Ho urges them, ‘not to fear death, we’ll be free’. Mr Ho seems to be a leader of a death cult, rather than organising a planned insurgency. He gives simplistic answers to dangerous situations, but their horror at the cruelty, makes them easy fodder. Mr Ho recruits them into a certain Lord Cheung’s conspiracy, drafting them to smuggle documents. The untrained students go to the rebels, using basic passwords; the rebellion is pathetically organised.
Later, at his father’s fish mongers, Liu Yude is looking for samples of abalone, which pleases his father. He hopes his son is taking an interest in the business. He is a fish merchant who is doing quite well under the Manchus, able to send his son off to a top local school. A package from the rebels is sent to the merchants, which could implicate his father. Their lack of organisation and Liu Yude’s naivety is proving to be a foolish cocktail.
He takes the box to Mr Ho’s, where one of the rebels busts it open with martial art skills, impressing the young students. It is one of the Shaolin techniques, but monks don’t get involved in worldly affairs! There is a plan in the package for some kind of attack, but The Inspector General has already got wind of the plot and he is furious. He sends off his henchmen to capture the rebels. The sadistic scene chewing Lord Tang, played with wild gusto by Wilson Tong, goes on a rampage and captures many of Mr Ho’s rebels and their plans, their incompetence complete. Lord Tang threatens to torture the rebels, so one of the rebels kills himself, in patriotic fashion! The Manchus are on the move, Mr Ho tries to burn documents. All his students are scared, but they’ve avoided capture so far. Mr Ho is completely useless and the students are completely out of their depth. Mr Ho offers no advice to his young disciples, on what to do next!
The Manchus rip apart Liu Yude’s fathers’ fish shop, as they have discerned that Mr Ho and the students are involved with the rebellion. A desperate Liu Yude returns to the fish mongers and sees his father captured, yelling to his son, run! He is taking a beating, facing death with courage. Liu Yude escapes to the sound of crazy Hammer Horror style music. The music, in conjunction with the script, seems to be almost satirical in tone at times, though the consequences are very real, the rebels start to die!
Liu Yude meets up with one of the other students, whose father has also been killed and his shop trashed. They both wish they knew martial arts instead of books! The sword is indeed mightier than the pen! They can’t stay in Canton, so decide to go to Shaolin. They run for it! The Manchus come across them on the road, but their inexperience gives them away. Liu Yude manages to escape on a horse; his friend gives him time to do so, as he is captured. Liu Yude is badly injured in the leg, giving the opportunity to Lau Kar-leung to shoot lots of external zooms! Liu Yude is in a bad way, battered, his bruised leg festering. He asks for some water at an inn and the way to the Shaolin temple. The inn keeper is kind and tells him to rest, the monks will be by for food. He is hidden in the food cart by the inn keeper. The novice monks in the black and blue uniforms discover Liu Yude, when he falls out of the cart.
It is hard to know in this first act where seriousness and satire collide. Mr Ho is so preposterous with his intonations; it is hard to know if he is a satirical character. Maybe such do or die nationalism played well the male Hong Kong working class of the time, the target audience of these fine action entertainments. Ni Kuang and Lau Kar-leung are far too cynical and sceptical to let Mr Ho off the hook. He leads the young students and General Yin to disaster with his blood soaked rhetoric. One thing is for sure, the script pushes things along for Liu Yude to make his way to the monastery, to learn Kung Fu, and taste spectacular hypocrisy. Lau Kar-leung and Ni Kuang are very clever with this subversion, but it makes for a Kung Fu classic.
Ni Kuang’s script has some interesting juxtapositions in the first act, such as the pragmatic Uncle Wang, who is not really a coward. Then there is Liu Yude’s father, a hard working fishmonger, trying his best for his family. He is amateurishly used by the rebellion, without his knowledge, but he sacrifices himself for his son. He is a fine man doing what he thinks is right in a bad situation, without some fool whispering in his ear. The other great character is The Inspector General Tien Ta portrayed by Lo Lieh, with intelligent menace. It is within the antagonism that the man of quality shines. Tien Ta is a gifted operator; cunning, strategic as well as being a highly skilled warrior, unfortunately he is also a ruthless and cruel autocrat, who will publicly torture his enemies. Even with all ineptitude of the rebellion, Liu Yude survives, to nurture his revenge!
The self-contained second act of The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin, is the ultimate in arduous kung fu training! There are many crazy kung fu training sequences in numerous cool kung fu flicks, but “The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin” sets the benchmark. Johnson Tsao is the art director of the film, and he comes into his own in this second act. All the internal and external art design of the monastery is spectacular, filled with minute detail.
Johnson Tsao’s creativity is extraordinary. The use of audio is also exceptionally well designed. The use of percussion and chanting, Kung Fu action sound effects, the odd flash of spooky electronica, with dashes of humour, is a spectacular assault on the aural senses. The whole sequence is well acted, well shot and glories in the sadistic-masochistic nature of the training. These kung fu monks are an austere bunch, given to dry wit and bouts of slapping. Ni Kuang’s script is succinct, mystical, with hints of hypocrisy, a magnificent piece of genre cinema.
Liu Yude is healing with herbs on his wounded leg. Novice monks are busy on their day to day chores, hanging fruit and vegetables. Liu Yude is sent to The Abbot, where the monks debate this new problem. Many of the monks recognise that the young student is full of rage, but The Abbot advises,
‘Let compassion guide us’!
The Abbot is impressed that this young man fought his life for 10 days, while in a coma. He decides that he has an exceptional fighting spirit. The Abbot invokes Bodhidharma, ‘a guide for a thousand years’, and decides to let this injured embittered youth stay.
A year later, Liu Yude is a novice monk, sweeping leaves, with a new Buddhist name, San Te! San Te sweeps in a glazed eye daze, which concerns a monk. He advises that there is no hiding from Buddha. San Te is desperate to learn kung fu, but he’s been sweeping leaves for a year! The monk instructs San Te that he needs to go the 35 chambers. San Te, in a moment of passion, declares that the people are oppressed and they need to learn kung fu, to defend themselves. The monk is unimpressed; a Buddhist shouldn’t have such worldly and aggressive thoughts, he sends him straight to the top chamber, the most advanced!
Monks in yellow robes are chanting, in this classic expositional scene of Buddhist paradox, or nonsense poetry, depending on your outlook. Monks intone various Buddhist soundbites. No senses! No consciousness! No decay! No death! No beginning! No wisdom!
‘Can you hear the sound of bells?’
‘The heart is calm.’
A monk gives him a slap, as San Te hasn’t a clue what the monks are babbling about, so he’s sent to the 35th chamber, the dining hall!
The trainees are running over a water channel, by jumping on bound logs, to get to the other side, to eat. On the other side of the wall, there is a free walkway with no obstacles. Monks walk to the dining hall in peaceful serenity. San Te tries to jump on the logs, but he is not light on his feet and drops like a stone into the water. A wall notice issues a warning, a pure body takes light steps, no dirt on the dining hall!
San Te dries off his clothes and tries an alternative to the log route, and hops onto the monk’s path. As if by magic, a monk randomly appears, to give San Te a witty slap. San Te has no balance and is not fleet of foot, so he has to do the washing up!
Next day he attempts to cheat again, chatting to the monks, trying to hoodwink his way on the easy path, but he receives a monumental slap that sends him flying back into the water! The other trainees laugh at San Te, but they are scolded for laughing at the novice. San Te starts to practice balancing on barrels in his own time, learning stance, lightness of foot, definitive kung fu foundations to build upon. San Te hops over the log bundles and a monk is impressed, so he cuts open the bundles of logs, into their individual floating logs. None of the novices can balance on individual logs; all the trainees go in the water. Lau Kar-leung uses a slow-motion sequence to accentuate the difficulty that the students face; they are getting nowhere, round and round, in and out of the water. A monk skims a plate across a pond, a visual aid to help the novices to focus their power and lighten their step. San Te needs power, balance and speed, so he practices at night, a true obsessive.
After many attempts, he finally runs across in glorious slow-motion! A monk emerges and tells him to go to the 34th chamber. It is time to strengthen those arms.
With arms fully out stretched, carrying fully loaded buckets of water, San Te is warned not to lose a drop. Little knives are strapped on the arms, to keep those arms out stretched. Don’t drop those arms or the trainees will cut their own ribs! This is a classic of insane kung fu torture training, pure sadomasochism at its finest, in a Buddhist monastery! They carry the water up the walkway to pour in water slides, to help the monks wash their robes. This sadistic training exercise is an extravagant washing machine, kung fu style! San Te strengthens up and tries to help others, but a monk counsels him not to help, or the novices will not improve. San Te is sent to the next chamber.
The 33rd chamber is the wrist chamber! Monks knock on a blocks of wood, and the novices have to strike the gong, with a 10 pound hammer at the end of a 12 feet long pole, so 120 pounds on the wrist! One hand can only be used to the strike gong. San Te is directed to start further up the pole until his wrists are strengthened to do the whole 12 foot. San Te strikes the gong as the monks chant, and strike wooden blocks, to increase his wrist strength. All the students are exhausted with bruised and battered wrists. They keep practicing and practicing. The monks strike up a hypnotic rhythm until the wrists give out. The monks continue with the rhythm. All the trainees try to carry on. Eventually San Te can strike the gong at the end of the pole, his wrist raw and red, but San Te has the wrist strength and perfect stance. He shows his strength on both wrists, faster and faster, stronger and stronger. He is sent to see The Abbot who rewards him with the Sutra Repository. The art direction and shooting of this scene is immaculate, but it is the use of sound that is outstanding. Percussive instruments, gongs and chants, roll to a hypnotic otherworldly rhythm.
The monks discuss briefly the affairs of the turbulent world outside the monastery, but come to no conclusions!
The Sutra Repository is introduced with crazy sci-fi oscillating sounds that suit the ambiance of the chamber. The new chamber is used to sharpen vision, with the use of candles. San Te’s eyes must follow the flame, but without moving his head or he’ll get burned by the two huge incense sticks burning at the side of his head. This is a surreal scene, brimming with sadistic humour, but with genuine kung fu pizazz. The candle is on a device that rocks. The rocking flame moves faster and faster, so his eyes must move faster and faster, but with no movement of the head. Sharp dexterous eyes equal fast limbs, and the crazy sounds permeate throughout the shadowy chamber.
The Head chamber takes deranged sadistic masochism to new heights, with an exercise in head butting! The trainee monks have to head-butt dangling sacks of sand. To add to the crazed vibe of the scene, an eccentric overseer monk has a massive staff with a metal hand at the end! He slaps his students when they are not butting enough! San Te head-butts the sacks of sand, but when he pauses, he gets a whack from the big creepy magic hand! This monk takes no slacking, or the creepy hand will appear! It has taken San Te much hard work to get to the head stage, so the monk instructs him to burn incense and get butting. He must use his strength to butt bags until his bruised head is super tough. A monk pronounces that San Te has passed the basic skills of the opening ten chambers, in twenty five months! An incredible speed, in monk time!
San Te has the basics skills, now it is to the martial arts, boxing, kicking, knives and poles. Monks bang a gong with an elaborate fish hammer, one of the strange details of the exquisite art design. Many of the trainees read books showing diagrams of martial art techniques, of correct posture, position, stance, sparring, blocking and striking. These are some of the original diagrams from an antique text describing Shaolin techniques, an added esoteric detail to this fine scene.
San Te moves onto the Kicking Chamber and he is kicking through rings of fire, breaking pots. He needs precision and strength; otherwise his leg will be burned. He passes through the Sword chamber and into the Pole Chamber, where more forms and stance need to be learned. The novices whirl poles around and through spikes, to gain strength and dexterity for the correct technique. They roll a big stone, like a grinding wheel, down a water filled gulley, with the poles. They strike sacks of sand precisely; this is another fine training scene for weapons technique. San Te spars with a monk, to test his blocking and striking.
Harp strings sing and The Abbot considers San Te’s progress. He’s made it through the 35 chambers in five years, unparalleled! The Deputy Head of the chamber is unimpressed though. There is a weird bureaucratic hierarchy within the monastery, Ni Kuang and Lau Kar-leung displaying their cynical wit! The Head Of Discipline wants to duel San Te to test his skills. The fish head hammer hits a gong, so San Te takes on the master with his pole against The Head Of Discipline’s two swords. In this sparring duel, Lau Kar-leung provides excellent choreography; the physical prowess of the monks is brought to the fore. The art design of the exercise court, surrounded by monks, is exquisite and the photography of these sparring scenes is superb. San Te is talented, but The Head Of Discipline keeps opening up him up with his sword skills. San Te submits to the monk’s greater knowledge.
San Te trains day and night with the Shaolin specialty weapon, The Monk’s Spade! He considers his technique, trying to figure out a way around The Head Of Discipline’s two swords. When he feels he is ready, he challenges him to another sparring match. The Head Of Discipline’s skills are still superior, opening up and tapping San Te time and time again. He gives San Te seventeen taps. The monk thinks San Te is improving, but he’s not there yet. Politely, San Te thanks The Head Of Discipline for the lesson, in courteous style.
At night, with his monk’s spade, San te is still trying to figure a technique to defeat The Head Of Discipline, but he chops at a bamboo tree, in undisciplined frustration, unbecoming of a monk! This moment of anger leads to a flash of inspiration, San Te notices that a piece of bamboo has broken in three places. In a Buddhist moment of ironic clarity, San Te creates his own weapon, the three sectioned staff!
He now takes on The Head Of Discipline in a Shaw Brother’s action tour de force, with all the classic kung fu weapons skills on show, as the two monks battle it out, with maximum athleticism. Lau Kar-leung’s choreography effortlessly demonstrates superb kung fu weapon skills. This is the genre moment, when San Te transforms himself from novice into a master! He keeps tapping The Head Of Discipline, eventually disarming him of one of his blades. All the monks are impressed. The Head Of Discipline offers San Te the honour of taking charge of one of the 35 chambers.
In a kung fu monastery, everything is meticulously organised. After 3 days, San Te still hasn’t chosen a chamber. He eventually asks to create a 36th chamber! He wants to take Shaolin kung fu to the world, to teach martial arts to the common man! The monks are not happy; these esoteric Buddhist skills should not be taught to such secularists! Ni Kuang piles on the ironies and the hypocrisies. The Head Of Discipline considers that this mere suggestion is an act of rudeness to The Abbot. San Te is punished and is told to leave and to collect contributions for the monastery, all seemingly done with a nod and a wink. The monastery decides to send their rabble rousing monk into the world, to cause trouble, in typical paradoxical, if somewhat hypocritical Buddhist style!
San Te returns to his home town in Canton, where his father’s shop is boarded up and the street desolate. The world though, is continuing as before. The rebels are trying to bury some of the compatriots, but Qing soldiers attack them. The rebellion is as hopeless as ever, after 5 years. There is a difference this time; there is one mean, tough, fiery kung fu monk on the scene. As the rebels are getting decimated, San Te emerges, and gives a demonstration of his Shaolin skills! He battles with the merciless Lord Tang sword against his spear. The Manchurians try to intervene on Lord Tang’s behalf, as knife throwers try to kill San Te, but they dispatch each other instead.
San Te uses the wrist technique he absorbed in the wrist chamber, to disarm and defeat the blood thirsty Lord. With genuine surprise and logic, Lord Tang exclaims that monks can’t kill! This perplexes San Te, he stays his hand, but to no avail. One of the furious rebels picks up a sword and chops the Manchu villain to pieces and San Te prays!
The rebel and San Te consider the fallen martyrs; the monk is already starting to feel the pull of national liberation, forgetting his own hypocritical position. Unlike Mr Ho, San Te has developed cunning and states they need a plan. He asks where he might find young hot headed youths, with magnificent cynicism. He wears the mantle of a monk, but he is using that prestige to push his agenda, for revenge! He discovers that Inspector General Tien Ta is back in Canton!
At a wheelwright’s, a big bear of a man is getting into a dispute with some Manchu soldiers. Sick to death with their demands, he takes the soldiers on and starts to get a beating, but he’s strong and tough. He goes wild with a hammer, trying to bash the soldiers, but the hammer has a very long wooden handle. The soldiers dodge his erratic swings. The wheelwright is brave, but raw and lacks technique. As a crowd gathers to watch the fight, San Te melts into the crowd and offers an opinion, use the handle, forgot the hammer! He now can control the centre of gravity and he swiftly beats the soldiers to a pulp. The wheelwright recognises San Te’s martial qualities and wants to be a student. San Te has his first hot head! Being a rough proletarian, the wheelwright asks if San Te is a Buddha, as he is impressed with his fighting knowledge, a beautiful irony from Ni Kuang. San Te says he’s just a monk, with false modesty.
A bamboo cane seller is more sceptical of San Te’s abilities and assesses him with his canes, testing his balance, which he passes with ease. His poise, balance, stance and agility are shown to great effect as he dances on these shifting bamboo canes, like where he started in the 35th Chamber. Another hot head is added to the gang, though one with more guile.
The Inspector General discovers Lord Tang, his violent henchman, is dead, and he is very angry. He wants to know what is going on! Concurrently San Te is slowly developing his plot to deal with the Inspector General and puts his hot headed youths to use. He realises there is a rice mill next to the General’s residence; he wants to take advantage of this.
San Te enters the rice miller’s house, who is very drunk, and he is known as Miller Six! The Miller drunkenly contemplates that it takes years of practice to learn kung fu, as he realises that San Te is a Shaolin monk. Miller Six reckons he had some skills, but he likes his booze too much. San Te manages to persuade Miller Six to let him stay at the mill for a few days; his kung fu charisma is growing. San Te vows, in unlikely Buddhist fashion, that Inspector General Tien Ta will die! Miller Six is somewhat surprised, knowing that he will lose everything in a plot to kill The General, though he admits many fine Chinese are dying unfairly under the Manchurian yoke. San Te, like Mr Ho, appeals to his patriotism, but offers him a way out. Rather than a glorious death, if his plot works, he’ll take him to Shaolin. He is starting to incubate his idea of the 36th chamber. He needs brave men, but he’s not going to waste them needlessly. San Te is developing his political consciousness, though in somewhat duplicitous fashion.
Lord Chen, the most enigmatic of the Inspector General’s henchmen is on patrol with his soldiers. Depicted by John Cheung, Lord Chen is an aristocratic warrior with a deep sense of ennui, the existential Qing officer, forever locked in a bloody conflict. San Te now confronts the Lord and his soldiers, in perhaps the best action sequence of the whole film. There are camera shots from low angles, hand held shots running alongside the action, high angle shots and slow zooms, catching the fighting overhead. The shooting, cinematography and raw action choreography is pure kinetic energy, a thing of action beauty. San Te shows off his martial skills, not even bothering to use weapons against these Manchu soldiers. In the chaos of the melee, the soldiers try to stab San Te with their spears, but accidentally skewer Lord Chen instead, killing him. Lord Chen expires, his ennui at an end!
San Te gathers his hot heads together and prepares to take on the Inspector General, Tien Ta. Noticing bags of flour in the mill, he has an idea. Through his intelligence network, the Inspector General realises that a Shaolin monk is stirring up trouble. He realises the deadly martial threat from Shaolin to the Qing. They’ve involved themselves in worldly affairs; The Inspector General decides they need to be destroyed.
The Inspector General Tien Ta prepares to leave with his troops, to put an end to Shaolin, when he and his entourage are covered in flour. The white stuff pours down as they move through the gate. Flour now starts to drop everywhere, white clouds billowing around the town, causing havoc and chaos among the troops. He has wisely put his hot heads to use with a distraction, rather than a headlong charge into death. This particular external scene is well shot and choreographed, with the clouds of flour spreading discord. San Te appears on his horse to lure the Inspector General away, enticing Tien Ta to make a mistake, among the chaos. The Inspector General chases after San Te with a humorous western style horse music motif. Even at this most dramatic point, Lau Kar Leung cannot stop himself having fun.
The final duel is a slight disappointment, when compared to the two previous action scenes. The fight choreography is immaculate, but Lau Kar Leung is caught between trying to photograph the beauty of external setting and the actual shooting of the action scene. It is as if the man-on-man duel is somewhat tedious after the excitement and the logistically complicated shooting of the Lord Cheng action scene, which is a thing of beauty. Gordon Liu and Lieh Lo do their best, with their fine physicality and elegant weapon skills. The martial art skills of two swords against three section staff is of high quality, but Lau Kar-leung’s direction is routine at best. San Te completely outclasses the General, but Lau Kar-leung has one final flash of superb inspiration: he finishes off The General with his magical head butting technique. The surreal head chamber is put to superb use. There should have been more of this mad stuff in the final duel, but it is a pleasure to see such a finale. A couple of flying head butts and the scene cuts to the epilogue of the 36h Chamber!
Throughout the film, San Te doesn’t actually kill anyone, but the scene cuts away before we know what has happened to the Inspector General! Has he been dispatched by the magical head-butt? Has San Te completed his dismantling of his Buddhist vows? These questions are not answered, but San Te now has his 36th chamber, with a room full of Kung Fu hot heads, preparing for war. He has created his Shaolin Buddhist insurgency think-tank, to train up and organise the peasants and proletarians in martial arts and insurgency strategy. He will spread the knowledge of Kung Fu to the masses! There is bit of class war here, a dash of patriotic national liberation there, and whole load of wit, as Ni Kuang piles it on thick! Lau Kar-leung ends the film on a comedy note; Miller Six is still drunk and utterly hopeless at Kung Fu, the director’s humour as sharp as ever.