For a long time, I wasn’t really into martial arts movies (I know that sounds weird). I grew up watching all kinds of action, but never really got interested in martial arts because they felt so unpolished. My younger self really wanted something “cool” out of movies, and the terrible dubbing and campy acting were too much to be overcome by the action sequences of the kung-fu movies I sampled. I finally found my way into the genre with Jet Li, but I was reluctant to go back and check out the older titles; I didn’t want to wade back into the pool of these corny, melodramatic stories that didn’t feel cool.
That’s the baggage that I brought to Liu Chia-Liang’s The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978). So many people have talked about how this movie is considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, martial arts movie of all time. Quentin Tarantino clearly loves it. The Wu-Tang Clan, among others, won’t ever shut up about it. But I still had doubts.
I shouldn’t have. Because they’re totally right.
These opening scenes could feel rather slow and deliberate, but they work because they establish the stakes and the motivation for San Te (it reminds me of the purpose behind the deliberately paced opening scenes of John Wick). We understand exactly why he cares and what his approach will be to his anticipated training.
Braveheart) but this movie gives us the antithesis; it takes us through the little successes and failures of becoming something heroic.
This is my favorite part of the movie. Instead of training to fight a specific Big Bad, or to get vengeance for his master, the story is suggesting that a hero’s primary enemy is his or her own complacency and fear. What can San Te do to overcome this interior enemy? We see the answer as he progresses through the chambers mentioned in the title; each chamber focuses on a specific skill, and one cannot progress until achieving mastery. San Te even has to figure out a way to reach the dining hall to eat his meals; nothing is just given in his martial arts training.
|But I'm so hungry|
The spirit of the film is ultimately hinted at in the opening credits of the movie, where Liu, in character, is alone, demonstrating forms and skill with various weapons. It feels a little out of place, but makes sense as the goal of what San Te has learned to pursue: personal excellence and perfection. The character’s success was not simply about the defeat of a villain or the gaining of power, but gaining knowledge of self and skill through the dedication of time and effort.
“Kung-fu” has come to be a ubiquitous term for martial arts in Western culture, but in Chinese, the term more accurately refers to any skill that is acquired through hard work, time, and practice. By this standard, there is probably no movie that embodies “kung-fu” more than The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, which is exactly why it’s considered one of the best of its kind.