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DVDs I think you should own #5 – The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin


It’s about time a kung fu movie made the list. Not just any old kung fu movie mind but one of the finest and one of the most iconic to imprint itself on the psyche of Western audiences, the 1978 Shaw Brothers classic The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin.

Gordon Liu (most people will recognise him from his role as Pai Mei in Tarantino’s Kill Bill) stars as San Te, a student who flees to the Shaolin temple after he becomes wanted by the government for seditious behaviour. At the temple he entreaties the monks to teach him their ancient fighting arts so that he can fight the opression of the corrupt rulers.

What follows is essentially the birth of the training montage movie as San Te works his way through the thirty five chambers of the Shaolin temple. Each chamber develops a different strength or skill vital to the martial arts until after completion of the thirty fifth mastery is attained. While the Karate Kid may have borrowed the concept for Daniel-San’s training, the seemingly unconnected feats San Te has to complete make waxing cars and painting fences seem like the childs play they are.

Gordon Liu puts in an impressive turn in the lead role and showcases some awesome kung fu skills as San Te gets closer to his goal of mastering the martial arts. The ingenuity of some of the chambers is impressive and clearly gave rise to many of the (often parodied) cliches of martial arts movies but its influence isn’t limited to kung fu films. The Rocky sequels and even Full Metal Jacket owe a debt to the structure of the 36th Chamber.

It’s highly probable a lot of people wouldn’t countenance watching a kung fu movie simply because it is a kung fu movie but this film transcends the genre slightly, not least because it originated many of the genre’s trappings but also because as a story it works beautifully. As much about one man’s struggle with his own limitations as it is about the struggle of the disenfranchised against the evils of the empowered the themes are universal despite being hung on a framework of martial arts action. The philosophy at the heart of martial arts is here in abundance but its given a human face as we join San Te on his journey from novice to master not just of kung fu but of himself.

If you like kung fu movies it is essential viewing, if you don’t think you are a fan I’d urge you to give this a chance because it has real substance, so much so that it’s well worth brushing genre prejudices to one side. The currently available remastered edition has had proper attention paid and really brings out the best in this Eastern classic.

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