The Tartars have invaded this region of China and are holding the land in the grip of terror, stamping out any opposition as and where they find it. There remain pockets of resistance, and General Yin (Chia Lung Liu) is leading one of them, so when General Tien Ta (Lo Lieh) arrives in the city with the Inspector General he makes his move, leaping into action only to find with his huge strike that he has been tricked and an ambush is waiting. Tien wastes no time in setting about the insurgent with his fighting skills, and though Yin is a talented battler he is really no match for such a formidable foe. Soon their combat is over, Yin's allies have been tortured to death, and his body is suspended in the town square as a message to any rebels...
So who can save the people now? One look at the cast list and a certain Gordon Liu would appear to be the most obvious candidate seeing as how he has a history of standing up to the oppressors in kung fu movies, and naturally The 36th Chamber of Shaolin was likely his most celebrated work. The reason for that legendary status was down to it perhaps being the epitome of its form, the very apex of the decade of the nineteen-seventies and the martial arts flick that the Shaw Brothers studio had honed to perfection with their team of moviemakers, presumably drilled to precision in the same way Liu was in this, and using many of the same techniques to train them to perfection.
Lau Kar-Leung was your man behind the camera, and putting the cast through their paces in the choreography as well, another legendary figure in the genre who could be trusted to deliver the goods where action was concerned. Just about every one of the films he directed has a champion proclaiming it as the greatest ever, but it was 36th Chamber which many had held up as the Shaw Brothers' pinnacle, certainly of this decade, possibly because it was so formulaic in its structure, leaving the sense of watching an archetype, even an iconic effort. The plot was about as basic as these things got, and often did: young student learns the skills from an older master (quite a few of them in this case) and applies them to counter evil as justice and vengeance.
But it was what Lau did with them, assisted manfully by his leading man, that counted, which more than one viewer came away from thinking this was as good as it got in the parameters of the traditional kung fu movie. Certainly in the West it garnered fresh evaluation when rap group The Wu Tang Clan were evangelising about it to the extent that they named their first album after it, and The RZA from the group was telling anyone who would listen that 36th Chamber was about as entertaining as this stuff got. How useful they were in bringing the genre to a new audience was debatable, as fans tend to be brought to it in different ways, but if nothing else they made this particular title better known than most of its contemporaries outside of the Bruce Lee canon.
Liu played San Te, first seen as a college student dismayed at his lack of power when the Tartars run rampant over his hometown. He becomes involved with a resistance cell, rather halfheartedly until he is identified by Tang's right hand man General Tung (Wu Hang-Sheng) as a troublemaker and hunts him down. San Te manages to give him the slip whereupon he ends up at a Shaolin Temple with the kind of inevitability that you have to expect in these stories, whereupon he spends the next year, er, sweeping up. Unimpressed, he asks if he can learn the kung fu style they teach and is put on the programme, resulting in some of the best training sequences in Hong Kong cinema - and there are plenty to choose from - as months go by and San Te learns his craft. Of course, that craft is meant to teach him self-discipline rather than a method to beat people up, but the idea of a monk, a man of peace, turning into a martial arts superman and unleashing the awesome power of his skills on evildoers, many find irresistable and so it is with one of the most enjoyable entries in the cycle. Music by Chen Yung-Yu.
Chinese director and actor and one of the most influential martial arts film-makers of the 1970s. Kar-Leung joined the Shaw Brothers studio in 1965 where he worked as an actor and fight choreographer, before making his directing debut in 1975 with the kung fu comedy The Spiritual Boxer. A series of martial arts classics followed, including 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Shaolin Mantis, Dirty Ho, Mad Monkey Kung Fu and My Young Auntie. Kar-Leung was a strong believer that fight sequences should be shot in single, wide shots to showcase the natural skill of the martial artists, which was at odds with those directors who prefered wirework and fast editing.
Kar-Leung continued to direct throughout the eighties, with period films like Shaolin Temple, starring a young Jet Li, and modern-day action flicks Tiger on the Beat and its sequel. In 1994, worked as fight arranger on Jackie Chan's Drunken Master II, but was controversially sacked from the production when his methods clashed with Chan's. In retaliation, he directed his own Drunken Master 3 later the same year. Kar-Leung's last film was 2002's old-fashioned Drunken Monkey, once more for Shaw Brothers.