Day Three 36 Chambers of Shaolin Hong Kong, 1978 Director: Liu Chia Liang, Lau Kar Leung
Good kung fu flicks can be about just about anything, but for a kung fu film to aspire to greatness it has to be about HATRED. And not some wussy dislike for the bad guy in the black hat... No. For greatness, a martial arts film has to be about the raw elemental hatred only formed when the bad guy conquers your country, destroys your school, imprisons your classmates, hangs your teacher, burns down your house, kills your Dad, exiles your uncle, tortures your brother, rapes your sister, and kicks your dog.
36th Chamber of Shaolin is a great movie. (Alas, no actual dog-kicking.) The bad guys are the Manchus who occupied China during the 19th century. San Te is our hero, a student who sees his community, his friends, and his family destroyed by the invaders. Barely alive, San Te manages to find refuge in the legendary Shaolin temple and tries to convince the monks to teach him kung-fu so that he can avenge himself on the Manchus. The monks agree, but their methods of instruction are a little odd...
The film's simple structure, in which the hero is wronged, finds a trainer or trainers who promise to teach him kung fu, but do so in unexpected ways and climaxing with the fully trained hero getting his revenge, is much copied, especially for instance by Karate Kid which is the wussy Hollywood PG non-HATRED-filled version of this film right down to the Wax-On, Wax-Off style of teaching.
The most interesting thing about this film is that it points to the historical dilemma that the actual Shaolin temple found itself in during the historical time that the film covers.
The problem historically is that while the Shaolin Monks may have perceived themselves as philosophers voluntarily secluding themselves from the world in a wilderness retreat, to the suspicious Manchus, the Shaolin Monks were a group of Chinese Super-Soldiers in a mountain fortress.
The problem then for the Shaolin Monks was how to plan for the future of their order and their philosophy since the physical centre of their faith was destined inevitably to be destroyed by the Manchus.
San Te represents one of the arguments as how to preserve the Shaolin order. In the film, there are 35 chambers in the Shaolin Temple each devoted to teaching a different lesson in Martial Arts. San Te in the film proposes to make the entire outside world the 36th Chamber. (Hence the title.) San Te's reasons are pragmatic. He reasons that by teaching his countrymen Kung Fu, they will be able to drive out the Manchus and regain their country.
San Te’s solution to driving out the Manchus in other words is surprisingly similar to Mao’s later solution: train the peasantry to be soldiers. The difference is that where Mao had a philosophy, San Te has none beyond revenge.
The first lesson that San Te learns in the film is a lesson in footwork and balance. This is appropriate because Shaolin Kung Fu is all about balance, but the Kung Fu was always supposed to be subsidiary to the Shaolin Buddhist philosophy which is all about a spiritual balance. The balance of Shaolin Kung Fu in other words was always supposed to be merely a physical echo of the spiritual balance of the Shaolin Buddhist philosophy.
Each of the 35 chambers in the Shaolin Temple is supposed to represent a philosophical dilemma as well as a physical challenge, but San Te solves the physical challenges while ignoring the philosophical considerations. In fact when the Buddhist philosophy is presented in the film it always baffles San Te.
So when San Te leaves the temple, he possesses all of the Shaolin Temple’s physical training and none of its philosophical learning. In short, he is everything that the Manchus fear: a Shaolin killing machine unrestrained by religious concerns and committed to training others to become like him. In fact, it could be argued that while the Shaolin Temple was in danger of being destroyed before San Te arrives to be trained, after he leaves its destruction is inevitable.
Ultimately, one has to wonder if Director Liu Chia Liang, himself a direct descendent of Shaolin disciples, was using this film as a commentary as to how the teachings of the Shaolin Temple had been distorted by kung fu cinema. Its history preserved and its physical abilities duplicated, but its philosophies given lip service or ignored altogether.