Movie News & Reviews

'36th Chamber' masters the beatdown

I think it was Gandhi who once said "If we weren't meant to whale the hell out of each other, we would never have been given fists."

Even better than pounding the tar out of somebody is watching some other jerk do it instead: It's all the joy of bloodlust with none of the risk of actually bleeding.

That's why, based on no greater authority than my own terrible whim and the unseen fury of my shadowless kicks, I hereby declare the next five weeks to be Martial Arts Month. If you have a problem with that, prepare for a crash-zoom on my face as I laugh derisively at your lack of inner spirit. So! In preparation for our task, there can be no greater training than 1978's The 36th Chamber of Shaolin.

After witnessing the death of a rebel hero, Chia Hui Liu joins the resistance against the oppressive tartars. A raid on his village leaves his friends and family dead. Powerless, he smuggles himself into the Shaolin temple where, through rigorous training, he can learn the kung fu he needs to fight back.

Did I say Liu's training is rigorous? I mean it is so intense it makes every single one of us look like little babies who couldn't beat up even younger babies.

His major in beatdown takes nearly a full hour of 36th Chamber's runtime. This may sound excessive until you remember the coolest part of any kung fu movie is always the part where they're learning to be a bad mother. "Hey, I could be a killing ninja," you start to think. "I've already got that Wrist Room mastered." Meanwhile, you're overseen by tough-love monks doing what monks do best: nodding in approval and frowning in dismay.

What's essentially an hourlong "level up" montage should not be this exciting. But director Chia-Liang Liu uses brisk cuts and smart editing to keep the plot humming and combines a serious story with the playful and delightful whompings that make kung fu movies such fun. Oddly reminiscent of the charged-up storytelling of 'The Departed', it's a streamlined style that only tells what's necessary.

By the time Chia Hui Liu completes the 35 chambers, he's such a supreme stud he 'invents his own weapon'. Trust me, the Wu-Tang Clan doesn't name an album after your movie unless you're one righteous dude. "Kung fu," loosely translated, means "skill through effort." In those terms, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin has few rivals.

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