I can mark the occasions on my hand where watching a film that turned out to be more than I expected, even when going into it knowing it had a great reputation. The film proves to exist in such a vacuum of cinematic perfection and narrative engagement as to radically alter my relatively entrenched set of "top ten film," which for the longest time consisted entirely of obvious classics. Prior to yesterday, the only two films that proved to be a new degree of perfection were relatively recent cinematic offerings in 2011's Take Shelter and 2007's Secret Sunshine. These films were so jarringly perfect as to rattle my understanding of cinema and cause me to alter how I had formulated a list of what I already thought consisted of largely perfect, if not near perfect moments in film. I have in the course of the past year managed to catch up with a large amount of my cinematic blind spots, many of which were quite amazing, works like Rio Bravo and Born Yesterday were phenomenal, but also have a sense of classicism about them that allows me to understand their place in cinema, as well as temper my willingness to subvert my top ten list. It is when I go into a film not expecting it to be wildly entertaining, profound and personally moving that I tend to have transcendental experiences. My viewing of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin was one such occurrence. A film that made the list on the kungu marathon entirely based on a recommendation by RZA on a website in which he listed his favorite kung fu films. I had already viewed some of his recommendations earlier in the marathon and those he favored were quite enjoyable, however, this film exists in a class all its own, using a highly kinetic style that manages to temper itself throughout by including flares of the melodramatic, but with a decidedly Eastern touch. I know it is tough to make a case for film, let alone a genre work, to be considered high art, but in terms of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin it is nothing short of cinematic mastery, both proving what is possible in the limits of a genre film, while also considering the larger ability of film to move people on a deep, almost spiritual level. All of this loquacious rambling comes to one simpler idea, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is a cool movie.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is a story that has surprisingly seen alterations in the form of early works in this marathon, indeed, Shaolin Temple is almost the same film on paper, focusing on a figure who is attempting to fight of the presence of imposing outside forces on his village. In The 36th Chamber of Shaolin the figure is San Te (Chia Hui Liu) and the oppressive force is the Tartans, also known historically as the Mongols. San Te is a young man who after attempting to defend his family from an aggressive attack by the Tartans is wounded and stows away in a shipment of lettuce. This food is by chance delivered to the Shaolin temple, where it is revealed almost immediately that San Te has been transported. Initially hesitant of his entrance into their sacred space, the head Abbot suggests that they take in the young man and train him in the ways of Shaolin, although they make certain that his training is as intensive, if not more, than his fellow disciples. Initially San Te is wildly ambitious and hopes to begin in the 1st chamber of the Shaolin, only to discover that not only is he incapable of comprehending the enigmatic phrases of the highest monks, but that he also cannot grasp how a monk sitting down manages to knock him off his feet and across a foyer. Accepting his need to start from the beginning, San Te works from the 35th chamber, which is a test of jumping over a set of floating logs before eating, to higher levels that teach him endurance, patience and awareness to the surroundings. Indeed, San Te is initially quite confused as to why it takes him so long to learn even the fist and foot attacks of Shaolin, but as the various abbott's note, it is training that comes to a collective perfection, that is the backbone of Shaolin style. After a run of success, San Te is appointed a position of leadership, much to the concern of another abbott, who demands that he can only earn his place after defeating him in a fight, after a few unsuccessful attempts with a bladed staff, San Te discover a new weapon by accidentally destroying a bamboo shoot. This weapon affords him a win and the chance to choice a chamber with which he would like to oversee. Not wanting to overstep his bounds, San Te suggest that he create a 36th chamber that is intended to train the citizens in basic Shaolin techniques, an idea that is dismissed and eventually leads to his being banished until he can exact a punishment involving obtaining devotions. It is during his time outside that he comes to realize he can not only find a ton of willing participants for his new chamber, but that he can finally face the man who killed his father and countless other family and friends. Using the self-defense based non-attacks of the style, San Te is still able to cause the man to kill himself with his own sword blade, a successful battle that is then followed by his return to the temple with rows of new monks, assumedly part o the new chamber he has created.
This film has tons of through lines involving commentaries on how to lead a proper life, many of which pull directly from the Buddhist religion where this film expressly borrows its narrative ideas. The first and perhaps the most important narrative element seems to be an identification and embracing of humility. San Te begins the film as a wild young man whose long hair and desire to exact justice lead to his being near-fataly wounded by the Tartan leader. This, however, does not end his humility, because it is an act by a terrible person who used guile to assure the violence. It is not until he is stifled by a resting abbott that San Te begins to even consider that he might need to put his privilege into check. Indeed the 35th chamber of the Shaolin temple exists purely to teach this issue to its students, reinforcing the problems of assuming entitlement. In this chamber their ability to eat is predicated upon possessing an unusual skill. San Te cheats at first and attempts to ignore the rules to eat, because he has not the humility to understand that eating is a privilege he had been afforded prior. Once he learns this key element to transcendence, other elements become attainable. Moving upward he learns the value of persistence and an understanding that while it is ideal to help other people in their movement towards their enlightenment it is necessary for them to experience their own trial and errors. In more unusual moments throughout his training, San Te must understand the beauty and aid of learning a rhythm and methodology in relation to larger endeavors. Indeed, fighting is not really an element of the Shaolin way, but instead learning to harness literal weight and metaphorical rage, into means to avoid death for those involved. One of the more hilarious scenes in the film involves San Te moving through the "head" chamber which is where he must repeatedly head butt sacks full of rocks and finish by offering a devotion to Buddha. This may seem self-destructive but the overarching suggestion that such an approach takes on the attitude that one must literally be headstrong while also using their head to be intelligently sound is one of the major lessons he is able to extend to his prospective students when he is on force sabbatical from the temple. In a bit of brilliance he comes to understand that training for Shaolin results in lessons that occur both in the confines of the chamber, as well as in daily engagements, suggesting that his newly added 36th chamber was not unprecedented, but indeed quite normal to the way the teachings of Shaolin evolve and extend beyond small, inclusive groups.
Key Scene: It is tough to pick any singular chamber, because they are all so wonderful. I personally liked the candle on the fulcrum sequence, but any of the moments could have been the key scene.
This is the best thing I have seen on bluray. Hands down. The added commentary by The RZA, which is highly informed and inquisitive is merely and extra incentive to get the film.