The place is China, a billion years ago when the Tartars had invaded and subjugated the people, ruling over them with an iron fist. Unable to defend themselves, they look wistfully to the temples of Shaolin where the monks know the ancient art of kung fu.
If only they would teach the common people their ways (but not make them shave their heads), they could rise up against their oppressors, kick them out, and make China once again safe for freedom to take hold in the form of Communism. But the teaching of kung fu is forbidden to outsiders. The monks only desire to hang out at their temple, keeping it clean in between workouts!
In spite of the monks’ non-interventionist policy, the people do what they can to rebel. Since they don’t know any kung fu magic though, they get caught by the bad guys constantly and this results in beat downs, the destruction of businesses, and good old fashioned executions.
Any concerns though that this movie is going to get bogged down by lots of plotting, politics, and riding to and from secret camps is immediately put to rest when in the first five minutes of the movie, a rebel takes on a bad guy at a public execution in the greatest screen depiction of a fight between a guy with two swords and a guy with a battle axe ever!
This is a culture that respects a kick ass brawl, so even the bad guy wants a fair fight, one on one. And then once he slices up one of the rebel’s arms, the bad guy announces that he will beat him one handed!
San Te is a young man who knows right from wrong and he knows that the bad guys are really, really wrong! After getting mixed up with the rebellion, he goes on the run, determined to make it to the Shaolin temple so that he can learn kung fu and return to help his people.
Despite opposition from some of the monks, he is allowed to stay and after a year of sweeping the floor he complains that he wants to learn kung fu, but all he’s gotten to do so far is KP duty. He is told that all he had to do is to ask and which chamber does he want to start out at?
San Te says the top chamber is the place for him! Do I even have to tell you that after a visit to the top chamber, he revises his goals and says that maybe the bottom chamber has its advantages, too?
What follows is the single best and lengthiest training montage in all of film! We follow San Te for the next five years as he moves from chamber to chamber mastering all sorts of skills and super powers.
If you thought being a Shaolin master killer was just about throwing kicks and punches in your pajamas, then you obviously need to go back to the first chamber straight away. You must know balance and speed and be able to run across logs floating on water.
You must develop your arm strength by carrying water buckets while knives are strapped to your biceps so that if you lower your arms, you’ll slice yourself. You must master all the various weapons of a Shaolin monk including swords and pole fighting.
Your eyes must be as quick as your body. And your head must be as hard as your oiled up chest. San Te battles his way through all these trials until he is given the option of which chamber he would like to teach at.
The end of his training is but the beginning of a new phase of San Te’s life. What is the 36th Chamber of the title? Has San Te forgotten those he left behind in his old life? Is it possible to break the centuries-old code prohibiting monks from teaching laymen and concerning themselves with laymen’s affairs?
Will we see San Te put all the skills he’s learned to use against the Tartars? What do you think? San Te invented an entirely new weapon while at the temple. Do you think he’s not going to be trying that out on some barbarian’s skull?
This one delivers fantastically staged action and battles involving multitudes of skilled fighters without a lot of cheesy slow motion or computer enhanced trickery or guys flying around unnaturally on wires like with some of these fake kung fu gods.
The remaking of San Te from young villager to accomplished monk is the centerpiece of the film and the sheer variety and inventiveness of tasks make watching the transformation a pleasure.
Like Five Deadly Venoms, this is an excellent place to start your kung fu education. This one was followed by two sequels, The Return To The 36th Chamber and Disciples Of The 36th Chamber which is good because it’ll mean I won’t wear out this DVD as soon as I otherwise would have.
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