R and it feels like a really weird R. Like, I get it. When I spell out why this movie earned the rating it did, we can all kind of see it. It's very violent. There's blood and death. It's that great '60s / '70s red paint blood too. There are multiple grizzly weapons used. Yeah, I can see an R rating too. But the tone and feel of the movie honestly gives it kind of a Technicolor musical vibe. Like, I would show this to my wife and she'd probably get into it. But still, lots of blood feels like R, so it's R.
DIRECTOR: Chia Liang-Liu
This is the true origin of Santa.
I told you I was watching a lot of Chinese action films, didn't I? I don't know how it happened. I mean, I know what got the ball rolling. I got Police Story on Blu-ray. But then, I intentionally started padding my film algorithm with non-Chinese martial arts films. If I allowed my schedule to play out the way it would, I probably would have watched four martial arts films back-to-back. It doesn't make for good writing and I wouldn't have appreciated any of them individually.
But The 36th Chamber of Shaolin was always my first Chinese martial arts movie. I had seen exploitation and blaxspoitation up to this point, but I never really saw where its source material had come from. And for a while after this movie, I kind of thought that this is what these movies looked like. I mean, I immediately adored this movie. It's so good. It's weird that it isn't so famous that it would enter the public viewing. I think only film nerds and action fans tend to watch this film. But my comparison is to the Bruce Lee movies that I've watched. And despite having just absolutely insane action behind both of these films, they feel so much different tonally.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin very much feels like a musical from the late 1960s. I didn't notice that the first time. A lot of that comes from the Technicolor mixed with the CinemaScope (it's called something different, but we get it. ShawScope? Does that sound right?). It gives the film this epic Hollywood feel to the film. There's nothing really cheap about this movie. It has an absolutely giant cast. It's almost like the movie was made to appeal to a much broader audience than simply the Chinese market. Yeah, I dig Police Story and the Bruce Lee stuff, but until Enter the Dragon, these films definitely felt small and underbudgeted.
Instead, with The 36th Chamber, there is a sense of scope and purpose. While I don't think that the movie was necessarily made with the hope to promote the martial arts, I will say that the movie gives the practice of martial arts a grandeur that we haven't seen. I've always viewed impressive martial arts movies in terms of spectacle. It's a cross between very impressive tricks and a well-choreographed dance. I mean, very rarely is a well-executed action sequence something that is meant to be moving the plot. Punching a guy once and knocking him out, for all intents and purposes, moves the plot along in the same way a ten minute action set piece does, filled with acrobatics. Yeah, I really appreciate the acrobatics, but that's just fluff to show off skills. But The 36th Chamber does something a little more than that. I kind of thought that the film was one giant montage sequence, but the elements of montage stripped away. San Ta's primary plot involves going through each of the steps of learning. From a structural perspective, these are exercises that must be varied enough to keep an audience interested, yet must connect to the idea that these are all training vehicles.
Yeah, the number "36" is almost completely arbitrary. (The number is actually "35". San Ta creates The 36th Chamber to teach laymen about martial arts.) We don't actually see all 35 chambers. But we also get the idea of scope. Very rarely does a chamber get sped up. Instead, the film is all about the growing pains that each test offers to San Ta. And like most great sports films about an underdog learning the skills necessary for success, San Ta learns about his own abilities. It's kind of great, because San Ta becomes both an insanely dynamic character while, I guess, staying the same by the end of the film. He starts off the 35 chambers extremely cocky, yet motivated to save his fellow rebels. He gets humiliated quickly by the magic powers that the other Shaolin monks display. (I just realized that he never gets that ability or else the film would have ended pretty differently.) But that adversity that he faces makes him a far more compelling character. We see all these people passing through the different chambers. But once San Ta strips away his pride, he is the guy who keeps working after hours for the skill that others simply practice during the assigned times.
But he does stay the same. The movie stresses that the martial arts is a discipline within Buddhism. San Ta spends years with the monks, living with them and learning from them. He has become a Buddhist monk and one of his major criticisms is, despite is physical prowess and aptitude in the chambers, that he hasn't gotten high enough in the study of Buddhism to continue on. I won't pretend to know the intricacies of Buddhism to comment on that in the least. But one of the main ideas that the monks try to bestow is that the knowledge of martial arts 1) should be isolated to Buddhist monks and Buddhist monks alone and 2) that all of this is for mental discipline, not physical action. But that's the reason that San Ta is learning this discipline: so that he can beat up the bad guys. And that's where the message of the movie gets kind of muddied.
San Ta is fighting for a good cause. (The joy of children everywhere.) He sees the people being harassed and beaten for wanting to be free. The movie, by the way, is way too much like Star Wars for me not to notice. He is right to want to free them and to use his skills to help others. Similarly, he wants to be the teach-a-man-to-fish guy who wants the people of China to be self-sustaining and protect themselves. These are both noble goals. But the monks are also built up in the film as the pinnacles of wisdom. The understanding that San Ta was supposed to glean in the process of learning the martial arts in the 35 chambers was humility. When San Ta leaves, the same monks don't understand San Ta's motivation. In a way, the monks kind of become antagonists because they refuse to support San Ta's beliefs. He's temporarily exiled from the monastery because of his refusal to listen to the tenets of the monastery. He hasn't focused on his devotion to Buddha (again, I don't claim to know the details of this faith), but he still comes away with what he wants.
Now, the movie really works. I don't think it doesn't. But it does have a really weird message where we have to question the morality of the Buddhist monks, who act as the sages of the film. I jump back to the Star Wars parallels with The Empire Strikes Back. In Empire, Yoda warns Luke to stay when he sees his friends suffering. His appearance at Cloud City will bring nothing but pain. Sure enough, Luke goes and Yoda's warning proved accurate. Han is still captured. Luke doesn't really rendezvous with the group until all the damage is done. He loses his hand and discovers that Vader is his father. (Spoiler alert.) But San Ta ignores his sages. Instead, he goes right into the thick of it...and wins? Ultimately, this means that the sages are kind of the bad guys of the piece. They don't want the 36th chamber to exist. They don't want to use their talents for good. They take the old "With great power" Spider-Man thing and completely go against that. It makes the Buddhist monks partially culpable for the evils that happen in China.
But as a movie, it completely slaps. It's weirdly great and I can't think of a movie like it. It feels like a cinema classic, but really, it's just a martial arts movie that completely indulges everything you want out of a movie. Like, San Ta just fights the big bad guy and wins. The. End. It's great.
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Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.