Master Killer became a non-official title for 36th Chamber of Shaolin, and the alternate does make sense. Gordon Liu studies under Shaolin Monks in this kung-fu classic, becoming a mild-mannered monk who never actually kills anyone himself, yet sets his enemies up. He ducks, his adversary is stabbed. He traps another, his opponent slashed to death by another ally. In that sense he is both master and killer despite the near pacifist approach to martial arts, and in the process crafting a Shaw Brothers classic.
36th Chamber is a revenge tale, the inexperienced San Te (Liu) escaping his overrun village with a goal of returning after quickly grasping what kung-fu has to offer. In a way, 36th Chamber is familiar, a training montage, but one so gloriously epic, it couldn’t be anything less than a standard.
San Te’s training is seven years worth of hard work, tests, and weapons fighting, an endless barrage of punishment that serve to toughen him up. These are more than physical tasks, but ideals and purpose. While kung-fu fans are denied rampant, extensive brawls in the brilliant Shaw Brothers tradition for the better part of an hour, the tests bring in determination, creating a character who is more than just a vengeful antagonist.
When the time comes, 36th Chamber is loaded with glorious ’70s martial arts, captured in lengthy takes on wonderful, well constructed sets. Swords, staffs, pikes, daggers, and more become involved, leading to extravagant choreography that famed genre director Chia-Liang Liu adores with the lens. It’s refreshing as a throwback, the editors holding off on clipping frames, letting the fights follow a natural pattern and flow. It’s all aggressive and bloody, just the way it should be.
Dragon’s Dynasty issues this classic on Blu-ray with a 1080i AVC encode, this one decent enough from a compression standpoint. Fast action requires some hefty work on the part of the codec, and 36th Chamber pushes a lot the compressionists way. Thankfully, blocking or artifacting remains invisible.
That’s all well and good, but the studio has chosen to layer some DNR across the image as well. That means the codec’s job is a little easier, only a few scenes containing the remnants of the grain structure. Even those carry a discernible layer of manipulation, and were likely just missed on one of the noise reduction passes. Smearing and ghosting become a problem, camera pans breaking down and producing visible remnants of the digital processes that brought this to Blu-ray. Interlacing is a concern too, breaking up the action and movements, although when in motion, this is a lesser issue than the ghosting.
Color has also been elevated, two of the dominant primaries here, red and blue, saturated beyond the breaking point. The overdone red blood is a staple, while the costumes and such suffer from the effects. Uniforms are unnaturally bright, and flesh tones tends to be wonky from the tampering as well. There are scenes where they take on a neon glaze, and others where they settle into a deep tan. Black levels are overpowering too, sucking the life out of the shadow detail, although the dimly lit interiors play a role.
The actual restoration work, stuff like scratch removal and stabilizing the print, is fine, great even. There are a handful of scenes featuring lines or brief splotches, the number low enough to be counted on one hand. Grain removal has lessened but not eliminated facial detail in close, some of those shots pleasing enough to pass as untouched were it not for the total lack of natural film grain.
Audio is cared for even less, the anemic Dolby Digital mono in Mandarin (original language), Cantonese, and English. Out of the three, the English dub actually hosts the cleanest dialogue, seemingly recorded cleaner from the get go. The Mandarin suffers from a typical array of age defects, including mild distortion, fading, and a light echo.
Sound effects, the classic pings, sword clashes, and wooshes of attempted strikes come through harshly. Fidelity it not a word to associate with much of anything here. The score sits below much of the action, almost to the point of being lost completely in spots. Even when prominent within the mix, it rarely carries much weight or presence.
An audio commentary comes from critic Andy Klein and rapper RZA, chatty and consistently impressed by the on-screen action. A Shaolin Heroes Birthplace looks at the actual temples where training occurs. Three interviews follow, including critics David Chute & Andy Klien, star Gordon Liu, and another with the RZA. A music video, posters/still gallery, and trailers are left.