Letting Outsiders In
Over five years, Sun De (Chia-Hui Liu) trains with Shaolin Monks. More than learning martial arts, Sun De seeks to lead a rebellion against the corrupt government slowly taking over his homeland.
It’s a common theme in Shaw Brothers kung-fu. Spitballing it, some 80% of the studio’s genre output deals in upsetting power, bettering one’s self, and overcoming impossible odds. 36th Chamber of Shaolin deals less with the actual power struggle though, more concerned with the sacrifices needed to conquer the invading Manchu army.
Stoic and sure, Sun De’s disciplined approach to mastering his craft isn’t particularly exciting. He trains, then succeeds, then trains, then succeeds. Repeat. However, 36th Chamber of Shaolin makes an emphatic statement. It’s direct, with students asking their teachers, “Must we yield and conform forever?” The frustration, the helplessness, and resentment are evident from the outset, as if a public execution of dissidents wasn’t enough.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin stands out in western pop culture as an imported classic, and that thematic force is why (the imported title, Master Killer, adds punch too). This isn’t stuffed with Shaw Brother’s choreographed, endless fight scenes, as 36th Chamber of Shaolin has comparatively few. Rather, it’s the sensationalized, fable-like, even universal draw to squash oppressors and fight for freedom.
Within that, 36th Chamber of Shaolin embraces the difficulty. While fantasy, the endurance shown by Sun De as he suffers poverty, pain, and grueling exercise through five years, going so far as to upend the Shaolin Monk’s code to eradicate the opposing force, inspires. Change takes time, effort, and patience, baked into this script as a cornerstone philosophy, and wrestling with religious law while doing so. Buddhism’s morality instills honor into Sun De, another crucial step in his evolution as a fighter.
While lacking general thrills, 36th Chamber of Shaolin readily offsets by utilizing the parable so well. Violent and bloody, the message proves inspiring because it’s not superficial and Sun De isn’t a superhero. Mixed between the outlandish training montages is Sun De’s visible determination that not only makes him a fighter, but a mentally tough, moralistic hero who rises above the crude violence inflicted on his own people.
Arrow’s master makes an immediate impression via its color, saturating school uniforms, red blood, and keeping the flesh tones natural. Primaries appear elevated but not digitally skewed. This looks natural to the original film stock.
Also generous, the contrast and black levels. Exteriors display superb, organic brightness without clipping concerns. Indoors, shadows hit pure black, dense, rich, and solid. 36th Chamber of Shaolin has plenty of life on this disc.
The scan itself shows a clean, unobstructed film stock as the source. Of the grindhouse aesthetic this is not. Grain appears shallow, even suspiciously light in the first reels, and it’s likely minimal filtering was utilized. The slightest smoothing produces waxy skin, but so negligibly, little detail is lost. Aside from the fluctuating cinematography (often veering out of focus), texture looks stable and consistent. Around 25-minutes, the quality notably jumps. Grain becomes firm, texture defines better, and forest areas show exceptional definition.
Mandarin, Cantonese, and English tracks utilize DTS-HD. There’s expected coarseness to the dialog, and flatness to the score regardless of the chosen track. When peaked though, the music sounds surprisingly stable, whether drums or horn sections. Instrumentation wobbles only slightly.
Travis Crawford provides the main commentary track, with Tony Rayns speaking on select scenes during his track. Arthur Wong and Gordon Liu interviews follow those, and Liu also earns a separate profile dating back to 2005. A featurette on the film itself features Liu, finished in 2003.
Music historian Lovely Jon discusses the genre’s musical influences for 37-minutes. An hour-long look at Shaw Brothers and their influence on cinema features numerous interviews with key people famous for their involvement. Alt English credits and promo materials complete this sizable extras menu.
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The 36th Chamber of Shaolin
A fable of rebellion, personal struggle, and sacrifice, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin represents the kung-fu genre’s greatest themes.
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The following six screen shots serve as samples for our subscription-exclusive set of 36 full resolution, uncompressed HD screen shots grabbed directly from the Blu-ray: