It seems, according to damn near every review out there for this one, that I’ve saved the best for last when it comes to martial arts films. Shaolin Master Killer, better known in English as The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, is very much like its brethren; a showcase for fight scenes and martial arts skills, and little else. Where Shaolin succeeds where others fail, however, is in the hook; Gordon Liu’s character must make his way through 35 chambers of Shaolin martial arts training before he can be called a master. So why 36 instead of 35? That, I will leave up to you to discover, as this is certainly worth watching, especially if you never have.
Liu is Liu Yu-de, a young student who ends up being drafted by his teacher into a small-scale rebellion covertly taking place in his town. Unfortunately, soon after he does this, the rebellion is cracked down on hard, and the government kills all of his friends and his teacher, and basically leaves Yu-de for dead. He gets away, however, and makes his way to the local Shaolin temple, famous for their martial arts, in order to become their newest disciple, so he can learn the skills necessary to return and wage a one-man war on the corrupt establishment. One may wonder why someone who enlists in a Shaolin order is so bent on vengeance, and how that must conflict with the peaceful ways of the temple; don’t worry, it is addressed in the film. But, plot aside, you’re not here for the story; you’re here for the fights. In that respect, I guess the film is successful, but only because everything is choreographed down to a T, so much so that it shows glaringly. Sure, the perfectly choreographed fights are impressive, but it still doesn’t take away from the fact that they are perfectly choreographed, and thus somewhat unrealistic. Plus, the sound effects used for every single blow in the film seemed to all be from a stock portfolio of generic “POW”, “BAM”, “WHACK” sound effects, which got a little annoying. The showcase is, of course, the many chambers within the Shaolin temple through which Yu-de, now going by the amusing name of San Ta, learns and refines his martial arts skills. We don’t go through every single chamber, but it is definitely the centerpiece, taking up most of the running time, and thankfully it’s pretty enjoyable. Each chamber we do see is unique and offers something new and different for Yu-de as a character and a fighter, and it’s this that makes it as engaging as it is. I will say though, the film does try its best with the overdubbing, but the quality of the recorded voices was a little too good compared to the actual scenes they were used in, so it was still pretty noticeable, so, once again, heads up for that.
I was more than a bit taken back by the ending, which was so abrupt it actually made me wonder if a scene or two had been chopped off or otherwise removed entirely to adhere to some requirement toward the running time. This aside, though, I can see why many proclaim this to be the best kung fu film of all time. I don’t know if I would agree, though; this would probably rank on par with Wu Du in my general preference list, but it wouldn’t surpass it. It suffers from most, if not all, of the same deficiencies that Wu Du does, but doesn’t have as many of the strengths. Still, I did enjoy this quite a bit, so in that regard, the film accomplishes its goal.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10