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Sublime rage is deeper than religion,
And burning passion is stronger than love.
Although this film clearly looks like a "low" budget, independent flick, it's so well acted, that despite its lack of big budget, it's totally compelling (it draws you into the story) and it is very funny and entertaining. This film is way better that one would expect.
Especially check out the female lead. She's pretty, cute, sexy and charismatic. She carries the weight of the narrative on her shoulders and clearly has a lot of personality, as she is able to give her character depth and "realism."
Without the overabundance of talent featured in this film, this would be just another B-flick, but the only thing "B" about it is its budget, otherwise, the acting and original storyline blow most films with exponentially higher budgets out of the water. This goes to show you that with good talent, budgets are just icing on the cake, and don't make or break a film, the talent featured is what makes or breaks a film.
(Think about Star Wars Episode I and II with HUGE budgets, OVERT racism and total lack of talent rendering them just big budget garbage. That goes to show you, a white man like Lucas who hasn't had an original thought since he smoked some weed in 1971 can make multi-million dollar glorified Stepin Fetchit films, while truly innovative ("black") films like this can just barely get funded. Would this be yet another good example of the white supremacist police state we live in? Note: the imagination of Star Wars is being co-opted to sell the militarization of space and the U.S. empire's total military domination of the globe. Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq were the first space wars, do your homework.)
Shao Lin san shi liu fang (1978)
A young ethics student uses esoteric martial practices to foment rebellion against a foreign occupying force.
Perhaps cultural differences prevent understanding the significance and excellence of this film.
The original title The 36th Chamber of Shaolin refers to San Te requesting from the Head Abbot of Shaolin permission to teach Shaolin martial skills to Han Chinese to give them the tools needed to fight the occupying Manchus of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1910) who were seen as outsiders. Chinese today still generally hate the Qing and wish that dynasty never happened, as their corruption and shortsightedness in the 20th Century was perceived to have weakened the country leading to some regions being colonized by many foreign powers at the time. Hong Kong was a colony taken by the British after humiliating the Chinese in a resounding defeat in the Opium Wars.
The fact that the Hong Kong film industry made films about rebellion should be understood within this context of Hong Kong as a British Colony. Master Lau is Cantonese (as was Wong Fei-hung), so has a particular closeness to the problematic colonial relationship with the occupying British. This is why I consider this film to be an interesting example of post colonial film.
This background is essential to understanding the significance of the statement made by Master Lau in this film. It is not "just a simple revenge tale" but the revenge is the moral and ethical response (in Chinese the technical/philosophical term is "righteousness" or in English best described as "justice") for the brutal murder of his classmates, ethics teacher, and his family. In the first part of the film, Master Killer (played by Master Lau's adopted brother, Liu Chia-hui, Master Lau's real brother plays the rebellious General Yin who fights with the ax) is studying Confucian ethics. After all their friends and family are ruthlessly slaughtered for participating in a revolt against the occupying Qing (Manchu) forces, Master Killer's friend laments that it was pointless to study ethics, as it was useless for them to save their loved ones and resist the Qings. "No," Master Killer replies, "ethics has taught us to be loyal (another Confucian term) to our loved ones, so we must get revenge. If either of us survive we MUST make it to Shaolin, learn martial arts, and get revenge!"
This political message is what makes this film more than just an arbitrary action film. In the West, actioners typically don't embed violence in such a bitter context. Here, the violence holds deep meaning within the context of foreign invasion and occupation. Here it is seen as the ethical action, which is how San Te responds to his first victim of revenge (where he meets Hung Xiguan) when his victim demands, "You can't kill me you're a monk!" To which San Te replies, "Even Buddha punished evil!"
Though HK cinema had just a fraction of the budget enjoyed by the glorified garbage of most Hollywood actioners, it makes up for in dangerous political messages, unparalleled martial arts mayhem, and real martial skills of the actors. The actors in these films (like Bollywood films where the actors have to display dancing skills) actually have to do something skillful on screen as opposed to just prancing around like primadonnas. If you think the acting is overdone, this results from HK cinema arising out of Peking Opera traditions (like Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao, and Corey Yuen came out of) which has a particular style of acting that has its own idiom.
Some background: This film is directed and choreographed by Master Lau (Liu Chia-liang or Lau Kar Leung). His father (and grandfather) were disciples of Butcher Wing (as depicted by Sammo Hung in The Magnificent Butcher), who was Wong Fei-hung's toughest disciple. Wong Fei-hung's style is Hung-gar, named for Hung Xiguan, (Donnie Yen plays him in the Hong Kong TV show released in the US on DVD as The Kungfu Master and Revenge of the Kungfu Master) the only disciple to survive the burning of the Shaolin Temple (there was more than one temple).
For this *legendary* story (these stories form a sort of oral history in martial arts circles, but may be doubted by Western historians, who specialize in rejecting oral histories such as the Hemmings' family oral histories of Thomas Jefferson's habitual raping of his wife's half sister, Sally Hemmings) a good movie to see is Heroes Two and its sequel Disciples of Death, starring Chen Kuan Tai (a real master of Monkey Kungfu) as Hung Xiguan and Alexander Fu Sheng (the kungfu genius who tragically died in an auto accident in his prime around 1984) as Fang Shiyu (aka Fong Sai-yuk, also played by Jet Li in two movies of the same name). This film is the beginning of all these movies as it shows the history that produced San Te the first Shaolin monk to teach outsiders.
I hope some of this history, background, and perspective will help viewers appreciate the greatness of this film. Other films Lau made or helped choreograph that I recommend is: The Deadly Duo, The Heroic Ones, Shaolin Mantis, Mad Monkey Kungfu, Executioners of Death, Heroes Two, its sequel: Disciples of Death, Five Masters of Death, Shaolin Martial Arts, Legendary Weapons of Kungfu, 8 Diagram Pole Fighters, Disciples of Master Killer (Master Killer III) 1984/5, Legend of Drunken Master (Drunken Master II), etc. Many of the movies he is involved with are worth watching, at least for their action even if sometimes the plot lines are a little weak.
This film has it all action, drama, good characters, great plot, and some of the best fight scenes put to celluloid. DON'T SLEEP ON THIS! Though I've literally seen thousands of the best films from all over the world of all different time periods, this one is one of my all-time favorites!! I hope you enjoy it even a fraction of how much I do!