Judge Joel Pearce once was adopted by monks who were martial arts masters, but their vow of silence kept him from learning much.
Finally, someone has given martial arts fans what they've always wanted.
Like many people, I've certainly heard of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. It's one of the most acclaimed martial arts film in history, and a high point in the golden age of Hong Kong action films. Also like many people, I've never actually gotten around to watching it, though, thanks to my aversion to cheap gray-market dubbed versions of foreign films. Well, the wait is over, martial arts fans. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is indeed great, and we now have the kick-ass disc to prove it.
Facts of the Case
It's a dark time in Canton. The Tartars have taken over the area, and rule the common people with cruelty and many an execution. Few have any way to defend themselves. A hotheaded young local (Gordon Liu, Kill Bill) joins up with a group of rebels, secretly bringing information into the area. When the rebels are discovered, the young man is the only survivor. He escapes to the nearest Shaolin temple, where he is hesitantly adopted. Here, he is given the name San Te, and spends the next few years in intensive martial arts training, against the better judgment of the monks. After all, he is not only a layman, but a hotheaded layman out for revenge.
Even after years of hype, I was blown away by The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. There are many reasons for this, though most of them aren't the reasons I expected. I had heard, of course, about the most comprehensive training sequence in film history. The action is impressive as well, because of the classic approach and style. Most new martial arts films are all about fast cutting, to show the fighters doing things that people simply can't do. Here, there are few cuts during the action, which highlights not the impossibility of the actions of the characters, but the fact that they really are accomplishing these great feats. Gordon Liu has never had the attention that Bruce Lee, Jet Li, and Jackie Chan have received in North America, but he deserves some serious attention.
It's clear to see here that The 36th Chamber of Shaolin was, indeed, created by martial artists. Chia Hui Liu had been in dozens of films himself before moving to direction, and his film is designed to show off the skills of the performers, rather than the skills of the cinematographers. He's actually a bit obsessed with the zoom lens, and the film is awkwardly put together, but the performances are indeed spectacular, especially when it comes to the fighting. It only takes a few minutes to realize that these aren't stuntmen that have been hired on, they are martial artists; The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is a homage to the craft. In that sense, the film is about a lot more than fighting: it is about the philosophy, control, and purpose of martial arts.
But it wasn't the training sequences or the action that really blew me away watching The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. This is a genuinely complex film, both politically and morally. While that shouldn't scare the action junkies away, it makes it less disposable than most old-school chop-socky pictures. Normally, Buddhist monks are a pretty infallible crew, as they make wise decisions, train loyally, and work for justice. Here, though, their decisions are challenged and questioned. Should a religious order be neutral in the face of political strife, or should it stand up for good? The monks don't agree on this issue, but the abbot needs to save face with the rest of the monks. Ultimately, it's hard not to get behind San Te's mission, but we're also left with the sense that his destruction of the Shaolin code will ultimately cause more pain and strife, not solve the problems. I'm not sure I've ever left a martial arts films with these kinds of issues to contemplate before, and it feels quite good.
Of course, there have been lots of opportunities to own this classic title on DVD before. With films imported from China, there have been numerous releases of the film, including several North American releases. Most of them have featured bad dubbing, dreadful video quality, and no special features of note. Well, in keeping with the exciting material coming out of the Dragon Dynasty collection, there's finally a strong edition of this classic film.
The remastered video of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin looks fantastic. It's presented in the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and has been anamorphically enhanced. For a 30-year-old Hong Kong film, it looks awesome. The colors are really vibrant, the dirt has been cleaned off the print, and it's probably the best the film has ever looked, even including all those classic theatre showings. The sound is also strong, featuring mono tracks in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English. Other discs have been released with upmixed surround tracks, but the mono track is clean and clear, with clear dialogue and a bare minimum of hissing. Dragon Dynasty has managed to restore and deliver a classic film without destroying the experience for fans of the film.
There are quite a few special features as well. The biggest feature is the commentary track with Hong Kong film expert Andy Klein and RZA. Much like Scarface, the old Shaw Brothers martial arts films have been co-opted by the hip-hop movement, and the commentary does a great job of explaining why they've adopted The 36th Chamber of Shaolin as their own. There are a number of interviews as well, including some new footage of Gordon Liu. He's an eloquent speaker, and clearly remembers the 30-year-old production. In all, this is a slick DVD package considering the age of the film and its price point.
I think it's now safe to say it: The Dragon Dynasty series is a true gift for martial arts movie fans who have been waiting for decades to get classic and contemporary flicks in a good format in North America. The Weinsteins have already paid for their mistakes while in charge of Miramax and Dimension, and have quickly put themselves to the forefront in a new venture, delivering a better, more respectful, and more impressive edition of the film than the competition would have. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is a great film, too, one that deserves this level of respect.
For once, nobody's guilty of anything. Now get out of my courtroom before I start using my kung fu.
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