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Disciples of the 36th Chamber
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by Jay Seaver

"Solid outing from the Shaw Brothers factory."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2008 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: Part of the reason the Shaw Brothers studio was able to turn out so many enjoyable martial arts flicks was that they ran their studio like a factory: They were the very epitome of not messing with success. Take "Disciples of the 36th Chamber", part of a series of Shaolin martial arts stories. I happened to see the first in the series, "The 36th Chamber of Shaolin", as part of a Shaw Brothers retrospective at the Harvard Film Archive about a month earlier. It was a ton of fun, but you can't help but notice this second sequel follows the same template.

This time around, Gordon Liu's San-te is the monk rather than the rebellious student; for that role, we have Hsiao Ho playing a young Fong Sai-yuk. Sai-yuk is arrogant, and like San-te before him, offends the ruling Manchus, eventually escaping to the Shaolin temple where he is taken in as a secular student (the "36th chamber" of the title). Unlike San-te, who found enlightenment studying with the monks, Sai-yuk merely becomes impatient, and begins to sneak out of the temple in order to test himself against the Manchu fighters. The governor (Jason Pai) befriends him, and invites him and the other 36th chamber students to a state wedding. It's an obvious trap, but Sai-yuk may be too proud to recognize it.

If you've seen The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (and, likely, the first sequel, Return to the 36th Chamber), that story is very familiar; it's almost exactly the plot of the first, down to the main character being mocked as a student by the children in the opening scenes. If you've seen almost any Shaw Brothers martial arts film, the film will look familiar; the studio had a number of standing sets and didn't vary their production design much. The main thing that sticks out about this movie is the humor; while the original movie was a fairly serious affair, Hsiao Ho's Fong Sai-yuk is a class-clown type, always ready with a wisecrack and bit of slapstick whenever there's someone stuffy in the area.

To a certain extent, though, practice makes perfect. Lau Kar Leung (aka Liu Chia-liang) directs, at the tail end of his time with Shaw Brothers, with his stars handling fight choreography and instruction. It's the work of a seasoned pro, stringing together some impressive action scenes with a story that's straightforward and brings out the best in his stars. Hsiao Ho, though clearly not the teenager he is playing, is suited to the Bugs Bunny role, while Gordon Liu brings a nice combination of authority and sympathy to San-te. Jason Pai makes for a fine oily villain. Lily Li exudes palpable authority as Sai-yuk's mother (although she may actually be younger than Hsiao), and it's too bad we don't get to see her fight a little more.

Lau probably could have found someplace to give her a more active role, as many of the action scenes in the movie are of the training variety. As technically impressive and athletic as those scenes are - and one where Hsiao and Liu spar using a bench may as well be a dance number given how beautifully choreographed it is - there is a little something lacking to them. The bench fight is one of the few that get across a battle of wills between Sai-yuk and San-te made physical, but few of the others feel like there's much at stake (or feature the sort of sadistic, insane training methods associated with Shaolin movies, including the original 36th Chamber).

The big finale is a different story, though. It brings all the characters together and lets them cut loose in a huge life-or-death fight. It's impressively grand scale, with weapons, poisoned blades, and, of course, all the peculiar bits of training coming into play. Some of the wide shots are pretty amazing - the full width of the ShawScope frame showing everyone fighting, whether it be on the ground, the second floor, or the roof. That's a lot going on, and the sheer amount of it is gob-smacking.

I wish the rest of the movie was that amazing; it's got the pieces to be (and the new 35mm print looks very nice). And it's entirely possible that viewed on its own, without such close comparison to its predecessor, it would have impressed me more. It does plenty well, but felt a little too much like rehash.

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originally posted: 07/29/08 11:51:48
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Directed by
  Lau Kar Leung

Written by
  Lau Kar Leung

  Gordon Liu
  Hsiao Ho
  Lily Li
  Jason Pai Piao
  Lee Hoi-Sang
  Sun Chien

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