AKA: The Shaolin Drunken Monk
Director: Ulysses Au-Yeung Jun, Lee Yeong
Cast: Gordon Liu Chia-Hui, Chin Yuet-Sang, Eagle Han Ying, Wong Yat-Cho, Kwon Il-Soo, Hyeon Kil-Su, Choi Jeong-Il, Chang Mi-Hee, Kim Jeong-Jung, Kim Wuk, Kim Ki-Ju, Park Seong-sik, Kim Il-chung
Running Time: 75/84 min.
By Paul Bramhall
Call me a masochist, but nothing beats trying to untangle the mystery of an obscure Korean kung fu movie. I’d like to say I’m not alone, but let’s face it, I am. 36 Chambers of Shaolin: The Final Confrontation is one such mystery. Clocking in at a lean 75 minutes, on the surface it’s the English dubbed version of the Korean kung fu movie Drunk 8 Blows, Crazy 8 Blows. However the original version clocks in at 80 minutes, and then to add a layer of additional confusion, there’s another international title of The Shaolin Drunken Monk, which (according to the Tai Seng DVD) clocks in at 84 minutes. It’s fair to say that The Shaolin Drunken Monk is actually the most popularly known title of the production in question, however the UK Moon Stone distributed DVD that I viewed went under the 36 Chambers title, and indeed is also the title card shown during the opening.
So in any case, 36COS: TFC (as I’ll refer to it here on in) is a legitimate version of the movie, seemingly clocking in 9 minutes shorter than The Shaolin Drunken Monk, which itself clocks in 4 minutes longer than the original. This is why I love these movies. Outside of the identity crisis that many such productions suffer from (through no fault of their own), here Shaw Brothers star Gordon Liu finds himself in one of a trio of Korean movies that he starred in during ’81 and ’82. The others being Raiders of Buddhist Kung Fu, made during the same year, and Fury in Shaolin Temple, made a year later. 36COS: TFC has an ace up its sleeve though compared to its counterparts, in that Liu was accompanied this time by his long-time collaborator and teacher Lau Kar-Leung.
Whenever Liu and Kar-Leung worked together, a certain kind of magic happened, creating many a kung fu classic (usually under the Shaw Brothers studio) that still hold up today. When they worked on productions individually, I’ve always been of the (some have told me controversial) opinion that the spark was often missing. You only need to check Liu’s miscasting in the likes of Godfather from Canton, or Kar-Leung’s left of field directorial debut The Spiritual Boxer, to see proof of this in action. So while Kar-Leung is neither in the director’s chair nor in front of the camera for 36COS: TFC, he is on fight choreography duty, which if you only had the choice to put him in one position, is exactly where you’d want him to be.
Directorial duties fall between popular Taiwanese director Ulysses Au-Yeung Jun, responsible for the likes of Valley of the Double Dragon, and Korean director Lee Yeong, who surprisingly spent most of his career helming melodramas. However any discussion of the director’s influence will quickly go out the window, once whatever it is that constitutes 36COS: TFC has bombarded your eyes and ears for more than a couple of minutes. Incomprehensible editing, mind bending dubbing, and questionable acting are the order of the day, and for those that have seen more than one Korean kung fu movie, then most likely it’s exactly these elements that you’re checking in for. The good news is you’ve come to the right place.
As with many of these productions, any plot description that attempts to make sense of what’s going on will be impossible to match up with what actually takes place onscreen, however for the sake of coherency, I think it goes something like this. When Gordon Liu’s character was still a child, Eagle Han Ying and his power craving cronies kill his parents, who are masters of a kung fu school. The child is captured; however Han Ying’s innocent daughter takes pity on the boy, and they become friends. Skip forward a number of years (doesn’t matter how long, just know it’s long enough for Gordon Liu to become Gordon Liu), and Liu kidnaps the now grown up daughter (played by Chang Mi-hee), in an attempt to lure out Han Ying so he can take his revenge. For added drama, Mi-hee eventually recognizes who her captor is, and the two become involved romantically (Stockholm syndrome anyone?), complicating Liu’s need to kill her father and complete his vengeance.
If the above sounds remarkably straight forward, then don’t panic, there’s more! The boy manages to escape Han Ying, and ends up under the tutelage of a drunken master (played by Hyeon Kil-Su, the earring adorned villain of Magnificent Wonderman from Shaolin). Most bizarre though, is a parallel plot that involves another of Han Ying’s enemies, a One Armed Boxer clone played by one-hit wonder Wong Yat Cho. Quite what the relationship is between Yat Cho and Liu is never explained, however Liu seems pretty upset when Han Ying is stomping his head into the ground during the finale, so my guess is in the original version they know each other. Yat Cho’s disability may be inspired by Jimmy Wang Yu, but it’s also apparent that he visited the same barber Casanova Wong was frequenting in the early 80’s.
His one armed fist thankfully packs a mighty punch, frequently sending anyone that looks at him the wrong way several feet through the air. Speaking of barbers, Liu’s hair length has a tendency to change from scene to scene. In some it looks like he’s just come back from a session with a Gillette Mach 3, looking very much the “bald headed bastard” that he’s frequently referred to as, and in others, he’s well on his way to having a full head of hair. One inexplicable decision in 36COS: TFC, is that whole sections of Fury in Shaolin Temple, made a year later, have been inserted into the runtime. From shots of Liu busting out the moves under a waterfall that the titles play over, to scenes of him training in the temple kitchen. The temple sequences are particularly out of place, as it completely contradicts his solitary training with Kil-Su. Suddenly he’s making a huge vat of rice, and washing countless bowls, but for who!?
Thankfully the action in 36COS: TFC more than compensates (or should that be compliments?) for the ridiculousness of everything else. Stripped of the usual martial arts philosophy or comedic themes that Lau Kar-Leung imbued his most famous works with, here he’s given a chance to choreograph Liu as a blood seeking vengeance seeker, and it makes for a welcome change. As expected, the choreography is joyously sharp and crisp, incorporating one-on-ones as well as one-versus-many scenarios. The fact that Kar-Leung is also working with a cast of Korean boot masters, and of course the prerequisite drunken boxing that’s eventually utilised to see off Han Ying, ensures that the fight action remains of a high level throughout.
The other significant plus that 36COS: TFC has going for it is the promise of a Gordon Liu versus Eagle Han Ying finale, and it’s a promise that is delivered upon for the most part. Han Ying usually looks razor sharp even in the most low budget productions, so to see him let loose under the guidance of Kar-Leung is at least worth the price of admission. While he isn’t in action for most of the movie (the majority of his screen-time has him sat down unleashing a barrage of curses), whenever he does decide to unleash, it’s worth the wait. At one point he delivers a painful looking flying bicycle kick, and his fighting style involves a series of mantis like joint locks, that he does a convincing job of conveying as being difficult to shake off.
While Liu’s ultimate deferral to the feminine style of drunken boxing to defeat Han Ying comes off as a little too derivative of Jackie Chan’s similar routine from Drunken Master, 3 years earlier, it’s still a worthy confrontation. Combine the plentiful fight action with the dubious dubbing and eclectic editing (my favorite of which has a scene randomly start with Liu jumping down from a temple roof, with no context or reason whatsoever), and you’re left with an admittedly brief but satisfying slice of old school kung fu goodness. The best conditions to watch 36COS: TFC can be summarised by a line from the drunken master himself – “Eat, drink, and be merry…as merry as hell.”
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 6.5/10