AKA: Master Killer 3
Director: Lau Kar Leung
Producer: Mona Fong Yat Wah
Cast: Hsiao Ho, Gordon Liu Chia Hui, Lily Li Li Li, Jason Pai Piao, Lau Kar Leung, Lee Hoi San, Yeung Sai Gwan, Shum Lo, Lau Siu Kwan, Yeung Chi Hing
Running Time: 89 min.
By JJ Hatfield
“Disciples Of The 36th Chamber” is one of the all time best films of the genre! This was essentially the last of the fantastic films to come from director Chia-Liang Liu and the amazing cast for the Shaw Brothers. Everyone wanted this to be a very special movie and they succeeded beyond all wildest expectations! I have never seen a film open with such a terrific piece of martial arts (I refer to the red or black screen used in earlier films to show case the actor’s talents).
The magic begins with a great fight performance and that means the superb Fong Sai Yuk (Hsiao Ho) performing dazzling acrobatic martial arts with that brilliant style all his own. From the very beginning to the last final moments of the film you will be mesmerized. It’s not constant death match fighting but hardly a moment passes when nothing is happening. The viewer is swept up into the remarkable story until the wildly entertaining massive action finish!
There have been more than a handful of actors who have played the character Fong Sai Yuk in old school fighting films over the years. All the actors played the young man in different stories but the character is always portrayed as being arrogant, highly skilled but not always thinking before taking action.
This film is also sometimes referred to as the 3rd and last of the so called “Chamber” of movies; 36th Chapter of Shaolin; Return to the 36th Camber and then, Disciples Of The 36th Chamber.
Although not directly related the first chamber film starring Chia Hui Liu is fantastic as an introduction to some very interesting chambers, many deceptively difficult. Then with Return To The 36th Chamber came something very different. It is supposed to be very funny but the pretense did not make me laugh. But all is forgiven after watching this film.
Lily Li is terrific as Sai Yuk’s mother. She is truly amazing as an actress and martial artist highly active in the industry for decades. I have deep respect for this lady. She helped considerably in the effort to have women treated more fairly in the movies.
From early childhood mother taught son the martial arts. He had a natural affinity but she trained him hard and he loved it. Nothing made him happier than to show off his astounding skills. His fight history on the circuit was well known far and wide. He goes on to be a champion and his numerous matches are always in his favor. When he kills one of his opponents his life is in jeopardy from those wanting revenge. His mother takes him with her to another town and marries a man named Fong who owns a local kung fu school. She has two sons with Fong who try to keep their brother out of trouble but it’s an extremely difficult struggle. Fong Sai Yuk doesn’t want to go to school preferring to be outside or practicing kung fu. He is incorrigible, stubborn, rash and rebellious but not a bad young man.
In a misunderstanding with a monk he ends up in trouble with the local Manchu gym and the order is given to have him be-headed and the Fong school shut down. In desperation his mother begs for help and sanctuary for her three sons as secular pupils at the Shaolin Temple. San Te (Chia Hui Liu) considers the subject and the mother reminds him that they and their school style are related. She is so sincere, pleading so desperately San Te and the Abbott agree to take in her sons as she announces she will deal with any consequences from the local Manchu rulers. Everyone objects because of the risk but she has made up her mind. It’s the only way she can keep them safe in the monastery.
Can San Te teach the young Sai Yuk how to control his emotions, channel his energy and avoid trouble?It isn’t going to be easy that’s for sure. The monk keeps him moving all day yet he still has energy to spare. The friction between the disciple and Master add an interesting edge to the situation.
Chia-Liang Liu not only directs this true masterpiece he also plays an evil Manchu leader, and his men serve as guards to the Manchu Governor, played by Jason Pai. The settings are lush, wonderfully colorful, filling the screen with a very realistic feel. At no time are you staring at minimalist cramped sets. This is sumptuous luxury and it is wonderful. The choreography is magnificent! Hsiao Ho is not just a fighter he knows what looks great and what doesn’t. Is there anything he could not do? It’s a pure joy to watch!
Chia Hui Liu has never looked better. He plays San Te with a lot of experience with the character and seems very comfortable in his role. His fighting skills have never looked better as well. He pulls out all the stops for a tremendous performance! And of course Chia-Liang Lui is great. And as usual he adds some humor in the mix but it works well, better than most any of his other films.
Whenever a possibility for Sai Yuk to rebel emerges he takes it. But no matter how smart he is or physically capable he does not have enough life experience to out smart San Te. San Te does not hesitate to teach him a lesson when he gets too cocky, insulting the ones who do not have skills yet and are just learning. San Te easily defeats the wild young man in any confrontation. There is one particular scene between the monk and his student that is pure magnificence! Sai Yuk isn’t bothering to practice “bench fighting” and San Te calls him out. What follows is the most incredible bench fight I have ever seen in a movie! Other movies have included bench fighting but it was essentially just swinging them around. This is an exercise in using locks and traps to fight with benches. You can see the concentration especially in San Te. Outstanding and beautiful!
One aspect of this movie is something lacking in most student – teacher films. Respect. The student – teacher connection goes both ways. The students want to do well but they are also fascinated by Sai Yuk’s amazing abilities. But there is a sense of respect from San Te when he is disciplining his students and even with the hot tempered Sai Yuk. It really added an element of emotion you don’t see very often if ever. By doing so it further invests the viewer in the story.
Sai Yuk is tricked into believing Manchus might consider Shaolin a friend one day. His naïveté is taken advantage of to the detriment of his Shaolin brothers. When things start to go wrong Sai Yuk is the last one to accept that he had been deceived. But when he finally does he takes all responsibility and tells San Te he got his brothers in this and he is the one who should get them out. What follows is one of the most spectacular finale’ ever! The last thirty or so minutes build up into a huge clash with the Manchus. If you need a definition for action you have found it. Students, teachers, Manchus, Manchu guards for the governor converge in a masterpiece of spectacular extravaganza. Huge numbers of bodies fighting, jumping, diving, leaping, tumbling around a rather large and extensive set. San Te is beyond excellent with his three piece staff! Very cool.
Although this is an ensemble film this is really Hsiao Ho’s opportunity to show his skills. He out-shines everyone else in the spectacular breathtaking spectacle that fills the screen with absolutely incredible feats and all at the same time. If you look anywhere in the background you see fighting, kicks, punches, Sai Yuk doing amazing acrobatic marvels, bodies flying, running around on walls and rooftops, San Te taking out Manchus with his staff-whip. The action is so intense the viewer will find they react to the images!
Choreography was ingeniously planned, practiced and performed! Very tight shots were spot on showing all of the action. And it’s not all open hand fighting. There are extensive scenes of various weapons being used by both sides. “Disciples Of The 36th Chamber” has an original, dazzling, creative, explosive finale’! It is only fitting that such a magnificent film be the last film for director, crew and the assembled cast. History will judge Chia-Liang Liu as one of the best directors of the time.
It is really necessary to watch this film more than once. With so much action it’s easy to miss a part here or there when someone has to make a choice, with the results having a great effect on others. To his credit Sai Yuk has always taken complete responsibility for any and all of his actions. And even a few that were not his fault. He may be rebellious at times but even at a young age he refuses to let anyone accept or share in his punishment, even though his two brothers are always volunteering themselves instead.
If the time had to come to an end for the most talented cast, this film is an excellent way to say goodbye to the viewers.
JJ Hatfield’s Rating: 9.5/10