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Monday, February 15, 2010

RETURN TO THE 36TH CHAMBER -- DVD review by porfle

It's not every day you get to watch a kung fu movie that's as much pure, hyperkinetic fun as RETURN TO THE 36TH CHAMBER (1980), a thrilling fists 'n' feet comedy from the Shaw Brothers that's a sequel to the classic THE 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN.

The story opens with the shady boss of a fabric mill hiring some Manchurian thugs to intimidate his employees into working harder while giving them a pay cut. Horse-faced worker Chao (sporting a set of buck teeth that would embarrass Mortimer Snerd) enlists his con artist pal Chou Jen Chieh (Gordon Liu, who's most widely-known these days from the KILL BILL movies) to pose as revered Shaolin monk San Te in order to frighten Boss Wong and his men. The ruse works at first, but when the suspicious Wong challenges Chieh to demonstrate his skills, the result is a humiliating defeat that sends him fleeing for his life as the hapless workers are thrashed into submission.

Vowing to help his friends somehow, Chieh resolves to learn kung fu for real and bluffs his way into the Shaolin temple only to come face-to-face with the real San Te (Ching Chia, in the role originated by Gordon Liu himself in the first film). Thus begins the middle section of the film which is a non-stop slapstick delight, with Chien bumbling around like a dervish amidst the solemn monks and apprentices and comically mimicking their training.

When San Te orders him to construct bamboo scaffolding around the entire temple in preparation for its renovation, which will take years, Chien thinks he's being shunted aside. As he labors at his task he observes the trainees going through their paces and applies their movements to his own work, thereby eventually learning kung fu without even realizing it. This lengthy sequence is incredibly inventive and endlessly fun, and Gordon Liu displays a boundless energy and natural comic ability that's downright infectious.

His task completed, Chien is expelled from the temple and returns home in defeat, believing himself a failure. But it doesn't take long for him to realize that he's not only inadvertently learned kung fu but has also created his own variation--"Scaffolding Style"! His final confrontation with Mr. Wong and the Manchurians leads to a frenetic 20-minute action sequence that beats the hell out of MATRIX: RELOADED's CGI-laden "Burly Brawl", with no special effects and little or no wirework in sight. The action doesn't let up for a second and the fighting style is dazzlingly inventive, building to the final showdown between Chieh and Mr. Wong on--what else?--a scaffold.

The direction (by Liu Chia-Liang), camerawork, and editing are all first-rate for this kind of film, with fight choreography that doesn't always look totally realistic but is lots of fun anyway. The ways in which Chieh's "Scaffolding Style" is worked into the final battle is almost cartoonishly effective as he leaves his opponents hogtied to bamboo poles or wrapped together in bunches with lightning-fast moves. In some ways, the film is wonderfully cheesy and the castmembers overact their roles with abandon, which, in this case, is entirely appropriate.

With his amazing feats of dexterity and comedy timing, Gordon Liu carries the story with a full-throttle performance that never lets up. Pretending to be an experienced kung fu master, he blunders his way through one obstacle course with such artless abandon that one monk marvels, "Your kung fu is incredible! I could hardly follow it." Low comedy rears its head as he tricks another pupil into drinking some laxative-laced tea and then calls after him, "Better find a place to take a dump!" My favorite line, though, comes during the final battle with the evil boss, when Chieh brings things to a sudden halt and states magnanimously, "That's it, Mr. Wong. I will hurt you if we continue."

The single-disc DVD from Dragon Dynasty and Celestial Pictures is in widescreen with Mandarin, Cantonese, and English mono. Subtitles are in English and Spanish. With naught but a few trailers at the start, this is surprisingly barebones for a Dragon Dynasty release.

A fast-moving, fun, and colorful romp with lots of old-fashioned kung fu-movie charm, RETURN TO THE 36TH CHAMBER is a must-see for Shaw Brothers fans and anyone else who's in the mood for a hefty dose of thrills and laughs. I had a ball watching it.



Unknown said...

no extras?

thats frustrating..when i shot the Gordon Liu interview for '36th Chamber', we covered the entire trilogy and i did interviews with bunch of other folk who pop up in the film...

Porfle Popnecker said...

Heck, I'd love to have seen 'em!