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Thursday, December 9, 2010

DISCIPLES OF THE 36TH CHAMBER -- DVD review by porfle


Not quite up to par with the previous entry in the Shaw Brothers' series, DISCIPLES OF THE 36TH CHAMBER (1985) still has a lot of exciting fight scenes amidst a barrage of slapstick comedy.

Hou Hsaiao stars as Fang Shiyu, an incorrigible class clown who's so averse to study that he must be tied to his two brothers during class.  He's so strong and sinewy that any blow directed at him is bounced back against his attacker, making him difficult to punish.  When a dour Manchurian education officer visits the school, Shiyu manages to offend him so grievously (in one of the film's funnier scenes) that the Manchus threaten to close the school. 

Things get even worse when Shiyu offends the entire membership of the Qing Imperial Gym and must seek sanctuary from the Imperial Court by becoming a secular pupil in the Shaolin Temple.  Even under the strict tutelage of Master San Te (Gordon Liu), Shiyu can't stay out of trouble and soon gets mixed up in a plot by the Manchu governor to destroy the Shaolin temple.

The opening titles sequence is fun, with a stylized presentation of how Shiyu gained fame by defeating the terrible Tiger Lei.  He then must take on the beautiful Li Xiahuan who seeks to avenge her husband, and whose skills are great.  Then Li Bashan shows up to avenge his son-in-law in a battle that takes place on upright log poles with steel spikes between them.  As in much of the film, the fight choreography here is intricate and rather dance-like at times, with an emphasis on humor and playfulness but always with an impressive degree of acrobatic skills.



The rivalry between the Hans and the Manchus provides the opportunity for several exciting fight scenes, in addition to the lively Shaolin training sequences.  All of this leads to an intense climactic battle between the Shaolin students and the Manchu governor and his men during a wedding, which becomes a furious free-for-all.  Hou Hsiao and Gordon Liu get to show off their martial arts abilities to the fullest, pulling out every trick in the book as the Shaolins bring all their extensive training to bear against their foes.

As Fang Shiyu, Hou Hsiao is a good comic performer whose acrobatic skills and boundless energy make for a wildly kinetic character.  Gordon Liu, who played San Te in the first film, THE 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN, and then the comedy lead in the sequel, returns to the role of San Te here and is appropriately monk-like.  Lily Li does a great job as Fong Sai-Yuk's mysterious mother, Miao Cuihua, who has had past experiences with San Te and the Shaolin monks and really shines in the big fight finale.  Chia-Liang Liu's punchy, hyperkinetic direction keeps things moving at an almost cartoonish pace at times.

The DVD from Dragon Dynasty is widescreen with Dolby 2.0 mono in Mandarin and English, and subtitles in English and Spanish.  The sole bonus feature is a commentary track by Hong Kong cinema expert Bey Logan, which, as usual, is exhaustively informative.

DISCIPLES OF THE 36TH CHAMBER is a fast-moving and comedic actionfest that should please Shaw Brothers fans. 


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