I Saw A Film!
John Boorman, famous director of some amazing spectacles from Excalibur to Zardoz once said that a sword fight is boring. I feel certain that he didn’t mean it to be such a flattened idiom as he also made a film called The Duelists (based on a famous old real life grudge between two French officers who never managed to resolve their dispute) which included plenty of weapons fights (in fact it was during a Boorman track remarking on this film that he made this statement). When I heard Boorman say this I was aghast. I know what he meant. The argument is that without a wager (or a story hanging on the outcome) most physical film stuff is ultimately dull. I’d agree entirely about dance films, but that, of course, they imbue the dancing with plenty of drama and emotion, just as each wrestling match in WWE is prepared with grudge and degrading chatter, leading to a desire for a particular outcome. But I’d still argue that beauty in physical performance is its own story. I suppose the argument here is that if you aren’t educated enough to appreciate the effort put into the performance it’s a bit like watching the Olympics in the old days before they realized that they’d get much more viewership (especially from ladies) if they padded out the broadcast with lots of background story on the athletes. This obvious attempt at gratifying an audience in need of a cloying story to appreciate an athletic performance, while annoying to the aficionado of sport, pays off for the sponsors and has long been understood in the entertainment industry.
And with that I give you The 36th Chamber of Shaolin a mythological trip into a training center of old China. Our hero, San Te, played by the remarkable Liu Chai-Hui (yes, I looked that up) is driven by having his people brutalized by corrupt government officials (a common theme in East Asian cinema). And undertakes to turn himself into a fighter through association with the monks of Shaolin. Of course, just as we are all now fully trained to expect, San Te is put through the ringer with punishing physical tests from running across loose logs in water to learning to ring a gong in time with a hammer attached to a fifteen-foot rod. Each stage of Crossfit training an entirely abusive and likely debilitating undertaking. We’re meant to imagine much time passes, but going from edemas to mastery in minutes is the general game plan here. These films have faith in the exercise ideal that if you pick up a calf every day you’ll eventually be able to carry a cow (as a child I remember being fully taken in by the idea before it was pointed out that they grow much too quickly for you to benefit from the resistance training). You know the story.
San Te’s, desire once he masters all the tasks, is to make kung fu fighting (this is a fair statement as kung fu doesn’t just apply to fighting, it’s really a statement of concentrated effort and there’s even political kung fu) available to the working-class everyman. Hard not to love him for that!
The second half of the film finally has our hero actually showing his skills against a variety of masters and then the taking it on the road to undue the corrupt officials. You won’t wait long! This is a certain style of kung-fu movie that takes great pains in filming the form. These aren’t the modern more realistic (though sometimes comic) fights that folks like Jackie Chan helped pioneer. These scenes are choreography, lock-step patterns set basically to a beat. If the sound effects and weapons were removed it’d be dance, but the spectacle does not suffer for this, instead you marvel at the work put into these shots. Every motion has purpose and every purpose has counter purpose.
We, of course, are a spoiled audience. In 1978 this absolutely blew people’s minds. Today, the first half of San Te’s dedication to training comes across as silly, especially slo-mo sequences of the actor thrashing about in the water as if none of us have fallen into water. Our tremendous advantage of having access to so many excellent films reduces our love of these older movies that we had to travel to see back in the day. Our investment made us play games in which we re-enacted the fights. It made us labor as if the labor were training. All those logs I split and stacked should have provided me some sort of advantage!
This is Free on Prime and while it’s a fun film, it’s a bit stale in story compared to modern “classics” like Iron Monkey.