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Film / The 36th Chamber of Shaolin

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A failed assassination attempt by a rebel leader inspires some young men to join the local Canton rebellion, only for the Manchu government (led by Lo Lieh) to find out about their involvement. In order to crush the local rebellion they begin a brutal campaign to exterminate the rebels, leaving one wounded and desperate student, Liu Yu-de, to seek refuge at a secretive monastery, where he changes his name to San Te. Fueled by his desire for justice over his loss of family and friends at the hands of the Manchu, he undergoes a grueling program of martial arts training that hones his strength, agility, and endurance in order to defeat his enemies.

The 1978 martial arts film produced by Shaw Brothers, starring Gordon Liu, considered one of the greatest and influential martial arts films of all time by many film fans.

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The rap group Wu-Tang Clan are big fans of this movie, and gave their debut album the subtitle "36 Chambers" in its honour. Wu-Tang member Masta Killa also takes his name from a Market-Based Title this movie had.


This film provides examples of:

  • Academy of Adventure: At the end of the movie, the 36th Chamber effectively becomes this, teaching kung fu skills to those who want to travel the land helping people instead of living the secluded monastic life.
  • All Monks Know Kung-Fu: Subverted, San Te after being accepted into the ranks of the Shaolin spends nearly a year just sweeping and meditating. He later finds out that you just have to ask to learn kung fu in order to go through the chambers.
  • And That's Terrible: The English dubbing gives us this line:
    If Shaolin techniques could be taught here, then the people could use them to fight Manchu troops! That would be GOOD!
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  • Bald Head of Toughness: San Te's baldness actually precedes his toughness, since his Important Haircut comes before he learns kung fu, but once his training is complete, this trope is in full effect. Also present in the opening credits, since the very first thing we see is a shaven-headed San Te practicing martial arts and being awesome at it. Also applies to the shaven-headed Justice Officer at the monastery, who is extremely difficult for San Te to defeat in a sparring match.
  • Bald Mystic: Most of the Shaolin monks have shaved heads, signaling their disinterest in worldly matters.
  • The Blacksmith: After leaving Shaolin, San Te happens upon a brawl between a local blacksmith and three Manchu soldiers. Although the smith is clearly very skilled and immensely strong, the soldiers' superior numbers are getting the better of him until San Te advises him to shorten his grip on his hammer (a trick he picked up from the Fourth Chamber). With this technique, the blacksmith wins the fight and becomes one of San Te's disciples.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Every single idiosyncratic skill San Te learns in training turns out to be useful in a fight outside of the monastery.
  • Concussions Get You High: Downplayed with the Head Chamber training, which is to headbutt several rows of heavy sand bags and then light up incense for Buddha while still stumbling around from the pain, then go back to knocking rows, rinse and repeat until you build up toughness.
  • Devil's Advocate: The Justice Officer seems to consider it his job to test San Te's worthiness for his meteoric advancement. He even (politely!) challenges the abbot on the subject.
  • Do Not Call Me "Paul": Liu Yu-de ultimately becomes San Te after spending his time within the Shaolin monastery.
  • Drill Sergeant Nasty: Averted. Some of the masters seem like this at first, but even the toughest leaven their sternness with praise, encouragement, and (when the students just can't figure it out by themselves) guidance. And they certainly don't allow more experienced students to laugh at the novice.
  • Dual Wielding: Both of San Te's main duels are against opponents wielding two swords - the Justice Officer and the wicked General Tien. Tien also dual-wields in an early fight against one of the rebels.
  • Dub-Induced Plot Hole: The English dub occasionally refers to the Manchu as the Mings. The Manchu actually set up the Qing dynasty, displacing the earlier Mings. So the anti-Qing rebels would likely be pro-Ming, making some of the dialogue hard to follow.
  • Enlightenment Superpowers: The elder at highest level of the 35 Chambers displays this when San Te tries to skip ahead and start at the top.
  • Figure It Out Yourself: The master of the First Chamber prefers to teach this way, but when his students just can't figure out the second part of the training, he stops their futile efforts and gives them some guidance.
  • Greater-Scope Villain: Although San Te is able to kill General Tien, he can't do much against the Qing Dynasty that Tien serves. They will go on to destroy the Shaolin Monastery (as detailed in Executioners from Shaolin, from the same director) and rule China until 1912.
  • Hard-Work Montage: Not an Ur-Example but one of the earliest examples and unique instead of glossing over what he does to improve, the film goes into great detail early on at least to show him learning how to get of the basic steps that each chamber is supposed to instill.
  • Hero of Another Story: The first follower San Te picks up after leaving Shaolin is Hung Hsi-Kuan, who would go on to become a famous martial artist in his own right, and whose story the director had told the previous year in Executioners from Shaolin.
  • Important Haircut: Yu-De's full head of hair (pretty clearly a wig) disappears in a time skip after he joins the monastery, and he sports a shaved head for the rest of the film. This would become Gordon Liu's signature look for most of his career.
  • Instant Expert: Relatively speaking. San Te masters all the chambers in record time, and is promoted 8 times during the 5 years he is there. However, he never succeeds on the first try, emphasizing that - while an extremely fast learner - none of this is coming easily to him. He succeeds because he puts in the work and doesn't give up.
  • Martial Arts Staff: During San Te's first bout with the Justice Officer, he uses a simple bo staff. After that fails, he switches to a Shaolin spade, before eventually building a three-section staff, with which he finally triumphs. This remains his weapon of choice for the rest of the film.
  • My Kung-Fu Is Stronger Than Yours: The whole reason Yu-De goes to the monastery and becomes a monk is so that he can learn kung fu to use against the Qings.
  • Obstructive Code of Conduct: Shaolin teachings that forbid interference with the outside world. Until San Te, after being exiled goes to create the titular 36th Chamber as a means of a loophole.
  • Rite of Passage: Liu Yu-de, after being accepted into the Shaolin monastery is renamed and his advancement through the 35 chambers is seen as something like a Rite of Passage.
  • This Is Something He's Got to Do Himself: The Arm Strength Master admires San Te's helpfulness to his fellow students, but it can't be allowed. They won't improve if he helps too much. On to the next room.
    • Also, the elder monk doesn't try to talk San Te out of trying to start at the 35th and highest chamber. He simply takes San Te there and lets him try. It takes San Te about two minutes to figure out for himself that he needs to start with the basics.
  • Took a Level in Badass: Liu Yu-De goes from politically-active but in-over-his-head student to becoming San Te, badass Shaolin martial artist, who returns to his home town and leads a successful uprising against the corrupt government.
  • Training from Hell: The training underwent by San Te and the other initiates includes carrying heavy buckets of water with arms held straight out to the sides (with bladed bracelets that cut into trainees' ribs if they lower their arms) and having to ring a bell with a heavy, long-handled hammer. While strenuous and painful, it's not for the sake of sadism — the monks make it very clear that each training method is supposed to develop the strength, agility and endurance necessary for the more advanced training later on, when they utilize their previously honed skills via muscle memory in the context of hand-to-hand and weapon-based combat.
  • Training Montage: Most of Liu's training is shown in considerable detail, but once he's made it through a lot of the chambers and is ready to train with weapons, there's a montage of him fighting in a huge group of initiates with various weapons.
  • Tranquil Fury: San Te after his training and exile can be called this as he completes his Roaring Rampage of Revenge while not really giving into being to excessive in doing it.
  • Twinkle in the Eye: One of chambers involves training to get super vision and perception, which creates a twinkle in the users eye. In battle, this twinkle indicates San Te seeing people's attacks and precedes him performing an impressive dodge.
  • Use Your Head: The Head Chamber conditions your head's toughness. San Te uses headbutts often in subsequent fights, and even finishes off General Tien with one.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The movie is based around the legendary Shaolin disciple, San Te.
  • Walking Shirtless Scene: As in most kung fu movies, our hero is shirtless during most of the action sequences, including a good chunk of his training.
  • Wax On, Wax Off: The methods of training in the early chambers are all pretty bizarre (and hurtful, even) but the monks explain in detail what every chamber is supposed to develop their strength, endurance and agility in some way, which then gets put into practice later on in the advanced chamber via muscle memory.
    • As per the Trope Namer, some of the exercises have the benefit of getting some necessary work done, like the monastery's laundry.
  • You Didn't Ask: San Te spends a year doing busywork at the temple before thinking to ask to be taught Kung-Fu. The abbot informs him that's all he had to do.
  • You Killed My Father: Lord Tang, one of General Tien's followers, kills Yu-De's parents early in the film, over their son's suspected involvement in rebel activity. When Yu-De returns as the badass monk San Te, he bumps into Tang, reminds him what he's done, and then beats the hell out of him... though as a Buddhist monk, he can't bring himself to kill Tang. His new friend, Hung Hsi-Kuan, however, has no such compunctions.

Alternative Title(s): The Thirty Sixth Chamber Of Shaolin

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