The 36th Chamber of Shaolin

dir. Lau Kar-leung

TIFF Cinematheque - Retrospective

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First released in North America as Master Killer and immortalized by a certain New York hip-hop collective, director Lau Kar-leung's chronicle of a young man's bruising, unsentimental education in the legendary Shaolin Temple is arguably the greatest martial-arts film of all time.

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First released in North America as Master Killer and immortalized by a certain New York hip-hop collective, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is the unquestioned masterpiece of the great director and fight choreographer Lau Kar-leung, and arguably the greatest martial-arts film of all time. The director's bald-pated godbrother Gordon Liu became a star as San Te, a young man drawn into a rebellion against the oppressive Manchu government. After a brutal Manchu attack slaughters his friends and family members, the wounded San Te flees to the Shaolin Temple and spends years mastering his martial-arts skills in the monks' punishing training regimen, in preparation for some well-earned payback. While in outline 36th Chamber follows the revenge narrative template so typical of the genre, director Lau — a bona fide martial-arts master whose father studied with the legendary Wong Fei-hung — emphasizes the discipline and dedication of the martial arts, as opposed to the flamboyant brutality of his contemporary Chang Cheh (One-Armed Swordsman). But this grounding in (relative) realism doesn't stop 36th Chamber from being riotously entertaining: San Te's bruising, unsentimental education provides some of the most spectacular (and hilarious) sequences in kung-fu film history.

Print courtesy Celestial Pictures Ltd.