Thursday, August 23, 2012

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin

1978, Hong Kong, directed by Chia-Liang Liu

This was a bit of a shock after so many films from the 1930s -- it's been ages since I dipped a toe into Hong Kong action, particularly of the kung fu variety, and I'd forgotten just how busy the folio artists are kept, with every absurd swish and kick amped up to eleven. On this set, at least, the camera operator must have earned overtime for all the zoom work -- in the early sequences, the zoom seems to function as a kind of visual exclamation point to direct our attention to the key participants in a big fight scene.

The opening sequences are pretty standard quasi-historical-injustice stuff -- I'd forgotten just how generic these films can be in structural terms -- but the film really comes alive in the training sequences: indeed, where many kung fu films are essentially structured as a series of escalating battles, Liu throws the viewer off by adhering to the standard template only to set his story up, and then we're off to an imaginative and often very funny succession of training chambers, where our hero, Gordon Liu, hardens his abs and hones his skills in order to throw off the yoke of political subjugation. It's a template then re-worked many times over by subsequent filmmakers -- down to The Karate Kid, though where the Hong Kong film links kung fu training to a series of apparently abstract tasks, The Karate Kid turns that same exercise into a series of Tom-Sawyer-esque chores.

It was an absolute pleasure to see this on the big screen -- not the best print ever, with the colours a little off, but the vocal enthusiasm of the audience gave a little hint of what it must have been like to watch these films in crowded, bantering theatres on a Saturday night in the 1970s.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States