14 January, 2010

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin

Well, folks, I've finally gotten my hands on an original language copy of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, which I have previously known under the title of Master Killer. And it's surprising how much I've grown accustomed to the English script and voices. Not to say that they were good, or that I prefer them, but just that it was quite different hearing the movie in a different language. But I'm happy to be able to watch it that way now.

The special features on the DVD were enlightening, including two different interviews with star Gordon Liu (the Master Killer himself), and the commentary by a film critic and a member of the Wu Tang Clan (who goes by the moniker RZA). I had heard about the influence of this particular movie on the hip hop group Wu Tang Clan, and have been curious about just what the connection between kung fu movies and hip hop culture is, since, initially, it seems like such an odd combination. Well, RZA's comments went a long way in solving that mystery for me.

He (and others like him) apparently had a history of watching kung fu movies in the days of his youth, and in addition to being wowed by the action, he felt a connection to the brotherhood of the kung fu clans, and in this particular movie, the theme of fighting against oppression (paralleling the civil rights movement). A very enlightening point of view on this phenomenon of a hip hop group naming itself after a kung fu clan. And in spite of what I may have been expecting, it was quite interesting hearing RZA talk about all the great things about this movie, and the appreciation he has for many Buddhist principles.

Certain comments drew my attention to some of the details that contribute to making this particular kung fu film as good as it is. One of those is the influence of the director Lau Kar-Leung, a kung fu master himself, and his desire to shoot real kung fu in his movies, performed by real kung fu masters. And one of his tricks that is effective but I hadn't consciously noticed until it was brought to my attention, was his use of long shots, in which the participating actors (sometimes including a whole crowd in the fight) would engage in upwards of ten moves to a cut - resulting in a very natural, organic, and impressive display of the fighters' real abilities.

I could talk about other things that make this movie so good, but I'd probably just be rehashing old points. Like how amazing the training sequences at the Shaolin temple (which constitute almost half of the entire movie) are. Or how each of the skills learned turns up later, in the field, showing their application, and that they were learned for a reason, and not just because it looks cool, or to fill time. Also, the critic commentator articulated the appeal of martial arts movies over typical western action films - there seems to be much more rhyme and reason (and choreography) to a martial arts fight; it's more clever, and more like a physical chess game than a brainless brawl. Plus, there's the spiritual aspect to martial arts, that doesn't as often play a role (or as central a role) in western action films.

But I won't belabor those points. I might not be in the best position to say this, as I haven't seen nearly as many martial arts films as I have certain other types of films, but even so, this one stands out for me as being especially good.

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