Today I watched Lau Kar-leung’s Return to the 36th Chamber (1980)
Bookending the week with a double dose of Shaolin, Return to the 36th Chamber begins in a cloth dying mill. The dyes are becoming more and more dilluted because of the poor quality of the raw materials but the bosses think it is because of lazy workers so they bring in a crew of Manchurian thugs to beat them into submission while simultaneously cutting the workers’ wages to pay these bullies. Gordon Liu does not reprise the role of San Te, instead playing Chu Jen-chieh, a petty con man who decides to impersonate San Te to help scare away the Manchurians. They see through his disguise though and beat him and the workers savagely, humiliated, Chu Jen-chieh decides to find the real San Te to learn real Kung Fu so that he can protect the oppressed. But upon arriving at the Shaolin Temple he is turned away, perhaps because he continues to try his con man tactics to get in. He does manage to blunder his way into an audience with San Te though, who denies him the opportunity to train, instead giving him the job of scaffolding the entire temple. This scaffolding job is no mere drudge work though as it gives Chu Jen-chieh a perfect view of the training yards and he tries to learn as much as he can before returning to enact justice upon the oppressors.
This film deviates a lot from the tone of the original, notably in it’s inclusion of plenty of humour. It is most notable for the exceptional amount of clever slapstick that runs through the picture which actually feeds very cleverly into the themes. The whole scaffolding/training sequence illustrates a central idea in the practice of Shaolin Kung Fu and that is the idea of all work as training, life is Kung Fu and one can train in it just by living smartly. The blending of mundane and everyday activities with Kung Fu goes all the way to the villains, the final boss and his minions use benches as their primary weapon and instead of being a joke it seems a wholly credible and dangerously effective style.
In the end the comedic elements make this a much less dramatic film that it’s predecessor but it is no less entertaining. Chu Jen-chieh is just an entertaining guy and when Gordon Liu stretches his comedic muscles he does so with impeccable timing. It still manages to also have an intriguing theme so beyond being simply fun to watch, it is also fun to think about. Thus despite diverging heavilly from the tone of the first film, this one is still a very satisfying classic of old school Kung Fu, a wonderful fake it till you make it story. 5/5