The 36th Chamber of Shaolin

Later this week, the Logan Theatre presents a screening of Hong King action filmmaker Lau Kar-leung’s late-period breakout Drunk Master II, released stateside asThe Drunken Master. Lau, who passed away from complications related to lymphoma a couple years ago, was a fight choreographer and later director at Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers Studio, helping create the look and tone of the popular kung-fu genre. He specialized in mixing traditional martial arts styles with old-school Hollywood showmanship and good-natured humor, and he experimented with staging, characterization, and genre, often bucking trends he helped create. Ironically enough, his most sustained run for Shaw Bros. coincided with its decline—just as studio head Run Run Shaw turned his attention to television—bridging the gap between more traditional wuxia films and the “gun fu” days of John Woo, Ringo Lam, and Wong Jing. In these directors, Lau instilled the notion that Hong Kong filmmaking sticks to rhythmic staging and editing. Even in scenes not centered on action and fighting, the director found ways to emphasize and dramatize motion. Movement becomes transmittable, with one characters’s motion followed by another’s corresponding gesture, be it a tilt of the head, a twist of the torso, or the force of a punch. You can see my five favorite Lau Kar-leung films after the jump.  

5. My Young Auntie (1980) One of Lau’s major achievements as both a director and a fight choreographer was making combat humorous, something he accomplishes here by making the hero a demure, unassuming woman. Admittedly, giving a female protagonist the same basic qualities as a male protagonist is a bromidic ploy even by early 80s, HK-action-cinema standards, but the characterizations and story points are straight out of a screwball comedy, a genre whose kinetic energy Lau parlays into some exhilarating fight scenes.

4. Tiger on the Beat (1988) This weirdly Westernized buddy-cop comedy often feels like a Lethal Weapon riff that could have been directed by anyone, but the most important moments are pure Lau. Of course, I’m primarily referring to the climactic chainsaw scene. The action is characteristically tight and well choreographed, but the sheer inanity of the scene provides another layer of cartoonish metaphysics and gallows humor, underrated aspects of the director’s style. There are other bright spots throughout, usually whenever star Chow Yun-fat picks up his pump-action shotgun. Also, the theme song rules. 

3. The Eight-Diagram Pole Fighter (1984) The first two films on this list are ostensibly comedies, but there isn’t anything funny about this actioner, one of the director’s most serious and rigorous films. Based on the Yang Family legends, the story begins with a theatrically abstract, pseudo-Brechtian battle between warring clans, unfolding in what appears to be some kind of black-box theater. The crude staging and deliberate lack of artifice is at once disillusioning, but that’s exactly the point: the setting may be altered, but the kung-fu action remains pure, and the juxtaposed contexts expand the genre’s possibilities. And if you’re desperate for something more traditional, the final sequence is also incredible. 

2. Dirty Ho (1979) Alright, back to the funny stuff. Lau utilizes a typical revenge plot—the kind seen in films throughout the Shaw Brothers canon—and flips into a kind of sex farce centered around a complicated love triangle, mistaken identities, and self-reflexive humor. It also features some of Lau’s most inspired set pieces. Sort of the inverse of Pole Fighter‘s first scene, the opening arrangement here is a riff on Busby Berkeley, a musical kung-fu sequence full of overhead shots and wide-angle tableaus that establish the film’s story without using dialogue or conventional exposition. There’s nothing else quite like it in the director’s filmography, but for all you purists, it does feature a mustachioed Gordon Liu.

1. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978) Speaking of Liu, he plays a real-life figure long since transmuted into myth in this towering masterpiece. His character is a Chinese commoner evading oppressive Manchu officials and seeking refuge in the nearby Shaolin Temple. The film is an enthralling account of his training in the Shaolin style, known for emphasizing the external and the physical. Appropriately, the director’s style follows suit: the film is muscular and meticulous, organized into a series of sequences that reflect the rigorous nature of Liu’s training. Gradually, however, the film also reveals Liu’s spiritual transformation, showing how heroism requires a mixture of strength, intelligence, and patience, and how obstacles are best overcome one step at a time.