Return to the 36th Chamber (1980)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2010-10-14
Summary: Classic Shaw Brothers Kung Fu
"Return to the 36th Chamber" begins as a workplace drama that highlights the class differences between the owners and the workers in a fabric dying factory. There is a manager backed up by a squad of tough Manchu thugs that the owner has imported to keep labor peace by terrorizing the employees. He creates an incident with two lots of fabric. One is dyed a bright, deep yellow--the Manchu sample and the other is a sickly, pale color produced by his current employees. The foreman and his goofball sidekick had been concerned with poor results but this confrontation is about breaking the spirit of the workforce. The boss announces that the Manchus will be taking over supervision of the dye works and that all the workers will have to take a small pay cut in order to pay their salaries. So it is the workers against the bosses and their goons.

The initial cut in pay was only the beginning. It is illegal to strike, difficult to sue in court and impossible to simply quit and go to a dye shop in the next town because they are all controlled by one company. Things look very bad for the dye workers and the families who depend on them, facing a grim future.

The answer, of course, is kung fu. If only there was a trained martial artist who could lead them and beat up all the bad guys. Enter Chou Chun Chi, played to perfection by Gordon Liu. He doesn't know kung fu--actually all he knows are various confidence schemes to trick the gullible into handing over money. As it happens he is currently impersonating a monk from Shaolin temple, a mendicant begging for alms to support his monastery. He has a shaved head, some beads and a disreputable looking robe but no knowledge or skill in any kind of fighting. But as a born trickster he is able to make the Manchurians think they have met their match. This doesn’t last long--the boss sees through his game very quickly and he and the dye workers wind up much worse off.

Ashamed and hurt, Chou Chun Chi wanders the land until he comes upon a group of Shaolin monks. He sneaks into a class of novice monks who are learning the basics--or thinks he does although the abbot his assistants aren’t fooled for a moment. Instead of being thrown out he is given an apparently impossible task: get enough water from a deep well to take a bath using only a rock--no rope, no bucket, no pulleys, just a rock. He approaches this assignment with pigheaded determination and is able to accomplish it using a combination of exceptional (and unsuspected) strength, balance and flexibility.

Thinking he has it made he approaches the abbot, ready to start his kung fu training. The abbot has other plans though--the monastery needs constant repairs and a major overhaul is in the works. He tells Chou Chun Chi to build the scaffolding for the project: all the scaffolding; without help; take your time, just work until you are finished. The only saving grace is that he can watch each class in each exercise and co-opts their training moves into the work of scaffold building.

He is so employed for three years--using lengths of leather thongs to bind long bamboo poles onto posts and into a grid, all around the walls of the temple. By the time he is done he has mastered a new form of kung fu, the scaffold style. The scenes between him and the abbot are marvels of choreography, comic timing, camera tricks perfect execution. Gordon Liu has charisma to burn and is completely convincing as the reformed con man who learns an ancient art by watching and doing. By the time he is ready to leave Shaolin the audience is as convinced of his transformation as is the abbot.

Returning to his village and the dye works he finds the workers dispirited and fearful. The best of them have been fired and survive hand to mouth as small time peddlers selling cheap goods to those who are still employed while the workers in the factory are working longer hours for less pay. Our hero would have little trouble with the boss and his Manchu hoodlums but they are reinforced by the owner of all the dye shops in the region and even tougher goons.

The first band of assailants are easy to deal with--they are pole fighters and Chou Chun Chi has learned how to deal with bamboo poles. With an inexhaustible supply of short ropes around his waist he soon has them and their weapons literally tied up. When the big boss and his gang arrive things get even better--they chase him to a construction site and, naturally enough, fight him on a scaffold.

This is a terrific movie. Hsaio Ho is spot on as fun loving but loyal sidekick to Wa Lun’s strong and anguished workers’ leader. Kara Hui, showing the incredible depth that Shaw Brothers had then, was in a supporting, non-fighting role. Kwan Yun-Moon was the epitome of a surly punk as the chief Manchu hooligan.
Reviewer Score: 9