Though canonically considered the last part in a trilogy, “Disciples of the 36th Chamber” could count instead as a second sequel to “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin.” The reason for this remains that the star of the series, Gordon Liu, is returning to his original role as Monk San Te from the first film. His role differs from the protagonist he played in the sequel “Return to the 36th Chamber.” An oddly confusing chronology hampers this final film, bogged down by an equally confusing arc for its protagonist.

Like most Kung-fu films made by Shaw Brothers Studios, this too has a martial arts display by the hero as the opening credits role. Here, the hero’s mantle is taken over by Hsiao Ho, who played a comedic sidekick in the previous film in the series. It is a whole level of confusion, compounded by the fact that Ho, like Monk San Te, is portraying Fong Sai-yuk, another real-life folk hero.

The film’s plot is fabricated, but the opening credits showcase the teenaged Sai-yuk taking down foes that would earn him his legendary reputation. Past sequences have often been shot on monochromatic sets built in the studio; here, the sequence acts almost like a play with an elevated stage showcasing the fight, flags, and weaponry used between the battles. Sai-yuk’s determination is clear from the onset; he is a patriot hoping to rid the Han of the oppressive Manchu rule.

As with the previous films in the series, Lau Kar-leung establishes a small setup that acts as a microcosm for the greater social conflict of the time. It also is a metaphor for the nationalist struggle and hope Shaw Brothers Studio would incite through their oeuvre. In this case, the fight is for the Han population to prevent the Manchu from taking control of their fighting schools and gyms.

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While Fong Sai-yuk’s exploits are well known, they aren’t well regarded. The officials of the schools, including Sai-yuk’s father, are determined to keep the peace with the powerful Manchu, especially their Governor (Jason Pai Piao) and his Manchu Chief (Lau Kar-leung). Sai-yuk is young and impetuous. His pride makes him confront the Manchu at every turn. The only person who sees his potential but wishes to keep him in check is his mother, Miao Tsui-hua (Lily Li).

This casting is noteworthy, given the film’s numerous technical difficulties. Miao is the key to pushing Sai-yuk towards the Shaolin Temple for protection and to learn to become a better man. She drives his arc in many ways, but Lily Li is eight years younger than Hsiao Ho, and it shows. The film ends up becoming a complete farce due to these little issues as it attempts feebly to push towards some drama and a sense of plot direction.

Ran off from the village with his brothers by the Manchu, Sai-yuk is forced to work under San Te at the Shaolin Temple. Like the first two films, much of the second act spends time showcasing the temple and its iconic 36th chamber, where any secular student can train. It’s easy to notice how terribly downgraded the budget has become with each subsequent sequel. The film constrains itself by spending time in one chamber, displaying roof climbing trials for Kung-fu fighting.

Unlike the previous films, Sai-yuk comes fully equipped and trained under his mother. Perhaps the film’s biggest boon is that Lau Kar-leung allows Lily Li ample screen time to display her own balletic martial arts skills. It’s truly the first time in the trilogy that a female role has any substance. Lau himself takes her on in a fight that showcases Miao’s desperation to protect her sons, and the fight even has a slight comedic tone.

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A still from Disciples of the 36th Chamber (1985)

That light-hearted touch is littered across the film, with the dramatic stakes never becoming too overwhelming. It’s the perfect treatment for the leading man Hsiao Ho, who gets to act like a buffoon when he isn’t displaying his martial arts genius. Though relegated to an extended cameo, Gordon Liu is a great adversary to Ho as Sai-yuk grows ever more defiant and arrogant towards the Shaolin Temple.

It is here, however, that the film falters terribly. While good humor and some incredible fighting are on display between the confrontations, it propels Sai-yuk’s arc into a ridiculous direction. Consistently finding ways to escape the temple, Sai-yuk runs afoul of the Manchu. The shrewd Governor wins his confidence, allowing Sai-yuk to participate in the Manchu’s martial arts tournament.

The writing from Lau Kar-leung skips major beats as Sai-yuk goes from a prideful man furious at the Manchu to falling into their trap of friendship. Worse, this arc is rushed towards the end of the second act. It almost seems like an excuse to get one big fight sequence between Hsiao Ho and Gordon Liu. Of course, as far as the fighting goes, the terrible maneuvering in the script results in a great climax. All of the major characters, including Miao and San Te, convene at a Manchu marriage hall. The governor proposes a wedding between a Manchu soldier and a Han woman. This occasion is used as a ploy to destroy Sai-yuk, the students who rebel with him and the Shaolin.

In an effort to stop Sai-yuk, San Te is forced to fight him as chaos ensues all around the premises. The setting gives Lau Kar-leung the freedom to explore once more how the training in the 36th chamber is applied to the real world. The martial arts display was fascinating, with the choreography pushing towards fighting on roofs and using a pond for the stunt team to display their tricks.

There isn’t really a false note in the craft; Lau Kar-leung was, at this point, an adept master of the genre and brilliantly balanced much of the film’s tonal shifts. The budget constraints, though, are visible, with minuscule sets and the obvious fake backdrops of the Studios productions becoming all the more prominent. The year after this film’s release, Shaw Brothers Studio would shut down its film production for a significant time before closing altogether.

None of this would matter if the wizardry of the martial arts had something to fall onto with the writing. Unlike the previous films, Lau Kar-leung is the sole screenwriter in this one. It shows in the contradictions of the protagonist’s character arc. Luckily, most viewers simply look for a fun time when it comes to such Kung-fu films. In that case, this film does a serviceable job despite never reaching the heights of the previous entries.

★★★

Read More: Return to the 36th Chamber (1980) Movie Review: A Scaled Down Remake of the Original with a Comedic Tone 

Disciples of the 36th Chamber (1985) Movie Links: IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, Wikipedia, Letterboxd
Disciples of the 36th Chamber (1985) Movie Cast: Hsiao Ho, Gordon Liu, Lau Kar-leung
Disciples of the 36th Chamber (1985) Movie Genre: Action, Runtime: 1h 35m
Where to watch Disciples of the 36th Chamber

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