If American audiences know director Lau Kar-leung and star Gordon Liu for anything, it would be this movie. A lot of credit for that goes to the Wu-Tang Clan, who referenced it in an album title and have as many alternate names for one another as audiences do for this movie (The Master Killer, Shaolin Master Killer and Shao Lin San Shi Liu Fang).
Liu Yude (Liu) has been radicalized into the rebellion against the Manchu government, which ends when General Tien Ta destroys his school and then kills not just the students, but their friends and family as well. On the run, he goes to the Shaolin temple in the hopes of learning the fighting skills he’ll need for revenge.
As an outsider, he is turned away until the chief abbott has mercy on him. Yet a year later, Yude is now San Te and begins working his way through the 35 training chambers that each monk must complete. The top chamber is too much for our hero, where he must recite Buddhist philosophy from memory, so he begins on the bottom, amazing everyone at becoming the master of 35 of the chambers in just six years.
After numerous battles, he finally defeats one of the elders and announces that his goal is to create the new 36th chamber, one in which ordinary people will be given the skills to defend themselves. The temple officially banishes him but only does so to allow him to go back into the ordinary world and continue the revolution and stopping Tien Ta.
“The wall may be low, but the Buddha is high.” With dialogue like this, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin shows that the journey to master oneself through fighting skill is not even about the actual fighting. It is mastering emotion and going inward to better oneself. The war is often with ourselves.