Having a sharp tonal shift in your franchise is a dicey business and while it may keep things fresh for the faces behind the camera, it can be quite jarring for the viewer who was expecting more of the same but ends up getting something noticeably different. Usually it’s the addition of humor, or a complete overhauling of the story (Army Of Darkness and Halloween III respectively), but in the case of Lau Kar-leung’s Return To The 36th Chamber it’s both and thankfully the canny old bugger managed to pull it off with immense amounts of help from returning lead Gordon Liu.
However, before we go any further, I guess I’d better explain the rather noticable changes that Kar-leung had desided to put in effect – firstly, even though this is the same 36th Chamber established at the end of the first movie (a training ground for civilians to learn Shaolin Kung-Fu) and it’s run by San Te, whom Liu previously played, we’re now a few years down the line and our lead is playing a different, younger character while San Te is now portrayed by another actor entirely.
With me so far? Good.
Where the first movie was based around the paranoia and loss of life amassed during the brutal regime of the Manchu government, here instead we settle on a laundry dying plant who’s crooked owners are pinching the wages of their put upon workers (bit of a step down, but there you go) and in their desperation, enlist the help of Chu Jen-chieh, a notorious con man, to pretend to be an all powerful Shaolin Monk in order to intimidate their corrupt bosses. Needless to say it goes tits up faster than a New York minute and everyone involved is beaten by the cruel, martial arts savvy enforcers hired to keep them in line.
Feeling guilty that he’s only managed to make everybody’s life worse, Jen-chieh vows to go to the Shaolin Temple and learn Kung-Fu to make things right again, but proving that old con man habits die hard, he elects to sneak into the temple and attempt to cut corners in order to fast track his training through various acts of underhanded trickery. Needless to say his efforts are usually met with various acts of blunt force trauma to the head and neck, but when the head monk of the 36th Chamber, San Te himself, catches Jen-chieh, he insists that he will let the con artist learn Kung- Fu provided he builds bamboo scaffolding all around the temple first, but as he desperately rushes to get this huge, and very strange task finished (talk about your cowboy builders), Jen-chieh finds himself picking up some impressive fighting skills by osmosis. But will this be enough to get justice for the workers who’s working day, almost a year later, now contains far more pay cuts and beatings by sticks than any rational H.R. department would allow?
The shift to broader comedy could have been a disastrous choice if Return To The 36th Chamber had been more of a direct sequel, but the choice keep this a loose follow up and to mess things around a little provides a fresh spin on a take that’s fairly well trodden, even as far back as 1980.
Shifting Gordon Liu from his wide-eyed student-come Kung-Fu demigod role to a goofy, well meaning con man is actually a master stroke as it allows the perpetually bald leading man to flex his comedic muscles which prove to be every bit as sinewy as the ones he uses to punch evil doers in the head. Plying in the same kind of goggle-faced prat falling that segways seamlessly into flawless fighting skills, Liu ventures into territory usually staked out by Jackie Chan but proves just as adept at a punch line than he is lining up a punch.
The fights are far more light hearted too with virtually no run time dedicated to classic weapons (except for lots and lots of bo staffs), but instead has the final battle decided by Jen-chieh unleashing his own personal style of fighting dubbed “Scaffolding Kung-Fu” thanks to his unorthodox training methods against numerous foes using collapsible stools as their primary weapon. It’s odd, funny and inordinately cool and while it may not stack up to the more serious, emotional stakes of the previous movie (as represented by the ludicrous overbite enimating from the gums of one of the put upon workers) it’s still a damn good example of fast paced fisticuffs that excels in execution.
As a matter of fact, what the original may have lacked in humour but gained in emotional punch, the sequel reverses things to be a much more playful and (dare I say) family friendly affair – well, as family friendly as a film can be that’s also managed to inspire the name of an Ol’ Dirty Bastard album…
Neither inferior or superior to it’s noticable predecessor, Return To The 36th Chamber is simply just different, a tongue in cheek remix of familiar themes, but still contains all the neat little touches that made Lau Kar-leung’s orginal stand out so much, not to mention the lush sets and colours that often marked out a Shaw Brothers production.
Fast paced, fun and yet another stunning showcase for Gordon Liu’s incredibly impressive prowess (not to mention an impressively well developed instinct for comedy) this is one Return that tickles the funny bone… before it breaks it.