It is not difficult to see why RZA retains Liu Chia-liang’s kung-fu classic The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978) as one of his favourite motion pictures. As a teenager roaming the streets of New York’s Staten Island during hip-hop’s golden era, the future Wu-Tang Clan co-founder, producer extraordinaire, composer, and director was already an ambitious character. He did not want to simply make music; he wanted to gain knowledge, master his craft, and pass on what he had learned to the world at large.
Shaolin Monk San Te, played by Gordon Liu in his breakout role, is the architect of such a path; striving to learn martial arts at the Shaolin temple in the wake of a failed rebellion against the reigning Manchu government. At first it is for his own benefit, but over time it becomes a means of spreading the benefits of the traditionally secretive Shaolin to improve the lives of others in the face of oppression.
That’s what RZA saw on his television set in Staten Island and, after a music and film career spanning three decades alongside the likes of Jim Jarmusch, Eli Roth, and Quentin Tarantino, culminating in his own directorial debut, The Man with the Iron Fists (2012), he has now come full circle, returning to the stage at VIFF to live score and share the same Shaw Brothers flick that first influenced him all those many moons ago. The result was a barrage of chaotic entertainment, stemming from a mishmash of the venue, audience, technical mastery and inadvertent comedy.
Hosted in Vancouver’s Orpheum opera house – home to the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra – the dual performance got off to an amusing start when it immediately dawned on those in attendance that the subtitles (standard procedure for live score events) did not match The 36th Chamber’s beautifully infamous English dub (identical in delivery to those sampled by RZA during his early Wu-Tang days). Instead, they were a direct and translation of the original Cantonese dub, which reminded the gleeful audience just how wayward and carelessly tone-altering the original translation was and still is in places, particularly to those unfamiliar with the fundamentals of seventies kung-fu cinema.
What was on point was the experience RZA provided from beneath the screen. Whether a fan of old school martial arts films, a Wu-Tang diehard, or both, those in the room were with him as the first pounding drop matched with the first flurry of onscreen action. They remained with him through his selection of filthy beats, most of which came from his own extensive back catalogue. The timing and tone of the score was not always perfect; sometimes it came across as intrusive filler, once or twice it undermined the flow of the action, but the live aspect meant neither diminished proceedings to meaningful degree.
RZA may have performed this score several times during the past few years, but one gets the idea he’s never used the same arrangement twice. It’s an experiment, and a welcome one at that, which made the moments everything clicked all the more impactful. He pulled this off on several occasions during the runtime, nailing the timing of fight scenes, key dialogue, humour, and even specific camera shots, including a zoom early on that brought the the first real show of appreciation from his energetic audience.
As for The 36th Chamber itself; it holds up. Many contemporary Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest (the other powerhouse studio in Hong Kong at the time, famous for its stars including Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Sammo Hung) pictures have not stood the test of time, but there’s something almost mythical about The 36th Chamber, due in part to RZA and Wu-Tang’s permanent endorsements in both their lyrics and the title of their debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Though it is a level or two below Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master – the breakout pictures of Jackie Chan and Yuen Woo-ping released the same year – on the technical and action fronts, its philosophical and social message, memorable set design, charming humour (both deliberate and not so), and the presence of Liu make it worthy of its place in the classic kung-fu archive.
A work in progress worth being part of for any kung-fu cinema nerd or hip-hop aficionado, RZA: Live from The 36th Chamber of Shaolin will always be a unique experience, and one that could well lead to the inception of future alternative live film scores. For now, though, RZA will make sure San Te continues to Bring da Ruckus wherever he goes, regardless of the words dubbed over his lips.