Tuesday, April 20, 2010

36th Chamber of Shaolin and Batman Begins



Here's a paper I handed in today for my World Cinema Traditions class. The assignment was to compare a foreign film with an American film. After spending weeks racking my brain about what movies I would compare, after a four-hour conversation I had with someone the other day about "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight", I finally knew what I would compare.
The paper's title is "A Couple of Dudes Who Learn How to Kick Ass and Fight Injustice: The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and Batman Begins".
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Lau Kar Leung’s The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins each tell a story of a young man who removes himself from general society and enters an organization devoted to training and achieving a particular ideal. In both stories, the young man re-enters society in order to fight what he sees to be injustice. While they are united by some common story elements and themes, the two films differ drastically in style and cultural background.

Lau Kar Leung (also known by his Mandarin name, Liu Chia-Liang) directed the 1978 Shaw Bros. classic The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (also known as 36 Chambers of Shaolin and Master Killer). Lau was raised in a kung fu household. Taught from a young age by his father, Lau grew up to be a skilled martial artist. Schooled in the Hung Gar method, Lau eventually found work as an extra and choreographer on films depicting fictional adventures of the style’s most famous practitioner, Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-Hung. Lau parlayed this work into more and better film work, going on to choreograph such classics as the 1967 One-Armed Swordsman and the 1975 Master of the Flying Guillotine. Perhaps his greatest contribution to the history of chop-socky flicks, however, came in 1978 with The 36th Chamber of Shaolin.[i]
Starring Lau’s “martial brother” Gordon Liu (Liu studied under Lau’s father and the two became life-long friends), the film tells the story of San Te, a young man who rebels against the oppressive Manchu government during the Qing Dynasty era. Wounded in a fight after his family and friends are killed, San Te seeks sanctuary at the Shaolin Temple (actually a monastery). There, he asks to be trained in kung fu so that he might take revenge against the evil Manchurians. Though initially rejected, he begins his training by sweeping floors. After a year, his training begins in earnest and he swiftly progresses through the thirty-five chambers at the monastery. After years of training, he returns to general society and attempts to fight the Manchurian soldiers. After taking revenge on his family’s killer, San Te establishes a thirty-sixth chamber at the monastery, in which lay people are taught kung fu so that they can defend themselves against an unjust government.

The film’s depiction of an oppressive, militaristic government is interesting to note in light of the film’s release in 1978. The war in Vietnam had just officially ended in 1975. Many Hong Kong residents had fled the People’s Republic of China. Hong Kong had also suffered under Japanese occupation in the early 1940s. In 1978, Hong Kong was still under British rule. The then-recent history of Hong Kong and the anti-military sentiments popular in western societies combined to influence many kung fu films, in which lone heroes or small teams would fight against oppressive occupying governments or evil invaders. Though common in Hong Kong kung fu films, the RZA (of Wu-Tang Clan fame) points out that the lone hero’s struggle against oppression is a universal theme. [ii]
While the political climate of Southeast Asia may have influenced the story, it’s unlikely that it had any influence on the style of the film. The style of the film is primarily influenced by two things: Lau’s background in the martial arts, and the method by which most Hong Kong films were made at the time. Lau’s kung fu proficiency and background as a choreographer dictated that the film’s primary focus would be the training and the fights. Hong Kong kung fu films are of a different nature than western action films, and the performers and directors often prefer to showcase skill through lengthy fight scenes rather than make action sequences tenser with tight editing. The fight scenes in The 36th Chamber of Shaolin are long, and Lau shows off his and the performers’ skills. Almost as important as the action is the set design. Though not necessarily an accurate representation of the Shaolin monastery in Dengfeng, or the training apparatus contained therein, the temple setting and the various kung fu training set-ups presented in the film are lovingly imaginative and service the story and San Te’s character development.

Aside from Lau’s martial background, the film’s style is partly determined by the “assembly line” method of production of Hong Kong films at the time. A biographer of Bruce Lee writes of the Hong Kong film industry:
"The Hong Kong-based film industry made films the way Detroit made cars: on an assembly line. They could wrap up a production in three days; a big-budget extravaganza might require a week. The Shaw brothers – Runjy, Runme, and Run Run – had almost singlehandedly set up the Hong Kong film industry. Shaw Brothers Studios was a mixture of purpose-built sets and sound stages where everything from pagodas to concentration camps were perched on a windy hillside overlooking Clearwater Bay. Shaw Brothers was the biggest studio outside of Hollywood and Europe, accounting for two-thirds of the “Chinese” films produced in the world. An average of seven features were always in production, while the sound-dubbing rooms were shared on a tight schedule of three shifts daily.
The secret of Shaw studios’ success was a hard-nosed policy geared to speed and economy. Films were shot without sound and, like Italian-made “spaghetti Westerns”, were later dubbed into whatever language was required. The films were often shot without a written script, more or less made up by the crew as they went along and “edited” directly on camera with few retakes. …"
[iii]

This method of filmmaking often resulted in pictures that western audiences might think of as lesser in quality. Like most film studios, Shaw Brothers’ primary concern was profit, and the assembly line method worked just fine to that end. Even if Lau had wanted to make a sweeping epic that would take a lot of time and a lot more money, it probably just would not have happened.

Nearly thirty years after Lau Kar Leung and Gordon Liu made The 36th Chamber of Shaolin for Shaw Brothers, Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale made Batman Begins for Warner Brothers. In the film, Bruce Wayne is a child when he witnesses his parents gunned down in an alley. Unable to cope, he eventually runs away from Gotham, traveling the world and winding up in a Bhutanese prison. He is found and recruited by a secret organization devoted to their master’s concept of justice. Wayne is trained in the martial arts and ways of the ninja, but when asked to be an executioner he betrays his master and flees the organization. Returning to Gotham after seven years of absence, he dons a costume and uses high-tech gadgets to fight crime. While he attempts to take down organized crime and fight against the corruption that permeates the city, his master and the secret organization attack Wayne and attempt to devastate Gotham. He fights off the ninja, defeats his master, and saves the city, establishing himself as a symbol and weapon of justice.
The film is directed by Christopher Nolan. Half-British, half-American, Nolan blends different sensibilities when it comes to writing and directing. Batman Begins is a big-budget action movie that is an adaptation of an iconic American comic book character, while Nolan’s previous studio films could be considered psychological thrillers. He was born in England and received most of his education there, but he also spent time during his youth in the United States. Even as a child, he enjoyed making films, and continued to do so through his college years. His work as an independent filmmaker eventually led to his current status as an A-list Hollywood director.[iv]

Batman Begins was released in 2005. The major events affecting America at the time were the war(s) in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the presidential election of 2004. While Nolan was filming in Iceland, England, and Chicago, American soldiers were fighting in the Middle East. In November of 2004, George W. Bush “won” his re-election. Perhaps the period of war and the political landscape influenced the development and success of the film. In the film, Batman does utilize technology that is specifically intended for use by the military (it’s noted that he essentially drives a tank). A part of what Batman is fighting against is the corruption of the city’s government. While those events may have influenced the film, it should be noted that the source material also provided suitable influence. In Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s Batman: Year One (1987), Batman fights against the corruption that infects Gotham City. In Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986), Batman drives a tank-like vehicle and references are made to Ronald Reagan and American military action. In Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again (2002), the government controls the country through fear and the tactical use of the media, with the evil villain Lex Luthor behind it all.

The style of Nolan’s film is drastically different from that of Lau’s. While Lau’s kung fu classic is shot on a shoestring budget with relatively limited movement, Nolan’s big budget Hollywood production features much more movement and aerial shots of the grimy metropolis that is Gotham City. While Lau’s film is sparsely cut so as to show of the martial arts skills of the performers and Lau himself (as well as save time in post-production), Nolan uses much tighter editing in the fight scenes. This style of fight scene is supposed to have a jarring, confusing effect because Batman fights his enemies quickly and with deceptive tactics. While Lau’s color palette is broad, but typical, Batman Begins seems to be dominated by black and orange. Lau’s film is predominantly devoted to the training of San Te in the Shaolin Temple, but Nolan devotes less than a quarter of his film to Wayne’s training in the ninja camp and does not feature nearly as many training methods or apparatus. Also, while Lau tells a fairly straight-forward story, Nolan attempts to explore the psyche of his film’s protagonist by delving into his childhood and searching for what makes a man devote himself to an ideal (and what could possibly drive one to dress up like a bat).

While the films are very different stylistically, they share a great commonality in that they are stories about angry young men who work hard towards the goal of fighting some sort of injustice. San Te wishes to fight an oppressive government and avenge the death of his friends and family. Bruce Wayne at first wants revenge, but when he is robbed of the opportunity, he travels the world in anonymity, not knowing what he wants; he eventually makes it his mission to fight the evils that plague his city. San Te spends years training in the martial arts at a Buddhist monastery, eventually using his skills to take revenge. Bruce Wayne trains in martial arts and tactics with a secret ninja society, returns to Gotham to take down organized crime, and eventually saves his city from imminent destruction by defeating the organization that trained him. At the end of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, San Te begins to teach kung fu to lay people so that they might rise up against the oppressive government and defend themselves against tyranny. By the end of Batman Begins, Wayne’s alter-ego has become a symbol for justice and he hopes to inspire Gotham citizens to stand up for themselves and eradicate corruption as he wages war on the criminal underbelly. Their journeys are certainly similar, though their intentions and the details differ.
The differences between the two films could be attributed to a number of different factors. One cause for the differences may be the time periods in which the films were made. Technological developments, as well as an increase in the “sophistication” of filmmakers (over time, people have had more access to a greater variety of films, so it stands to reason that filmmakers have a greater potential to make good films since they have an increasing number of films and filmmakers to learn from) could explain the differences between a film from 1978 and another from 2005. Another cause could be related to the cultural differences. While Hong Kong culture has partially been influenced by British culture and both Lau and Nolan would be used to crowded, polluted cities, the vast differences between Chinese and European-American sensibilities should be taken into account. The educations of the filmmakers should also be considered. Nolan is a college graduate, while Lau’s major skill is the kung fu knowledge passed to him from his father. Perhaps most important to consider is the simple fact that the filmmakers are different people. Different people naturally have different tastes, and when you add different time periods and different cultures, two films with similar story elements and themes are still bound to have many differences.

[i] Commentary/special features on DVD. Lau, Kar Leung. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. Hong Kong: Shaw Brothers (Dragon Dynasty, DVD), 1978 (2007, DVD).
[ii] Commentary/special features on DVD.
[iii] Thomas, Bruce. Bruce Lee: Fighting Spirit. Berkeley, California: Frog, Ltd., 1994.
[iv] "Christopher Nolan". Wikipedia. April 20, 2009 .

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23 comments:

Bruce said...

I liked it but am afraid I don't really have any comments (since I haven't seen the 36th chamber) except to ask why did you choose these two films to compare? Is the character motivation or the characters' execution of their desires so strikingly similiar?

PS I wish these useless commentors would leave our blogs alone.

M.C. Elroy said...

Most films are difficult to compare in an academic sense;so the thematic connection between these two movies, no matter how tenuous, just stood out to me as a opportunity.
In the end, I got a 100 on the paper, so the choices worked out.

(And yeah, I don't what their deal is.)

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