Review for The 36 Deadly Styles
Wah-jee and his Uncle Wang are running for their lives, pursued by a clan with malice on their minds. It’s a running kung-fu battle of attrition, although Wah-jee and his uncle think they’ve found sanctuary in a monastery. But the villains pursue them there, and press the attack, and it’s only through the intervention of the monks, particularly the senior monk that they are repelled, and not without claiming some blood. Now Wah-jee is hiding out with the monks, levelling up his kung fu, realising that his troubles aren’t over just yet. The senior monk isn’t making his life any easier though. But there’s more to this monk than meets the eye.
The 36 Deadly Styles gets a 2.35:1 1080p widescreen transfer with PCM 1.0 mono Mandarin and English, with optional English subtitles, and I assume a signs only track. The image is clear and sharp, with rich colours, presenting the film to enjoyable effect. There is a nice level of film grain, and other than the occasional softness and drifting focus, there are no issues to complain about. You do see the film with more clarity than originally intended I guess, as the old age make-up generally looks terrible. I watched the Mandarin version, and it’s a fairly harsh and slightly distorted mono tape experience, an audio track that hasn’t aged well. The music has been lifted from a whole variety of other films, and there are moments that can jar you awake. I wasn’t expecting the Pink Panther theme.
The 36 Deadly Styles gets a lively audio commentary from Mike Leeder and Arne Venema.
The 7 Grandmasters came as a pleasant surprise that defied my expectations. That led to me raising my expectations for The 36 Deadly Styles, which turned out to be a mistake, as the film wouldn’t have met my original expectations, let alone any heightened ones. It took me 2¼ hours to watch a 90 minute film last night. I slept through the second half and wound up having to skip back and play through it again. The 7 Grandmasters kicked off with a confusing narrative that revealed its nuances as the film played out. The 36 Deadly styles kicks off with a muddled narrative that only gets muddier as the film progresses. I have no idea what happened in this film, and I suspect neither did the writers or the director.
We kick off with the pursuit of Uncle Wang and Wah-jee by the cut-rate Dean Shek (I wasn’t going to say it, but the allusion is obvious and mentioned in the commentary) and his brothers. It’s unclear at this point just why this is happening, and it’s only towards the end of the film that you realise that it’s a battle between two clans for something called the 8 Immortal Fists. They get to the monastery and tragedy strikes, and it looks like Wah-jee is killed, leaving Uncle Wang alive. Only it’s the other way around. We then jump to Wah-jee, fit and healthy and as happy as Larry, running errands for the monks. There’s no indication that he’s mourning his uncle, so for ten minutes, I thought I was watching a flashback.
You might be wondering about the 36 Deadly Styles by this point. It turns out to be a subplot in the film, featuring different characters. If it weren’t for the fact that the characters interact, I’d think that a lazy editor had just spliced two different movies together, but either way, the 36 Deadly Styles of the title feels like an afterthought, with little to do with the main story. That main story itself relies on members of a family or clan refusing to recognise each other following the passage of a few years. It’s all really poorly written nonsense.
That just leaves the martial arts action. It’s not really to my taste to be honest, typical of the era, and of the rival schools, rival styles genre, a hyper-stylised, over-choreographed dance that’s designed for elaborate visuals rather than visceral action. There is that moment during a fight between two masters, where one combatant attacks the other’s nerve points, no doubt to disrupt his chi, poking and pressing various points on their body, their hands crawling up their torso, pushing vital nerves. And my mind always throws in “incy wincy spider...” at this point.
The 36 Deadly Styles is an incoherent mess of a story, where the action is a hypnotic cure for insomnia. At least it looks good in high definition.
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