“Shaolin and Wu-Tang” & Wu-Tang Clan: 36 Styles of Danger by Dan Simolke

“Shaolin shadowboxing, and the Wu-Tang sword style…”

— “Shaolin and Wu-Tang” sample from “Bring Da Ruckus”

When the sequel to 1978’s “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin,” entitled “Return to the 36th Chamber,” was released as a comedy, star Gordon Liu decided he disagreed with that approach. Since Gordon Liu does what he wants, he subsequently directed what he determined would be a proper follow-up: 1983’s “Shaolin and Wu-Tang” (which is playing at NYC’s Anthology Film Archives in a 35mm print as a part of the Old School Kung-Fu Fest). You might recognize Liu from the “Kill Bill” films, where he played multiple roles including Johnny Mo and Pai Mei (I was recently informed that Liu is in bad condition after a stroke, so keep the legend in your thoughts). One of the most notable aspects of the 1983 film is that its influence extends outside of the movies, and into the realm of hip-hop culture, specifically that of the Wu-Tang Clan and their debut album “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).” While that title is primarily derived from the original 1978 film, several of the dialogue samples are from “Shaolin and Wu-Tang,” and the two share the same general spirit and many similar themes.

The basic plot of the film is that a long-standing rivalry between two schools of the martial arts, the Shaolin and Wu-Tang, comes to a head when a prince manipulates them into battling each other in order to gain knowledge about both styles and become the best fighter.

Aside from the title, the film’s impact on the rap group is apparent early on. A tense chess match is taken as seriously as fierce hand-to-hand combat; an element that Wu-Tang often talks about in their music:

“The game of chess is like a swordfight… You must think first, before you move.”

— “Shaolin and Wu-Tang” sample from “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’”

Whether it’s chess, fighting, wits, or rapping doesn’t really matter. The strategy behind it is where the fascination lies for both parties. These guys would place the same amount of importance on a game of Tetris as they would on all-out warfare. They’re true competitors, so every task is completed with maximal effort. Chess just happens to be a very concentrated means of employing strategy, so it strikes a chord. Wu-Tang member GZA literally used a violent human chessboard for the cover art of his seminal 1995 solo-album “Liquid Swords;” and the result was iconic. The image is really just a metaphor for his ability to slay opponents through his rapping ability, but, as far as visual representations go, it’s obviously a lot more interesting to stab someone in the throat than it is to talk at them very directly.

The biggest similarity between Wu-Tang, and not only this movie, but many classic pieces of kung-fu cinema, is the blend of comedy and violence. It’s probably why Quentin Tarantino is a fan of the group, and even tapped production mastermind RZA to help score “Kill Bill” (where I’m sure he met Gordon Liu).  I previously mentioned that Liu was unsatisfied with “Return to the 36th Chamber” being presented as a comedy. While that is true, the fact that there is humor to be found in ”Shaolin and Wu-Tang” does not categorize it as a comedy, as is the case with most Tarantino films as well.

Now, whether or not all the humor in “Shaolin and Wu-Tang” is intentional is a different story. The “36 Chambers” album clearly uses the English-dubbed version of the film when sampling dialogue, but the version playing at Anthology Film Archives is subtitled. This causes some of the famous samples used on the album to be worded differently, and allows for some odd phrasing. The line, “these arrows make me feel uncomfortable,” when a character is graphically pierced by a number of arrows, got a huge laugh from the audience. The track “Method Man” on the album starts with a fairly horrifying description of torture that sounds sincere until we hear the group members laughing in the background. It’s not designed for all tastes, but it’s humor nonetheless.

Also interesting is how the warriors follow a respectful code of conduct and are always wishing something along the lines of “peace and Buddha” to each other, even as they’re imposing lethal violence. This sort of contradictory behavior pervades the movie, and Wu-Tang seems to emulate these same codes through their use of sampling, even though their lyrics tend to almost entirely gravitate toward the immoral. These are men who try to follow a certain path, but are constantly tested by the situations their surroundings provide, as well as their own inherently animalistic tendencies. In both instances, they’re just dealing with life the way they know how. They’re incredibly flawed, but they never proclaimed to be anything else. Art is expression, and if it’s genuine, it has the potential to get ugly sometimes.

In the climactic fight scene of “Shaolin and Wu-Tang,” the differing styles are forced to merge together to defeat the opposition. “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)” was the initial distillation of a variety of creative styles, strung together by RZA’s brilliant production (which is itself cinematic) and designed to forge something new. In doing so, they kicked mediocrity to the curb (or, given the nature of Wu-Tang, “curb-stomped mediocrity” would probably be more accurate). Part of the driving force behind that success stemmed from influences, and while there were many, “Shaolin and Wu-Tang,” along with many other kung-fu films, played a central role.

Movies, especially through dialogue sampling, play a big part in the entire Wu-Tang discography, including the solo albums from individual members. A few notable ones are:

  • Raekwon’s “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…” (which essentially functions as a gangster movie with it’s sprawling, cinematic crime-narrative)

  • GZA’s “Liquid Swords” (the majority of the dialogue samples are from the 1980 film “Shogun Assassin,” and it is key to the concept of the album)

  • Method Man’s “Tical”

  • Ghostface Killah’s “Ironman” and “Supreme Clientele”

  • Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version”

As part of the Old School Kung Fu Fest, Anthology is also showing a “Secret Screening” at 8:00pm on Saturday, April 20th. One staff member actually said that it’s screened so rarely, no one in the audience will have seen it before. That sort of proclamation takes some serious confidence, so it may be worth checking out.