36 Deadly Styles (Hong Kong/Taiwan, 1982)
Written and directed by Joseph Kuo, the independent martial arts film 36 Deadly Styles mixes action with drama and comedy.
The story centers on Wah-jee (Cheung Lik), a young man who along with his uncle, has been ambushed by Mien Tsu-mun (Chan Lau) and his henchmen. The two men escape long enough to get to a temple where Huang (Yeung Chak-lam), a senior monk and former fighter, helps kill most of Tsu-mun’s henchmen and protect Wah-jee. Although the uncle doesn’t survive, he gives Huang a jade pendant that belonged to Wah-jee’s father, who Huang apparently knew. Huang protects Wah-jee at the temple, giving the young fighter menial daily chores, such as tending to the alter and buying soy beans and soy milk.
Mien Tsu-mun eventually returns to the area around the temple along with two more henchmen (including Bolo Yeung) to find and kill Wah-jee. The shop owner’s daughter, Tsui-jee (Jeanie Chang) and Wah-jee overhear the men talking and discovers that they want to kill Huang. Wah-jee goes to warn the monk, who decides to leave the temple, but the baddies arrive and a fight begins. Soon Tsui-jee, and another man arrive and get involved in the fight. Tsui-jee and Wah-jee escape the temple and with the help of Tsui-jee’s father (Fan Mei-sheng), they go into hiding, where Wah-jee is taught new fighting styles along with improving what he already knows, preparing for the inevitable final showdown.
Many kung fu movies follow a general formula, with the usual tropes of revenge, corruption, and good versus evil. The stories tend to be minimal with fighting dominating screen time. 36 Deadly Styles is no exception. It’s a decent film, entertaining for the fantastic fight choreography and some interesting characters. The story is flimsy at best, and oftentimes confusing. There is no real reason given for why Tsu-mun and his henchmen want to kill Wah-jee and his uncle, or Huang, for that matter. Wah-jee comes across as an ungrateful brat for most of the film, but redeems himself in the end. I liked Tsui-jee and wish she had been given more screen time, as her fights were among the best in the movie and she had some depth to her character. The music cues the viewer to the comedy bits and most come at the expense of the henchmen, especially Tsu-mun in drag, and brothers two and three in some god-awful and unexplainable wigs. Huang was an interesting character, having been a kung fu master before becoming a monk, but there isn’t much background there.
There is also another story going on about a fighter seeking out a kung fu master in order to obtain the book “36 Deadly Styles”, which sounds like an instruction manual that wreaked havoc among the kung fu community. This side story really seems to have nothing to do with the main story, though, which just makes things more confusing as there is nothing connecting the two stories. The final fifteen minutes or so make up the best part of the film, complete with the usual training montage.
36 Deadly Styles is entertaining for the fighting, but there are many other kung fu films that offer a far better viewing experience.
36 Deadly Styles was part of the Old School Kung Fu Film Festival which ran online from December 6-13, 2021. Five in-person screenings played at the Museum of the Moving Image from December 10-12, 2021.