Welcoming producer, rapper, director and Wu-Tang Clan founder the RZA to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Tuesday night, the Film Independent at LACMA series scored an excellent 35mm print of Liu Chia-Liang’s 1978 kung-fu classic “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin,” presented in its original Mandarin language. In fact, it might have even been too pristine for the occasion.
As he explained in a Q&A with Elvis Mitchell, the RZA’s formative experiences with the Gordon Liu-starrer came in its dubbed, heavily expurgated form. Yet the film not only provided the Wu-Tang with its debut album title and a plethora of memorable (English language) dialogue samples, it also influenced the group’s guiding philosophy.
“I saw it when I was nine years old on Channel 5, and then again when I was 13 or 14 on 42nd St.,” RZA said, noting that the film’s story of the struggle between oppressed Chinese villagers and repressive Manchu authorities resonated particularly strongly. “Beyond the kung-fu, it was the reality of the situation that hit me. Growing up as a black kid in America, I didn’t know that that kind of story had existed anywhere else.”
Inspired by the film, RZA would eventually conceive an elaborate mythology for his own environs, recasting his Staten Island neighborhood as Shaolin, modeling his persona on that of the film’s sage Abbot (Tung-Kua Ai), finding musical parallels between the five-note Chinese scale and the minor pentatonic, and recruiting a cadre of fellow travelers with kung-fu-inspired stage-names to form Wu-Tang.
(On a less philosophical note, RZA also noted that he imported the word “chamber” into the everyday slang of his neighborhood. “Everything became a ‘chamber.’ Instead of saying a girl had big tits, we would say she was in the big titty chamber,” he recalled as Mitchell pretended to storm off the stage.)
When asked to name his favorite fight scene from the film, RZA – who had endured a failed solo rap career and legal trouble before recording “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)” – curiously picked protagonist San Te’s battle with an antagonistic monk (Hoi Sang Lee), which he loses. “San Te had a plan to beat him, but he countered every move. A lot of times in our lives, we don’t really invest in loss, but San Te meditates on his defeat, and finds a solution.”
Asked by Mitchell if he had ever met Liu, RZA reminded him that the actor filmed a brief part in his own 2012 Shaw Brothers homage, “The Man With the Iron Fists.”
“Gordon didn’t want to do my film at first, because my budget was not really on the level of ‘Kill Bill,’ you know,” he related. “So I met with him, and said, ‘You know that scene in “36th Chamber” where you meet with the Abbot? That scene changed my life. And now you’re the Abbot, and you can bring that character to a new generation.’ Then I showed him his lines, which I just had on my Blackberry, they weren’t in the script. So he agreed… He’s a true Buddhist.”
(Pictured: RZA and Elvis Mitchell at Film Independent at LACMA’s screening of “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin”)