Director Lau Kar Leung is sort of a bridge from the hey-day of Shaw Brother kung-fu films to the new wave, hyper-stylized martial arts spearheaded by Tsui Hark. And I mean that literally, since he worked with Shaw master Chang Cheh and then directed his own films at the end of their era, and then worked with Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen, and others of their ilk. I also mean figuratively, as his directing and choreography is pretty much solely responsible for moving things from chopsocky to the more modern approach. Unfortunately, he is pretty much only known for The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, an undeniable masterpiece, and maybe for quitting Chan’s Drunken Master 2. But just about any one of his films would stand out amongst the crowd were they to be discovered in the West. Even though Return To The 36th Chamber was a cheap, cash grab it remains both innovative and gasp-inducing to this day.
Most likely the reason Return didn’t get the attention the first one received is because it’s not technically a sequel and it’s more or less the exact same plot. Gordon Liu returns, playing a lovable loser whose town is being harassed for money which they cannot afford so Liu pretends to be a Shaolin master in hopes of scaring away these bullies. After being humiliated when his plan fails, he heads to the real Shaolin temple to learn their ways but is only assigned construction duties once they accept him. He finds this worthless but when he returns home he finds he’s acquired skills he did not have before. Beat for beat, this is the same plot as the first. But while Leung still sells the story adequately, it’s in his fights that he really shines.
Much like the end battle in Leung’s Eight Diagram Pole Fighter, the final sequence in Return is an exercise not in plausibility but rather in not letting reality get in the way of your imagination. There is a moment when several characters use benches for weapons and you can almost imagine the day when Leung and his team got together to think of every single possible way these benches could be used to both attack and defend each other. Because they’re all in there. Or for instance, earlier in the film, when Liu is building scaffolding for the temple, he ties bamboo together with his feet and crosses beams together by flipping through them. It doesn’t matter what the human body can or cannot do, but rather what the camera can capture to trick the audience into believing that it can. I remember when Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon came out and a friend whom I saw it with criticized it by saying sarcastically, "They expect me to believe people can fly?" And if I had been a more clever 10th grader I would have responded, "Well, they don’t expect you to."