Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Human Lanterns (1982)

Human Lanterns (Ren pi deng long) was an interesting 1982 attempt by legendary Hong Kong studio Shaw Brothers to widen their net to take in a broader exploitation audience. The movie does this by adding fairly gory horror to a standard king fu revenge saga. The end result is a bit like a cross between a king fu movie and a slasher film but it works more effectively than you might expect.

Master Tan and Master Lung are wealthy and influential citizens but also bitter rivals. Their rivalry causes them to go to extreme lengths to win the annual lantern contest, and even extends to the affections of the beautiful Yen-Chu, the most highly sought-after high-class prostitute in the town. Master Lung’s effort to win the lantern contest cause him to employ the services of another man who had once been a king fu master and is now the most skillful lantern maker in the district. Chun-Fang and Lung had been rivals in the past as well and had fought bitterly over a woman named Chin, a woman who is now Lung’s wife.

The enmity between these two men becomes more complicated when women start to mysteriously disappear. The woman are all connected with these men in some way and so suspicion falls on both of them. The fate of the women is tied up with a local legend about lanterns, and about the way the ultimate lantern can be created (the title more or less gives this plot point away). Master Tan’s sister (herself a formidable exponent of king fu), Master Lung’s wife and Yen-Chu are all numbered among the missing women.

There’s plenty of action and some reasonably gruesome horror sequences. There’s
not a huge amount of suspense since most of the plot twists are exceedingly obvious. The movie is sufficiently fast-paced to make this only a minor problem however. The mood is quite dark, and the darkness comes not so much from the actual horror scenes as from the consequences of rivalry taken to extremes of hate. This hatred is the fuel for all the horror in the movie.

The period setting provides some impressive spectacle and director Chung Sun adds some effective gothic touches as well
which combine to provide an interesting look to the film. The fight sequences aren’t as breath-taking as those in some other martial arts movies I’ve seen (not that I’ve seen a vast number of such movies) but they’re still well executed. The acting is perfectly adequate.

It’s an interesting hybrid of genres and it works surprisingly well.

The Region 4 DVD doesn’t have much in the way of extras but the widescreen presentation looks very impressive, with a crystal sharp image and exceptionally vibrant colours. A slightly off-beat movie that is definitely worth a look.


venoms5 said...

Nice review. I don't know about the R4 disc, but the HK disc is severely cut. The British disc and R1 Image disc are the most complete in terms of gore and violence, yet those are also missing some minor dialog footage found in the HK disc.

The Shaw's began doing these darker kinds of movies in the early 70's. The nasty KILLER SNAKES (1973) is an early example. The release of BLACK MAGIC started a new trend of local superstition styled movies dealing with magic spells and the brutal consequences that result.

Some others that saw official DVD release are THE OILY MANIAC (1976), BLACK MAGIC 2 (1976; R1 dvd only), HEX (1980), LOST SOULS (1980), CORPSE MANIA (1981), BEWITCHED (1981), HELL HAS NO BOUNDARY (1982) and BOXER'S OMEN (1983; R1 dvd only) to name a few.

Sun Chung also earlier mixed slight horror/fantasy overtones with Wuxia elements with his first film, THE DEVIL'S MIRROR (1972). His bizarre 1976 movie, FANGS OF THE COBRA about a lonely woman and her pet snake is a strange exploitation movie similar to WILLARD. The same year he also delivered a COFFY clone with the sleaze packed SEXY KILLER, a must see movie. The sequel, also helmed by Sun Chung was never released by IVL in Hong Kong. I posted some photos of it from an old Southern Screen magazine. Sun Chung was one of the best directors Shaw's ever had and his segment from CRIMINALS 4 entitled QUEEN OF TEMPLE STREET is arguably the best piece of filmmaking he ever did. It's right up there with the depressingly dramatic opulence of AVENGING EAGLE (1978).

Some of these are a little harder to come by now, but some others are easily attainable.

dfordoom said...

venoms5: They released a boxed set of Shaw Brothers Classics-Exploitations from the Far East here. It included An Amorous Woman Of Tang Dynasty; The Golden Lotus; Human Lanterns; Intimate Confessions Of A Chinese Courtesan and The Mighty Peking Man. I've watched three of these movies so far, and they've all been fun.

I'll have to look for some of those titles you mentioned.

venoms5 said...

I've seen that set at HKFlix. I've got a small handful of the Siren Visual R4 discs such as WEB OF DEATH, WATER MARGIN, SHAOLIN HANDLOCK and MIGHTY PEKING MAN. The Siren Discs are very nice. I've been searching for their disc of ALL MEN ARE BROTHERS. I passed it up several times since I had the IVL already, but now wish I'd picked it up when I had the chance.

dfordoom said...

Yes, Siren do some nice stuff. Mighty Peking Man is such a hoot - a great silly fun movie.