Heaven and Hell is one of the oddest of all movies made by Shaw Brothers studios. Made in 1980, it’s a bewildering mix of genres. Director Cheh Chang was one of the most revered of all Hong Kong martial arts film directors but with this movie he really let himself go.
The movie opens in Heaven. The maid Xixiao is one of the servants of the Queen Mother, but when she makes a fairly minor mistake during a ceremony she is sentenced to 300 lashes. This establishes one of the film’s major themes - that injustice is equally common in Heaven. on Earth and in Hell. Her boyfriend intervenes, there is a fight, and the two lovers eventually make their escape from Heaven to the mortal world.
One of the guards of the Heavenly Portal, Xin Ling, is banished to Earth for failing to prevent the lovers’ escape. He is killed while trying to dave the life of the mortal version of Xixiao.
After this brief interlude on Earth Xin Ling finds himself in Hell. After witnessing the various refinements of eternal torture he has an encounter with the Buddha of Mercy, who tells him that he must find four other heroes with red blood (true denizens of Hell do not have red blood) and with them he will be able to fight his way out of Hell so that they can all be reincarnated.
The first half of the movie is one of the most interesting things ever to come our of Shaw Brothers Studio. It’s a gleeful mix of king fu action, fantasy, 80s music videos, 1950s Hollywood musicals and gangster movie. Cheh Chang takes everything that has ever caught his eye and throws it into the mix. There are epic fight scenes, and spectacular musical production numbers.
Unfortunately in the second half of the movie Cheh Chang loses control of the film and it becomes just an endless succession of fight scenes. They’re often very imaginative fight scenes - the fight on the sword points is truly inspired - but the bold genre-bending of the first half is sorely missed.
Visually this movie is as impressive as anything the Shaw Brothers studio ever did. The production design is spectacular. We only see glimpses of Heaven but we see a great deal of Hell, and it’s a fascinating mixture of western Christian concepts and Eastern concepts. Much of it seems very western, until the Buddha of Mercy makes an appearance.
It’s certainly reminiscent of western mythology, of Orpheus’s descent into the Underworld. So the western influence is not just Christian concepts of Hell but pagan concepts drawn from Greek mythology as well, but intriguingly combined with eastern ideas.
If you’re a fan of kung fu and swordplay movies don’t despair - there is plenty here to keep you happy.
And if you’re a fan of musicals you’ll adore the first half of this movie.
This movie might not be a complete success but even when it fails it does so gloriously and entertainingly. It’s all over the place but it does have a strange visionary quality to it. A real oddity in the Shaw Brothers catalogue but worth a look. In spite of some flaws, still definitely recommended.
Image Entertainment’s DVD release can be recommended very highly - it’s a great anamorphic transfer and the colours are simply dazzling.