directed by Chun Sung
A few months ago I published an article about serial killer movies from Asia. For some reason, I forgot to mention this gem from Hong Kong and I am about to correct this unforgivable omission with a review.
Without a doubt, the big era for Kung Fu- movies of the “classic” Shaw Bros. studios variety were the 1970s, when countless of Wuxia- Wu Shu- masterpieces flooded the cinemas. Around the mid- 80s, the Martial Arts genre underwent a serious transformation and modernization, signified by the emergence of such stars as Jackie Chan and Jet Li. But in the early 80s, the old-school Kung Fu cinema was still alive and the creatives of Shaw Bros. tested all kinds of new approaches to keep it relevant. One was to infuse it with elements from other genres, mostly with Fantasy and/or Comedy, like in Buddha’s Palm (1982), Demon of the Lute (1983) or Holy Flame of the Martial World (1983) As it is often with the end of eras, this time yielded some of the most interesting results. In the case of Human Lanterns, Horror was the genre that was thrown into the mix. As the Shaw Bros studio had already released quite a few brilliant horror movies in the years before, this wasn’t exactly new ground and they could draw from their experience, which is evident in the end result.
Genre hybrids are difficult and usually tend to lean towards one genre tonally and subvert the other one a little, most notably observable when it comes to horror comedies. Human Lanterns is the exception, as it is truly as much of a Kung Fu movie as a horror thriller in terms of plot and structure, although the latter genre is more impressively realized. But more about that later.
The plot is a typical assemblage of several Kung Fu movie tropes: Two rich, powerful and of course Kung Fu- versed men, Tan (Chen Kuan Tai) and Lung (Tony Liu), have been cultivating a ridiculous rivalry for years that often extends to the pettiest matters and puts a constant strain on the people surrounding them. The approaching annual Lantern Competition is therefore just seen as another opportunity to put the respective rival top shame. So Lung hires his trusted lantern maker, who surprisingly reveals that it wasn’t him who had been crafting the beautiful lanterns for Lung over all the years, but a mysterious hermit who lives in an old water mill in the middle of the woods. When Lung visits the hermit, an even bigger surprise awaits him, as the hermit appears to be a former, long forgotten rival called Fang (Lo Lieh), who once lost against Lung in a sword fight, forever bearing a scar from this incident on his forehead. The plot is picking up pace when people that belong Lung’s and Tan’s entourages start to disappear and the severed heads of townsfolk are found hanging from lampposts.
Pretty soon it’s revealed to the audience that these are the machinations of the psychopathic Fang, who still holds a grudge against Lung and wants to provoke a deadly fight between him and Tan. To add a morbid sense of irony to his cabal, the lanterns he crafts for Lung are manufactured from the skin of his victims, among them the beloved courtesan of Lung.
The slasher/serial killer parts are where Human Lanterns sets itself apart and excels. While the Kung Fu storyline is solid and the fights are well realized, the fight scenes are nothing special compared to those of other, more famous Shaw Bros. entries (*fantastic wirework though). But when a delightfully manical Lo Lieh stalks his victims in a costume that looks like a Bigfoot with a Halloween mask or Chewbacca with his face chewed off to torture and skin them in his messy basement like a Martial Arts-proficient Jame Gumb, the film gets really creative and interesting, developing a unique, creepy and surreal atmosphere. Human Lanterns is not a gorefest, particularly if compared to US-horror movies, but there are 3-4 few scenes that go unexpectedly far concerning the depiction of the skinning humans- process.
There is a hint of Hammer Studios horror to the visuals with all the lively colours and the frequent use of imagery of skeletons, hand-drawn lightnings and dark, fog filled forests. The production design is highly effective. Especially Fang’s hideout, a deserted water mill overgrown with moss, including a torture dungeon with a gnarly bone grinder, is a spectacularly atmospheric set. Fang in costume might look ludicrous at first, but the way the “creature” is captured in the movie -peeking through crevices in the background or running downhill in a surreal slo-mo sequence- it is an odd and truly bone-chilling sight. All the main actors are fine, but the true standout performance comes again from the always reliable Lo Lieh, who bestows his character Fang with an uncomfortable mix of fanaticism and sadism.
Undoubtedly, the first association that comes to mind when combining the tags “horror” and “lanterns” is Halloween and this oddity is a solid candidate for an autumnal horror movie binge, if you can stomach or, in the best case, dig a few lengthy Kung Fu battles.
Fun fact: The movie was co-written by the legendary prolific Chinese SF-pulp writer Ni Kuang, who also wrote the story for the great Infra-Man (1975).