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Friday, March 12, 2010

Human Lanterns (1982) review


Lo Lieh (Chao Chun Fang), Liu Yung (Lung Shu Ai), Chen Kuan Tai (Tan Fu), Lo Mang (Kwai), Tanny Tien Ni (Lee Chin), Linda Chu (Yen Chu), Sun Chien (Sgt. Poon), Shaw Yin Yin

Directed by Sun Chung

Linda Chu is terrorized before having her head split open and her skin removed

Wishing to defeat his social rival in the annual lantern festival, the wealthy and pompous Lung Shu Ai enlists the aid of Chao Fang, who is skilled in lantern making. Chao and Lung's paths had crossed several years prior during a sword duel. Remembering his scorn and the loss of his woman to Lung, the hermetic and insane Chao Fang plots a horrible revenge that will bring about the deaths of Lung and everyone close to him.

One of Shaw Brothers most revered and skilled directors, Sun Chung, made a return to fantasy territory in his first such film of the 1980's. Chung had started his career at Shaw Brothers with a fantasy swordplay film laced with horror elements. That film was THE DEVIL'S MIRROR (1972). Although Chung was well known for his superlative swordplay features, he was skilled in other genres. His exploitation movies are a mixed bag, but never boring. Before undertaking HUMAN LANTERNS, Sun Chung had directed another dark horror picture, REVENGE OF THE CORPSE aka THE BLOODTHIRSTY DEAD in 1981. HUMAN LANTERNS is a merging of the ghastly with the classical style of action film he was closely associated with.

One of many beatifully striking Shaw Brothers sets

One of the great aspects of Shaw productions aside from their often excellent set design are the rich characterizations found in the movies. Many times Shaw film characters are tragic individuals of one sort or another. Even if by the 1980's their output was deemed old fashioned, Shaw films were seldom matched in these and other respects.

Tanny Tien Ni finds herself in the hell of the human skin lantern maker

For this film, as well as being typical of the style of movie the Shaw's were known to make, virtually none of the characters are noble in any way. Everyone is either incredibly self centered, greedy, or out for blood. It's difficult to ascertain whether or not Chao was evil prior to being insulted by his rival and losing his woman to him. Once he loses everything, he turns into a scarred and hopelessly disturbed monster. His character is easily the most complex in the film. Even so, with all the conniving and mean spirited people populating Chung and I Kuang's script, the final scene shows us that what we have seen is a morality tale disguised in horror and martial arts dressings.

Lo Lieh was an exceptional actor at Shaw Brothers and was incredibly prolific in cinema (over 200 movies) up until his death in 2002. He got his first stab at a lead role in FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH (KING BOXER; 1972), the first kung fu film to begin the craze in America. From there, Lo Lieh starred in films of all genres, but mostly action and exploitation movies. Another of his popular works is BLACK MAGIC from 1975. For HUMAN LANTERNS, Lo delivers one of the most searingly volatile performances in the horror genre, regardless of East or West.

Action film actor, Liu Yung is also good here playing one of the main protagonists. It is he who took Chao's woman and cut his face in a show of contempt. By films end, he has transformed into a man of character, but at a price. A third protagonist (or antagonist just the same) completes this misbegotten triangle of greed and hate. Chen Kuan Tai, a hugely popular kung fu movie star since 1972, plays the more recent rival to the aristocratic Lung. Liu Yung was one of the most popular actors of the time and and a good friend of Bruce Lee. He has appeared in scores of action films from period swordplay and kung fu to modern day thrillers.

Chen Kuan Tai was a massive star in Hong Kong in the early 1970's. He became a household name virtually overnight with his powerful starring role in Chang Cheh's ultra classic THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG (1972). From there, Chen was box office gold and he was eventually paired with the 'Iron Triangle', which consisted of actors David Chiang (LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES), Ti Lung (SHATTER) and director Chang Cheh. Chen was also paired with another Shaw Brothers megastar of the time, Alexander Fu Sheng in the classic film, HEROES TWO in 1973. Chen Kuan Tai continues to work to this day.

Lo Mang was the Toad in the FIVE VENOMS (1978). Formerly an accountant and bodyguard at Shaw's studio, Lo was a charismatic presence onscreen. After 1980, he was given several solo efforts such as LION VS. LION (1980) and FAST FINGERS (1983). CRAZY SHAOLIN DISCIPLES (1984) reunited him with his fellow venom colleague, Kuo Chui as well as Gordon (36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN) Liu. He also continues to work extensively in both film and television.

Liu Yung (left) and Chen Kuan Tai (right) battle to the death after believing each has brought harm to each of their respective families

By turning a long time rivalry into a bloody need for revenge, Chao manages to seriously weaken both Lung and Tan by forcing them to destroy each other. Sun Chung borrows this story arc from Kurosawa's YOJIMBO (1961) and turns it into a comic book colored, grand guinol horror opus. The method of skinning people and making lanterns out of them would seem to have been lifted from the real life exploits of both Ilse Koch, or Ed Gein, but it seems there are actual Chinese legends that involve this practice.


Chinese lanterns are a symbol of a long life and this nasty alternate method of creating them is a bastardization of the concept. As opposed to celebrating a prosperous existence, Chao's lanterns are the violation and ultimate destruction of life. This is demonstrated in a graphic, yet effective sequence wherein Chao terrorizes a bound Yen Chu (Linda Chu) before slicing her head open to pour mercury inside the wound. He then proceeds to remove her skin.

Chao Fang admires a mole on the skin of one of his victims

There is another scene later in the movie that is just as vicious, although less gory. In this second skin flaying scene, Chao rapes Lung's wife before carefully peeling away her epidermis. This is a very powerful sequence. Lee Chin's violation is punctuated by a shot of two cog wheels turning together. Tears roll down her face as she studders her husbands name. Chao giggles happily as she cries and he continues his domination over her after losing her to Lung years before.

Lung finds his dead and skinless wife in Chao's lair

Director, Chung and prolific screenwriter, I Kuang have concocted a unique wuxia-horror hybrid. The gore is well done and Chao frequently makes his way through the film disguised in something resembling a gorilla outfit with a hairy skull for a face. With blades fashioned into the hand portion of the suit, Chao's costume would seem to represent the seething hate and revulsion he feels for his enemies.

The fight scenes are also top notch. By 1977, Sun Chung had found his own personal style of shooting action scenes. HUMAN LANTERNS has his touch as well. Scenes are sprinkled with slow motion movements and close up shots of the combatants narrowly missing one another with a lethal blow from their weapons. The finale within Chao's lair is quite amazing replete with exuberant lighting effects and memorable set decor amidst the usual reliability of the Shaw's interiors.

Lung, Tan and the police force attempt to bring an end to Chao's evil

HUMAN LANTERNS has had a troublesome journey to DVD. Back in the 80's, a massively cut bootleg tape was circulating within fan circles. At the time, if you didn't catch the film in a Chinese theater, this version was all that was available. When Celestial Pictures announced their plans to restore the Shaw library to a state never before seen, there was cause for celebration. However, HUMAN LANTERNS (as well as some other titles) was released to DVD in Hong Kong lovingly restored, but shorn of the same footage missing from the tape version.

The British Momentum DVD was a revelation as it contained several minutes of additional footage not present in the HK disc. Image released the title mid 2008 utilizing the same print as the Momentum version. Although far more complete than the truncated HK version, that disc contains a small amount of footage not found in either the Momentum or Image's release.

Chao surrounded by his diabolical handiwork

HUMAN LANTERNS (1982) is Sun Chung's second foray into dark horror territory. It's also one of his most famous films from his illustrious resume. His ghoulish martial arts extravaganza is must see entertainment for both kung fu fans and horror film aficionados. Those seeking something a bit different will find much to appreciate here from the performances, to the admirable set design and the handful of action sequences. HUMAN LANTERNS is one of the best films of its kind and one of the most memorable Hong Kong horrors of the 1980's.

This review is representative of the R1 Image DVD


dfordoom said...

It's a great movie. Well worth seeing.

venoms5 said...

I've got some promo stuff of the film in some old Southern Screen magazines where it was called LANTERN SCARE. It's up there with Sun Chung's classics like AVENGING EAGLE (1978) and DEADLY BREAKING SWORD (1979).

Some other choice Chung movies, D, are THE SEXY KILLER (1976) and FANGS OF THE COBRA (1977). The latter a totally bonkers tale of a lonely woman and her pet cobra. Probably the best piece of film I've seen of Chung was his segment of CRIMINALS 4, the 'Queen of Temple Street'.

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