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Thursday, October 17, 2019

Human Lanterns (1982) review


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

Directed by Sun Chung

The Short Version: One of Sun Chung's most famous works internationally, the highly regarded Swordplay-Horror hybrid HUMAN LANTERNS deserves its accolades as a shining example of 80s era Hong Kong horror. Lo Lieh's skin-peeling portrayal of a psychopathic former swordsman seeking ghoulish revenge is a highlight of his lengthy career. A morality tale from Hell, there's literally no one to root for, but since this is the Wuxia universe, having zero heroes is a unique approach. Despite a few stumbles in expositional expansion, HUMAN LANTERNS never burns out over the course of its 90+ morbid minutes.

Wishing to defeat Tan Fu, his millionaire social rival for a third time in the annual lantern festival, the wealthy and pompous Lung Shu Ai enlists the help of Chao Chun Fang, a skilled, if eccentric lantern maker living in isolation outside of the village. Seven years earlier, Chao and Lung's paths, as well as their swords, had crossed over the love of a woman--leaving Chao defeated and his face disfigured. Remembering his scorn and humiliation at the hands of his former rival, the insane Chao Fang plots a horrible revenge that will bring about the death's of Lung and everyone close to him.

Sun Chung, one of the Shaw Studio's most skilled directors, returned to Swordplay-Horror terrain for the second time with HUMAN LANTERNS (1982). Having previously helmed REVENGE OF THE CORPSE (1981), Chung's merging of the ghastly with the classical Wuxia style was even more pronounced than before. Director Chung had dabbled in the macabre ten years earlier on the first Shaw Brothers production bearing his name; that picture being the quirky, formula Wuxia-Fantasy-Horror THE DEVIL'S MIRROR (1972).

CORPSE had garnered good box office while LANTERNS was in production. Ballyhooed by Shaw's publicity department as a breakthrough in its depiction of swordplay and horror, confidence levels were high that Sun Chung's new, dark Wuxia-Horror hybrid would yield similar success (it did). However, the road to completion would be an arduous one, resulting in the director losing enthusiasm along the way.

For the HUMAN LANTERNS script, Sun Chung, working from his own story, collaborated with famed writer I Kuang to forge a typical, if unique revenge tale where none of the characters possess any qualities of nobility; at least not till the finale when a heavy price is paid. The righteousness often found in the Wuxia universe is absent here, with greed and self-serving narcissism taking its place. Man's dark nature is a theme, as is how covetousness leads to calamity.

With no true protagonist to identify with, it's possible Lo Lieh's villain was once a hero; only turning evil due to the humiliation of losing both his dignity and his woman. Other than a flashback offering some visual backstory on Chao and Lung's rivalry, we only know him as a loathsome psychopath. Despite the script not exploring the character's transformation, Lo's Chao Fang remains the most fascinating character in the film. Previously a swordsman, his skills weren't good enough to best Lung in a duel. After losing and then being unnecessarily scarred, his revenge involves him dressing up in a monkey suit with razor-claws and wearing a skull mask--looking like a refurbished mask from THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES (1974). With his descent into madness and consumed by hatred, his fighting skills likewise change into a kind of dark fighting style that is now difficult for his enemies to beat.

All three of the main leads were top actors in their day; but it's Lo Lieh who steals the film away from everyone else due to his thespian skills and the purely sadistic nature of the character written for him. One of his most recognizable roles, his searingly volatile portrayal of a scarred man is an epic performance in horror regardless of Eastern or Western conventions.

Lo acted in over 200 movies during his 30+ years in the business. Always in high demand, he, like many other big stars of Movietown back then, had no shortage of work outside the Shaw empire. Adding television to an already crowded resume, the actor also had his own production company; short-lived as it was. Lo Lieh was likewise blessed to be among the handful of HK stars to shine on the international market due to the worldwide popularity of KING BOXER (1972); famously retitled FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH, a movie in which he was the star. 

Bearing the nickname "Boss Lo", Lieh had expensive tastes and playfully described himself as a hedonist; as well as an avid reader of books when he wasn't trying to catch a nap between film shoots. At the time, Lo remarked how comedies were the trend to take over the industry even though HUMAN LANTERNS was anything but funny. 

In addition to being a good friend to the late Bruce Lee, Liu Yung's popularity began around the same time as his two co-stars. A good actor, Liu was superb when essaying characters of arrogance or duplicity. As the aristocratic Lung, Liu plays him as a man who knows only winning and obtaining anything he wants. There are seeds of heroism nestled deep within his narcissistic roots, they only sprout once his egocentricity costs him dearly. Lung enjoys scarring his opponents in fights, and this, too, comes back to haunt him. Some of Liu Yung's best performances of this type can be found in THE BASTARD SWORDSMAN (1983), THE LADY ASSASSIN (1983), and SECRET SERVICE OF THE IMPERIAL COURT (1984).

Chen Kuan Tai's role as the rich Tan Fu (his character was originally named Li Yao Guang) is important if explored to a lesser degree than his two co-stars. The actor's plate was extremely full at this time--filming a television series; intermittently flying to Taiwan to shoot a cop thriller with close friend Lo Lieh; prepping a co-directing gig with him (1982s WHO IS THE KILLER?); and scheduling a few other films at Shaw's. The life of a Chinese film actor seemingly didn't allow much time to breathe.

During the filming of HUMAN LANTERNS, Lo Lieh was prepping a horror movie he would direct titled BLACK MAGIC WITH BUDDHA (1983)--the first and only title made through Lo's production company. Starring some of his LANTERNS co-stars, some of them invested in Lo's film company like Chen Kuan Tai, Liu Yung, and former Shaw director Lo Wei. Lo's feeling for comedy taking over HK cinema led to him directing one in 1985 for Lo Wei's company, possibly out of a favor for his investment. Lo Lieh directed several other pictures, the most famous of which being CLAN OF THE WHITE LOTUS (1980).

Two of the former Venoms from Chang's Clan have supporting roles, Lo Mang and Sun Chien; both of whom were real martial artists--Mantis style and Taekwondo respectively. Lo plays a hired assassin and Sun is the police chief in the small town. Lo features in two fight scenes (he injured his hand during one of them, requiring a hospital visit) and Sun Chien doesn't do much till the finale. Both men left Chang's aegis for reasons of money or dissatisfaction. Of the two, Lo Mang was the most consistent and was quite popular with audiences and is still active in the industry today.

Despite the bleak tone of HUMAN LANTERNS, the cast seemed to have been nothing but all smiles during filming; especially Lo Lieh, Liu Yung, and Tanny Tien Ni. The three were constantly joking around on set, which no doubt frustrated director Sun since he was known for being overly passionate on-set and having high numbers of takes to get the shots he wanted. 

Sun Chung wrote the script in December of 1980 and, being the perfectionist he is, sought just the right look for his title lamps made from the flesh of human beings. Chung's original plan was to have them made in Japan. But after receiving the designs and the price tag in excess of HK$300,000 (roughly $40,000US), the decision was made to utilize the artisans inside Movietown. Numerous designs were rejected before settling on the motif seen in the finished picture.

A fan of Hitchcock, Chung intended for a similar tone although the result is more Bava than Hitch. There's no revelations as to anyone's motives nor any mystery. There's an ambiance of evil present but nothing at all resembling anything Hitchcock.

Chung's inspiration came from a short story he'd read when he was younger that involved an ancient Chinese torture method of having a victim buried up to their neck and having mercury poured into cuts sliced into the scalp. Allegedly, the pain was so excruciating the weight of the mercury allowed the separation of the epidermis from the flesh leading to the victim literally jumping out of their skin.

Sun Chung brought this horrific memory to life for his movie, it being the sole gruesome sequence in the picture. In it, Chao has captured the courtesan played by popular erotica starlet and songstress Linda Chu. Tied to a post, Chao leaps atop her shoulders and cuts into her scalp with a nasty looking knife as she falls into unconsciousness. Pouring mercury into the bloody cuts, he begins carefully peeling the skin away till she awakens screaming. In a long shot, Chao rips her skin off, as she slowly dies amid his insane laughter while washing the bloody skin in a stream running underneath his hellish hovel.

The skin effect was latex glued to the actress's front--from her shoulders down to her mid-section. It's Linda Chu doing the stunt (although those are not her briefly seen breasts), and according to her, it was painful when it was torn away. Reportedly, the sequence was difficult to pull off (pun intended); the tired look on her face in behind the scenes images indicate it wasn't a pleasant experience. The way it was shot, the filmmakers could've used a stunt person for the trick since you can't tell it's her during the peel-away. Production photos in Shaw's publications reveal alternate shots of Linda Chu in this sequence that aren't used in the movie.

The skin peel sequence was the main casualty in Asian markets, suffering from extensive edits. Curiously, the severely truncated HK DVD contains several seconds of flaying footage not present in the longer version of the scene released on DVD in America and European countries. The recent German blu-ray is identical to the US and British DVDs in relation to this sequence, and has more information on all sides of the frame compared to the Image DVD. These types of movies with sex and violence always had multiple versions. America, Japan and Europe got the full-strength versions; while places like Singapore and Malaysia had the most censored; leaving Hong Kong with a medium strength version.

The skinning of Linda Chu was excessively promoted in Shaw's promotional publications. In America, the slasher movie boom was in full swing so it's possible the gore in those pictures had some influence in Sun Chung's recollection of the story that inspired his movie. And while Shaw's heavily hyped HUMAN LANTERNS around this scene, it ended up as the most heavily censored. 

HUMAN LANTERNS has gore, but it's not the viscera-fest it easily could have been. Chung takes an artistic stance to filming violence; even the notorious skinning sequence (there's two of them) is filmed with an unusual amount of panache not normally afforded, or even wanted, in an exploitation picture. In the hands of Kuei Chi Hung, for example, the aesthetic would be far sleazier given the material.

This also extends to the film's most powerful sequence, a rape scene where Chao violates Lung's wife, Jin (played by Tanny Tien Ni), the woman whose affection he fought against the prideful Lung for seven years prior. Chung shoots such a brutal scene as if he's painting a work of art. Chao places Jin's dress above her head, draping it over her face and laid over his favorite bladed implement stuck in the post above her head. As he penetrates her, the cloth of her dress slowly rips through the blade while two wheel cogs interconnect. Jin cries out her husband's name as Chao yells Lung's name in a twisted moment of triumph. Masterfully photographed and edited, nothing graphic is seen, only implied. 

As for Chao's charnel house...

Corpses and severed and flayed body parts are strewn and hung throughout Chao Fang's lair. It's akin to what Bob Burns did for THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE had he been influenced by lighting schemes of Italian Gothic cinema. The set decor is phenomenal, and up to the usual standard of Shaw Studio work. As for sets, Chung was known to utilize real locations to give a majestic, sometimes apocalyptic vision of his work. Other than a few minor exteriors, HUMAN LANTERNS is predominantly a studio picture. This too works in the film's favor, giving the impression of a dark fairy tale version of YOJIMBO (1961) unfolding before your eyes.

In addition to HUMAN LANTERNS, Sun Chung was working on MY REBELLIOUS SON (at that time under the title of Raging Tiger), a movie he'd begun filming back in 1979; but setbacks involving Fu Sheng and, by 1982, Ku Feng's broken foot, kept the picture's completion at bay. The shooting of LANTERNS was troublesome as well, but for different reasons. Prior to the start of filming, the director was excited about bringing this subject to the screen, predicting it would be wrapped up by August of 1981. However, as the shooting of the special effects went on too long, testing his patience, another problem arose that changed Sun's mood to the point he simply wanted to get the picture finished and move on.

Both Lo Lieh and Chen Kuan Tai were shuttling back and forth between HK and Taiwan filming a modern day cop thriller, 1981s DANGEROUS PERSON. With the filmmaking technology in Taiwan a lower standard compared to HK, the shooting took longer than anticipated. As per the chaotic nature of Chinese cinema of the time period, whenever the actors were unavailable, a film such as LANTERNS would temporarily shut down. Sun Chung was a meticulous filmmaker, with a cinematic eye that was different from his colleagues. His movies flow with an unusual rhythm that frustrated him when the cadence was disrupted. LANTERNS was scheduled for release in March of 1982, but the shooting wasn't wrapped up till April of 1982 with its release coming a few months later in July.

With two laborious productions taking their toll on him, Sun Chung's contract was going to be up in September of 1981. He was prepared to exit the studio and Hong Kong to take offers in Taiwan. Knowing the standards were much lower there, Sun's intention was to raise them by implementing the skills he learned in HK the previous eleven years. After finishing HUMAN LANTERNS and modifying the script for MY REBELLIOUS SON (1982) to suit the problems incurred during its troubled history, Sun Chung quickly finished that film, then left the studio for a few years before returning with a more calm demeanor. He would do one more feature for Shaw Brothers, the underrated, tense drama, THE MASTER STRIKES BACK (1985) starring Ti Lung.

Director Sun had been an innovator in Chinese cinema and to this day, has yet to receive the accolades he deserves. Among the first, if not the first, HK director to use the steadicam in one of his movies, he was obsessed with perfection and once stated, "The most important thing is to never specialize in imitation and constantly make new breakthroughs." If you've followed his career, you can definitely see his evolution from a director of formula pictures into a filmmaker finding his own identity and projecting it on the screen. 

HUMAN LANTERNS is one of the temperamental film director's achievements, containing some stunning photography and editing. Sun Chung was that rare Asian filmmaker who understood horror to the point he could film it in such a way that its domestic sensibilities could translate well to occidental audiences. Over the years, his LANTERNS became a shining light in the annals of Chinese horror cinema. 

You can read our 2010 HUMAN LANTERNS review HERE

You can read our three part article on Sun Chung's career HERE.

This review is representative of the WVG region B German blu-ray. Specs and extras: 1080pHD 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen; German and Mandarin audio options (no English subtitles); trailers; running time: 01:34:30


Matt Helps said...

Great flick, I enjoyed this one! Cheers.

venoms5 said...

It's a genre gem for sure.

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