Human Lanterns (1982)
By: Mr Intolerance on February 4, 2009  | 
Image Entertainment (USA). Region 1, NTSC. 2.35:1 (16:9 enhanced). Madnarin DD 2.0. English, Spanish Subtitles. 99 minutes
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Sun Chung
Starring: Liu Yung, Chen Kuan-Tai, Lo Lieh, Tanny Tien Ni
Screenplay: Ni Kuang, Sun Chung
Country: Hong Kong
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When the name "Shaw Brothers" appears in the production credits of a martial arts movie, you know you're in for for a blast. When the plot of the movie involves using peoples' flesh to make lantern coverings, you know its going to be a bit of a bumpy ride. Put the two together and it's likely that entertainment will be in your immediate future.

The mood gets set right from the get-go, with a montage of lightning, the blue-lit lair of our villain, who's wearing a bizarre, primitive skull mask and leaping around like a kung-fu lunatic (which I guess is appropriate enough), human bodies hanging like slaughterhouse cattle and a range of nasty-looking implements and machinery that aren't likely to be making anyone's day.

Our main players are introduced reasonably quickly (a Shaw Brothers film and the concept of slow pacing do not belong in the same sentence) – Lung and Tan are rivals in all walks of life, a constant and antagonistic bickering characterises their "friendship", if you could call it that. We're in a feudal age in China's history here; these two, if not exactly royalty, are men of rank and honour. It's getting ever closer to New Year's Day, and the annual lantern-making competition that accompanies the celebration. Tan's pretty happy with the lantern he's just bought from the capital city, but Lung, always looking to take his pal down a peg, disses it, throwing down the metaphorical gauntlet, stating emphatically that he'll make a better lantern, come competition day. Now, is it just me, or is that one of the lamer reasons to start an argument and compete with someone – unless they're a glazier, I guess... But these lanterns aren't being made from glass; traditionally they're paper, but someone else is having a shall we say "unconventional" approach to the whole lantern-making shebang. The clue is in the title, people!

Now, this is where the plot starts to pick up pace and become a little more twisty-turny. Bickering over whose got the best lanterns might seem a little petty, but it turns out that Tan's new bird Yen-Chu is a lady with a past, and that past has involved Lung, who is not best pleased that his ex (in a manner of speaking – she's a prostitute he still spends time with, although Tan is willing to marry her and take her out of the brothel – Lung's pride won't allow him to do so) is making the scene with his rival, despite the fact that he himself is already married. And then, after publically insulting his host, Lung sods off to Lantern Street to make sure that he gets the best lanterns possible for the big day. Old Man Tsui, who would at first appear to be the lantern-maker extraordinaire, has been fooling people for years – the real lantern-making genius is Chun-Fang, a man Lung has humiliated in the past, again over a woman – Jin, who Lung has since married. Chun-Fang, of course, still wants vengeance. However, tempted by Lung via those old favourites fame and fortune, he agrees to make Lung the perfect lantern. To celebrate this seeming reconciliation, Lung takes Chun-Fang to the local cat-house. After all, nothing says burying the hatchet better than hiring your new pal some hookers.

By this stage, we've seen a little bit of the kung-fu you'd expect in a post Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon world – elegant, ballet-like and utterly unlike any fight you've ever been in. Still, the scenes are shot beautifully and the choreography is top-shelf. Now we get the first abduction by the villain of a helpless and hapless young damsel at around this point, while we're talking about movement, and the movie reverts to the sinister tone of the credit sequence, aided by the general weirdness of the villain's approach and appearance. The outfit he wears while he kidnaps and skins his victims is bizarre enough (reminding me of the Yeti from The Mighty Boosh, which produced some unintentional snickering on my sofa ), but the capering, dancing and howls of delight are truly demented – it put me in mind of Ezra Cobb's behaviour in Deranged, if you think about the scene where he's wearing someone else's skin – and something about the eccentric movement also reminded me of Jogoro Komoda in Horror of Malformed Men. Can't quite put my finger on it exactly, but these sequences in the film are both unnerving and absurd at the same time, and drag the film back out of the soap opera quagmire it occasionally wanders into.

Of course, the comedic and inept police eventually notice that young women are disappearing, and the pace gradually starts to increase, and Lung has for reasons which will become apparent as you watch the film become a lot less popular a man about town – all of which is good, because apart from the abduction scenes, I was starting to spend more time staring at my watch, rather than the screen, which is a new experience for me with a Shaw Brothers film. Like a lot of Asian action films I've watched, the story here turns on a dime between an almost slapstick approach, sadistic violence, a love story, domestic drama, detective story, a beat 'em up romp, revenge tragedy and a morality tale. If only it had had zombies...

By the time we get to the climax of the film, which explodes full-tilt into an action-packed series of fight scenes, I was left with a pretty profound feeling of "too little, too late". Don't get me wrong, the finale showcases some awesome swordplay and amazingly choreographed martial arts action (unfortunately including some wire-fu I could have done without), but it all gets saved up for the end, and thus, the middle third of the film generally suffers for it, dragging quite badly, at times.
The picture is good – very good, actually – and presented in the film's original aspect 2.35:1 ratio, anamorphically enhanced. The colours are rich and vibrant, the production values of a high standard (as you'd expect from a Shaw Brothers film). There are a few moments when the image looks a bit soft, but they would appear to be deliberate (of the 'cheese-cloth over the lens' school of directing), in order to aid the atmosphere of the particular scene. Someone spent some time cleaning this picture up – there's nary a hint of speckle or grain.
Quite a sharp sound for a film presented in a mono track. The fight scene sound effects, as you'd expect from a 70s martial arts film, dominate the soundtrack – that's no bad thing, just letting you know.
Extra Features
There's a production stills gallery, he yawned, an interview with actress Shawn Yin Yin (quite interesting, although it's mainly about her career, rather than the film at hand – it's addressed, albeit briefly and in a rather non-specific way; not too much in the way of spoilers), an alternate take of one of the films' more infamous scenes (unsubtitled, which was annoying, as I don't speak Mandarin – regardless, don't watch it before you watch the film itself), and a whole mess of trailers, some from other Shaw Brothers films (Black Magic, The Magic Blade, The Super Inframan, The Water Margin, Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, Have Sword, Will Travel, Heaven and Hell, The Cave of Silken Web, Legendary Weapons of China, The Deadly Breaking Sword, The Wandering Swordsman, Vengeance is a Golden Blade, The Shadow Whip, The Bells of Death, Shaolin Intruders and Human Lanterns – again, no subtitles, which is a bit of an own goal in promoting a film, I would have thought), others cut from a reasonably similar cloth (Fearless Fighters, Bloody Brothers, Angel of Vengeance, Exorcist Master, The Executioner, Blood Stained Tradewinds, Chase From Beyond, China Heat, Shaolin Family Soccer, Lying Hero, Madam City Hunter, Retreat of the Godfather and Revenge of the Scarface – again, no subtitles). It's a great package of trailers, I admit, but after having watched them all, I couldn't tell you what any of the films were about, aside from the few of them I've seen – it really did strike me that not having subtitles for them really did defeat the purpose of including them – some of them looked highly entertaining, but I'm not buying anything based on having seen a dumb-show. It'd be like reviewing a film without giving you some idea of the plot.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
I went into this film expecting something quite different to what I got. Given the title, I was expecting something a lot more lurid, gratuitous and flat-out horrific, like The Untold Story, Human Pork Chop and the like. What I got was a slightly above average martial arts story with an interesting premise and a few moments of surprising, and rewarding, gruesomeness and absurdity. If period piece kung-fu films and acrobatic martial arts aren't your bag, I'd recommend avoiding Human Lanterns. If, on the other hand, you're intrigued, then give it a go, you might be pleasantly surprised.

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