Director: Chung Sun
Screenplay: Kuang Ni and Chung Sun
Cast: Tony Liu (as Lung Shu-Ai); Kuan Tai Chen (as Tan Fu); Lieh Lo (as Chao Chun-Fang); Ni Tien (as Lung's Wife); Linda Chu (as Yen Chu); Hsiu-Chun Lin (as Tan Mei-mei)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #77
After watching a couple of Shaw Brothers horror films over the last five months, tackling one of the martial arts films that they made a reputation on which delved into the horror genre feels immensely appropriate, seeing that as a later release of theirs, before they would eventually step out of the cinema market, they had made so many martial arts films that taking the tropes and narratives and splicing them with new tangents would've made perfect sense. Most of Human Lanterns follows in the tradition of the period martial arts films with their spiralling plots, of rivalries and revenge. Two men, Lung Shu-Ai (Tony Liu) and Tan Fu (Kuan Tai Chen) start off with a rivalry about the oncoming festival, Lung Shu a pompous and spoilt egotist who pays a craftsman Chao Chun-Fang (Lieh Lo) to build him the most spectacular lantern possible. However as the film progresses, Lung Shu and Tan Fu's rivalry escalates to violent hostility with the local police stuck in the middle having to keep guard of both, the rivals believing the other to have kidnapped a loved one each and even an assassin sent to kill one of them. Within the company's distinct set-bound period locations, of immensely beautiful decor and all shot with exquisite palette, the same sense of aesthetic quality like older Shaw Brothers films is to be found. At this point the studio had made so many films that it would've taken an exceptional failure to find bad production design, and the same applies for the martial arts in the film; within the context of more fantastical and exaggerated abilities for the participants, by wire-work and other effects, it's as solid as always for these films.
What differentiates Human Lanterns from other films is that the third figure involved Chao Chun-Fang is a sociopath hell bent on revenge against Lung Shu for a previous transgression, very soon into the film revealed to be the Machiavellian figure taking advantage of the lead characters' escalating rivalry whilst he is attempting to create the titular lantern, a gruesome concept made more horrible in how he intends to create it from the flesh of kidnapped women, loved ones of his enemies, flayed and preserved to make the appropriate construction material. The film's less extreme than other Hong Kong films, even other Shaw Brothers productions especially their line of black magic movies, but it doesn't take long, in fact from the first frame, to develop the same Asian gothic grotesqueness of the studio's horror films, partly evoking Italian horror with its use of heavily coloured lighting and using locations like the lantern creating facility against the film's own idiosyncratic personality to give it an ominous atmosphere. That it's a martial arts film helps give this side of the narrative more heft in how Lieh Lo is an incredibly physical actor even in a film full of martial artists, able to use it alongside regular acting both as his character when he's at his most maniacal and insane, and the skull faced, half gorilla alter ego who crosses a slasher film killer with an exceptionally agile and dangerous fighter who cackles like a madman constantly and spouts nihilistic views of the world and of heroes.
The horror works more as Human Lanterns becomes the darkest of all the Shaw Brothers films I've seen from their catalogue. With an egotistic, unlikable protagonist and even the more nobler side protagonist succumbing to evil actions, it becomes a morality tale of being blind to one's rages which leads to punishment for both through a tragic ending and a large toll of deaths. More subdued in content than other, more notorious films from Hong Kong, Human Lanterns is still a story about women being killed and skinned to make a human lantern, as repulsive as it sounds, those close to the lead characters involved. From rape to the pouring of liquid mercury into an exposed head wound, it's a gristly film that teeters perfectly between a more meaningful tone, without falling into the lurid grossness of schlocky films, and a grotesqueness, never nasty for the sake of nastiness in spite of its more uncomfortable moments and ultimately having more impact because of how bleak the ending turns out to be. Ignorance and ego, Lung Shu the central protagonist on screen the most, leads to innocent people dying and karma destroying lives whilst the villain strives to create his horrifying artistic masterpiece. Without spoilt the ending, it leads to sadness and the necessary goal for one character to clean their soul of sin through pilgrimage as a travelling vagabond. Even if it's still an exploitation martial arts and horror genre hybrid, this twist on expectations which leads to a bleak gut punch at the end was an immense surprise.