Written by Puño Estupendo
It's pretty rare, but every so often I see an older movie that I didn't know anything about, and then immediately ask, "Where the hell has this been my whole life?!" I am very pleased to announce that Human Lanterns is one of those movies.
I make no secret about the fact that I get down right giddy every time I see the Shawscope logo pop up before a film. It doesn't mean that the film is going to be good, but I'm just a huge fan of the genre, and the Shaw Brothers studio is almost on par with England's Hammer Studios as far as I'm concerned. It's no coincidence that the two companies worked together at one point, but that's for another time.
Human Lanterns has carried a rep about itself, kind of an infamy. I've always read mention of it here and there but no copy was ever to be found. All the tales about it being a kung-fu/horror movie (and just slightly crazy) have had me curious about it for a long time. It mixes genres very well, much better than others that have tried. It's definitely a kung-fu flick with period costumes, clangy swords, and swoosh sound effects, but here's the rub: they decided to throw a serial killer into it.
Two of a village's upper class are constantly trying to outdo each other. Lung and Tan seem to have everything you can have except for self control when the other is around. Both are obnoxious, but both are likable enough as well. During an argument the two are having during a big social to-do, there's mention of the annual lantern contest, and both vow to rub the other's face in it after they've won. To help insure his victory by having the most bad-assed lantern the village has ever seen, Lung starts a series of events that will eventually bring horror upon everyone involved (including himself). A madman starts playing the two against each other, all the while perfecting the art of making lanterns from the skin of the women closest to Tan and Lung.
I fucking loved it!
Don't let the age of this film fool you. Though it came out in 1982 and looks like a normal kung-fu movie on the outside, this is definitely a nasty piece of work. It's very exploitive in ways that I'm not used to seeing from Shaw Studios. Director Sun Chung doesn't shy away from the nastiness at all. The actions in this movie are mean, with scenes of women having their skin removed and even a rape, the latter of which was really jarring. Not because of its graphic nature (because it's not very graphic), but because it was in there in the first place. Usually such a thing is only insinuated in the world of kung-fu and so I was kind of shocked with what he showed on screen. But Sun Chung gives fans of exploitation cinema something very rare here, he gives them a wonderfully twisted tale, full of blood and fighting, but he delivers the goods on the look as well.
The colors in Human Lanterns are fantastic. The cinematography gives the film a real thick texture which reminded me (once again) of the Hammer Films. This makes for the one-two punch as far as I'm concerned, and this one is joining my collection as a "must show" to friends that enjoy cult cinema.