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Human Lanterns (1982)
Director: Sun Chung

review by Paul Higson

It is a title that has fascinated me for a long time, though I first recall it referred to as 'Human Skin Lanterns'. This DVD release through Momentum Asia holds over the shorter form title Human Lanterns (original title: Ren pi deng long). Had I seen this, and others like it, first I might not have been quite so bowled over by A Chinese Ghost Story when it hit the UK in 1987. That is not to say that Human Lanterns trumps it, but it does open us up to some of the evolutionary process in Chinese fantasy horror cinema in that era and jabs a finger at the more unsatisfactory elements in the later movie. Naked ignorance played the greatest role in our joy in the Hong Kong horrors of the 1980s, though that wonder was quickly dismissible in witnessing overrated nonsense like Saviour Of The Soul and Encounters Of The Spooky Kind. Made in 1982, Human Lanterns positions itself in a transitory moment in Chinese exploitation film. Horror was at large in earlier films like Dreadnought and the Hammer and Shaw brothers co-production The Legend Of The 7 Golden Vampires, and not without interest. There is a cruel 1970s' streak on show in Human Lanterns, negative jots evident in the earlier films, the immeasurability of a characters worth in The Legend Of The 7 Golden Vampires, for example. Who could predict which of the heroes in that film would survive, and who was not surprised at the fate of one set of lovers for the benefit of a climax.

Human Lanterns plumbs gothic madman territory, the artisan who exploits the bodies of those he murders to produce his illegal cheat works of art, the template. Mad artistes have never been too far away in film, whether covering their victims in wax to replace exhibits, in clay to call it sculpture, or making cut and shove jobs out of them for carnival exhibition. He's back again in the 2005 model of House Of Wax, but he has been busy globally over the years in outings wonderful and dire, from The Secrets Of The French Police and The Crucible Of Terror.

This is also a martial arts movie, old school and wirework, as improbable and unbelievable as ever. Two local bigwigs, Master Tan and Master Lung are in perpetual conflict, out to deride one another, take stabs at each other's position, standing and wealth. No libel laws practiced they take matters unto themselves, to the great aggravation of the local police, commanded by Sgt Poon (no, its not a Category 3 film, to boot). There is an argument over a lantern parade with one man set to outdo the other with the craftsmanship of the work presented under their patronage. Lung chases up the best artisan through Old Tsui, but it turns out to be Chun Fang, a combatant of yore, who is brewing up a revenge scheme against those who dishonoured and beat him. In the cultivation of this hatred he has become inhuman; insensitive, cruel, his behaviour irreprehensible. The female characters fall prey to him. First is a prostitute, Yen Chu, favoured by both townsmen, then Master Tan's feisty and pretty young sister, keen with a bow and arrow, and with more fight in her, though this comes to nought. Lung's wife was Chun Fang's original fiancée and she is next up unless someone in the village can find a brain in their head, and put two and two together.

Chun Fang's lair is the cellar of his workshop, making him all the more difficult to track down by the town full of idiots. For ten minutes there is an allusion to mystery, but someone clearly pointed out that not everyone was as dim as the population of this film and that the prancing skull-faced man with the mane of hair and the fur boots is Chun Fang. Like many of these vengeful creative types, he is disfigured from the swordfight he had with Mater Lung, but we can only take his word for that, as all I could see was a confused wart forming a swirl on his forehead. What he does to the women folk is a notch up on the nasty post. He pours a hot liquid treatment over them and wrenches the skin from them to serve as a 'fabric' for his lanterns. The first of these savage acts is shown in long shot and it proves disturbing. Similarly later in the film when he drowns Old Tsui in a barrel of blood the shot is again long and once more effective, bringing one to wonder why this device has not been made more use of in horror films. Of course, it is another borrowing from the old Hollywood horrors though in the 1930s the long shot was a functionary informational visual catchall, rather than a stylish choice. The cellar is superbly dressed, and with its turning cogs and colours (on top of the mad artist) evokes, above any other film, The Mill Of The Stone Women (aka: Drops Of Blood). The screen ratio is generous and the print is pristine like yesterday. Nothing is lost visually, but only the slight claustrophobia of some of the fake exteriors of gurgling brooks, bridges and courtyards really benefit from the top picture quality.

The fight sequences rarely get going. There is a build up and a lot of promise, but what comes of it often proves to be next to nothing, and when the lengthy fights do occur they are the usual silly stuff. Although not particularly graphic the film does succeed in being unpleasant. Be warned, there are no happy endings, so the makers were not being ironic, this was a 'serious' affair. The dialogue is the worst aspect though, as the cast of characters' premier tongue is the ancient Chinese language of idiot. The disc offers trailers for, what sometimes appears, more interesting fare, The Heroic Ones, Heroes Two, The Spiritual Boxer, Death Duel, and The Magnificent Trio. Then again, it also includes the trailer for Human Lanterns and that looks interesting too. Guess I should skip them all then.
Human Lanterns

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