HUMAN LANTERNS (1982)
Rivals Lung and Tan have been at each other for years, trying to best the other in everything from martial arts skills to festival competitions. When Tan invites Lung to his home, only to show off what will be his entry in this year’s lantern competition, Lung is jealous and humbled. But when Tan brings out a local prostitute in front of Lung and his wife, who Lung has been secretly seeing, Lung is humiliated. Vowing revenge, Lung turns to a master lantern craftsman (Shaw Brothers legend Lo Lieh) to construct a lantern guaranteed to win the competition.
Meanwhile, a psychotic madman with a mastery over monkey-style kung fu has vowed to take away everything that is precious to Tan and Lung. Dressed in black and donning a skull mask, the madman begins to kidnap women including Tan’s sister and Lung’s wife. Tan and Lung at once begin to suspect each other, and bring in the local police to place blame on one another. The police begin to search for clues, hoping to find the women still alive, unaware the kidnapped victims have already been skinned alive to be used as material for the madman’s dazzling lanterns.
Mixing the expected incredible martial arts choreography that the Shaw Brothers are known for with the rising desire for macabre subject matter of the early eighties, director Sun Chung (THE SEXY KILLER, THE AVENGING EAGLE) along with co-writer Ni Kuang, who has written pretty much every worthwhile Shaw Brothers title since the mid 1960s, created what would become one of the studio’s most sought after cult films.
Starting with the shocking and seductive title, which also goes by the slight more descriptive Human Skin Lanterns, the film proceeds to deliver the goods with several jaw-dropping sequences in which the still living women are turned into raw material for lanterns while strung up in a fog-drenched torture chamber and workshop. Using clever camera angles, along with latex, flesh-toned fabrics and copious amounts of bright red food coloring, these sequences may even bring a grimace to those with a penchant for gore and horror. While the grotesque skinning is shown as much as it can, just enough is left not seen in order for a vivid imagination to fill in the blanks.
But for its alluring title and gory sequences, the film is much more in line with putting another notch in the Shaw Brothers’ martial arts belt than experimenting and expanding into horror. Lung and Tan, played by Liu Yung and Chen Kuan-Tai respectively, provide several fun one-on-one martial arts duels using classic Shaw Brothers choreography techniques. But it is the fight sequences that focus on the mystery madman that are surely the highlight of the film. His style, which emulates the movements of a wild monkey, is made all the more unreal by altering the film speed of the camera. By either slowing down or speeding up the movements, his attacks seem impossible to overcome, and merely toys with his kidnap victims and opponents until he is through having his fun.
Individually, the macabre horror and martial arts scenes are well done and left on their own provide great entertainment. But this is clearly a case where the parts are greater than their sum. Sun Chung often has difficulty switching between the vastly different styles, and the jarring editing at times feel like two entirely different films were used to create one. That being said, it is certainly nowhere close to ruining the picture, but perhaps a more thought out singular feel would have made the editing flow better and given fans and even greater movie.
Helping to give HUMAN LANTERNS its rise in cult status and infamy is due to the unavailability of an uncut print on any commercial format. Originally released in its entirety for its 1982 theatrical run in Hong Kong, subsequent VHS releases had much of the gore and nudity cut out. Even for its remastered release on DVD in 2003 by Celestial Pictures in Hong Kong, some of the most noticeable cuts remained and left fans more than a bit disappointed. But now, with the help of Image Entertainment through their Eastern Masters banner, the hunt is a thing of the past. Sporting extended footage of the these infamous scenes, this release is exactly what the fans have been waiting for.
Using Celestial Pictures remastered print, Image provides an anamorphic widescreen transfer with the original Mandarin soundtrack along with English and Spanish subtitles. The DVD features an interview with actress Shaw Yin-Yin, who recalls her days at Shaw Brothers and her time on the set of HUMAN LANTERNS. Also included is one of the skin peeling scenes with alternate footage cut in, as well as a selection of production stills. Finishing out the disc are a large assortment of classic martial arts and action movie trailers from Hong Kong.