Human Lanterns Review

The latest addition to Momentum Asia’s budget range of Shaw Brothers movies, Human Lanterns from 1982 saw the producing duo moving more pointedly towards an exploitation audience. Of course, martial arts flicks were grindhouse mainstays, but here we get a flirtation with the trashy horror pic resulting in a fair helping of gore and even (in a rare step for the brothers) brief nudity. Not that such aims are immediately apparent as the film’s initial set-up could go either way. We quickly learn of the petty rivalries between Master Lung and Master Tan, two celebrities of their day who are almost above the law and each setting out to become “lantern champion” at the city’s next festival. Surprisingly the martial artistry is curtailed during these expositionary moments (only a brisk flashback during the opening half an hour), but events are enlivened by the arrival of a skin flaying psychopath dressed up like the Planet of the Apes’ equivalent of the grim reaper. Soon enough Master Tan’s concubine and sister have been kidnapped and Master Lung emerges as the prime suspect.

Perhaps more suspense thriller than horror, Human Lanterns is also undoubted hoary old melodrama. Some judicious pruning here and there and the narrative could easily fit a Boris Karloff potboiler or one of Christopher Lee’s sixties efforts (Circus of Fear, Theatre of Death and other such larks), yet in its current form this is most assuredly Shaw Brothers material. Human Lanterns is blessed with a punchy orchestral score, resplendent production design inside the studio and gorgeous location photography outside. Indeed, where it not for the electric blue in the colour schemes - a shade that seemingly came and went with the eighties - then the film’s production values would be indistinguishable from any other in the Shaws’ prolific output.

Not that this is a complaint - if only all of Hong Kong’s generic enterprises could be so blessed - after it suits Sun Chang’s directorial style well. His great strength lies in recognising Human Lanterns for what it is and therefore pitching the melodrama just right. Given that the plotting peppers its narrative with only the basest of surprises (the mid-point unmasking of the villain is hardly a shocker) it needs all the dressing up it can get - and Chung’s excesses prove more than effective in maintaining interest. The reverb heavy dialogue and respondent camera movements - crash zooms on just the right line of dialogue - are almost Bollywood in their execution and wickedly amusing, as is, paradoxically, the film’s essential humourlessness. Who can resist such lies as the pre-restaurant brawl “Sergeant Hoon, practising martial arts is not illegal”? Indeed, when the narrative does begin to wane, the fight sequences are cranked up (and choreographed in typical Shaw Brothers style so as to fully utilising ’scope framing) meaning that even if Human Lanterns offers nothing we haven’t seen before, it at least does so in a never less than engaging manner.

The Disc

Were it not for the fact that Human Lanterns is offered non-anamorphically, its presentation would be nigh on perfect. The level of detail in the print is truly impressive considering the film’s age and country of origin as are the perfect colour tones. Indeed, there are no signs of age whatsoever save for one brief instance of tramlining which lasts for barely a second. Similarly impressive, if perhaps a little less so, is the film’s soundtrack. Presenting the original Mandarin mono - with optional English subs - it sounds as good as you should expect from a post-synched concoction with the score being particularly sharp. As for extras, Momentum Asia follow the same pattern as their other Shaw Brothers releases to date and offer a mere handful of promos for these other titles.

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