Today I watched Chung Sun’s Human Lanterns (1982)
While Wuxia had dominated the cinema of Hong Kong since the Sixties, the Eighties brought a broadening of the industries focus. In many ways the fantastical tales of the martial world were growing old and stale, so some film makers looked to freshen up the formula by borrowing from other genres and styles. This film for instance blends the high flying wirework and historical setting of Wuxia with the extreme gore and stylish look of an Italian Giallo movie. What starts as a dark and moody tale of two competing nobles quickly takes a horrific turn when one of them hires an old lantern maker to help him beat the other at a lantern festival. This old man turns out to be a fellow martial artist from the past who wants to ruin both of the nobles’ lives and he does so by kidnapping their loved ones to skin them alive and make lanterns out of said skin.
This level of gruesomeness is almost wholly alien to the Wuxia genre, which makes this a very unique watch. This film is positively radical with how much it subverts both genres to make them fit together, it ditches the normal Giallo trope of a who-dun-it style mystery for example while significantly cutting down on the amount of action one would expect out of a Wuxia flick. While it may not be as gory or extreme as the true Giallo films of Italy, it’s dabbling in that territory is shocking in the context of this film, it uses the expectations of genre to subvert audience expectations and for me that amplifies what disturbing content there is. And likewise the extended action beats after the horror also tripped me up in a really fun and entertaining way.
Human Lanterns makes these disparate parts work together because it also borrows the intense coloured lighting of Giallo directors like Dario Argento and Mario Bava and blends it with the beautiful art design that is fairly typical of Wuxia. In this basic image of the richly decorated Chinese manor bathed in deep purples, greens, and reds does Human Lanterns make it’s stylistic mastery known. Much like the work of Espinoza I discussed yesterday, this film is not simply a copy of a foreign idea, it shows the true power of creativity to recontextualize the pieces of our world into new and unique visions. It also has this really bizarre soundtrack that shifts between the sounds of a traditional 70’s Wuxia film but often breaks out into some crazy and experimental territory, which I thought was quite fun. 5/5