EVIL Lights Up When Peeling Skin! “Human Lanterns” reviewed! (88 Films / Blu-ray)



Own this beautiful release from 88 Films of the “Human Lanterns”

Two respected and wealthy Kung-Fu masters have a long rivalry, trying to one-up each other at any cost even if that means stooping into their personal life to gain the most public admiration.  With the annual lantern festive approaches, to have the best and brightest lantern would sustain at least a year of gloating over the other master.  When a lantern maker with a retaliation mindset against one of the more boastful masters is hired to make his festival entry, the lantern maker exacts horrifying revenge by fueling their feud behind the scenes. Kidnapping beautiful women who are dear to each master and exploiting their soft delicacies for his crazed creations, the maniac lantern maker turns the village upside down, forcing the local constable into an impossible investigate into the village’s most popular residents when none of the evidence points to the other.

“Ren pi den long,” aka “Human Skin Lanterns,” aka “Human Lanterns” is a grisly Kung-Fu murder-mystery that’ll make your skin crawl right off from your body. The stylishly colored and ethereally varnished 1982 Hong Kong film is written-and-directed by Taiwanese director Chung Sun (“Lady Exterminator) that blended the likes of a giallo mystery into the well-choreographed martial arts mania with the profound Kung-Fu screenwriter, Kuang Ni (“The One-Armed Swordsman,” “The Flying Guillotine”), co-writing the script alongside Sun. While not as ostentatiously gory or as cinematically profane as the 80’s released Category III certified films that rocked Hong Kong audiences, and the censor board, with shocking, gruesome imaginary and content, “Human Lanterns” does sit teetering on the edge with mostly a tame Kung-Fu feature that quickly turns into the blistering carnage of a basket case, or in this a lantern maker, who uses hiding as a double entendre. “Human Lanterns” is a Shaw Brothers Studio production executively produced by the oldest of two brothers, Rumme Shaw, and, then new to the Shaw Brothers’ board of directors, producer Mona Fong.

“Human Lanterns” starred two the renowned names in martial arts films from the 1970s and well into the 1980s with “Fist of Fury” and “The Swordsman and the Enchantress’s” Tony Liu as the impeccably arrogant Lung Shu-Ai with a self-image to protect more than the women in his life and “Bloody Monkey Master” and “Return of the Bastard Swordsman” Kuan Tai Chen sporting a sweet mustache as Lung’s longtime rival, Tan Fu. Shu-Ai and Chen have really spot on, well-versed, fight sequences together braided into their play off each other’s character’s haughty personas. While behind the curtain of overweening and defiance between the two masters, Chao Chun-Fang unceremoniously sneaks into the fold by happenstance as Lung offers him money for the best lantern this side of the lantern festival. Lung and Chao Chun-Fang, played with a demented, idiosyncratic duality from Leih Lo (“The Five Fingers of Death,” “Black Magic”), another master in the art of fighting in his own style, have an inimical past…well, at least thought so by Chun-Fang. In a sword dual over a woman, Lung defeats Chun-Fang and purposefully scars him above the left eye, causing him the inability to look up, and while the lantern maker has stewed for many years, training all the while to be the best fighter, his tormentor Lung Shu-Ai has nearly all forgotten about the incident and found trivial enough to ask Chung-Fang to make him a lantern and offer him out for drinks for being old buddies of yore. However, this yard pulls the wool over the eyes of self-centered, the upper class, and the unruffled nonchalant as Chung-Fang takes advantage of the Kung-Fu masters naivety and uses the rival as a screen to cover up his kidnapping deeds of the women in their lives, played by Ni Tien (“Corpse Mania”), Linda Chu (“Return of the Dead”), and Hsis-Chun Lin. “Human Lanterns” rounds out the character list with a hired assassin in Meng Lo (“Ebola Syndrome”) and a competent but out of his league village constable in Chien Sun (“The Vampire Raiders”).

The look of “Human Lanterns” is often dreamy. No, I don’t mean dreamy as in gazing into the strong blue eyes of your tall and dark fantasy man. The dreamy I’m speaking of is produced by cinematographer An-Sung Tsao’s luminescence that radiates of background and the characters through the wide range of primary hues. Tsao’s colorful and vibrant eye doesn’t clash with the vintage era piece consisting of impressively detailed sets, a costume design plucked straight from the 19th, and hair, makeup, and props (which I’ve read some of the blades were authentic) to bring up the caboose of selling the completed package of delivering a spot-on period film. When Leih Loh dons the skull mask, an undecorated and unembellished human skull, with wild, untamed hair sprouted from every side of the eyeless mask, Loh transforms into a part-man, part-beast jumping, summersaulting, leaping, and seemingly flying through the air like a manically laughing ghost. The visual cuts petrifyingly more than described and if you add an extensive amount of Kung-Fu to the trait list, “Human Lanterns” has a unique and unforgettable villain brilliantly crafted from the deepest, darkest recesses of our twisted nightmares. “Human Lanterns” has a wicked and dark side that balances the more arrogantly campiness of Lung and Tan’s hectoring rivalry. When Lieh Loh is not skinning in his workshop or Lung and Tan are not bullying each other into submission, there’s plenty of action with the heart stopping, physics-defying martial arts that just works into the story as naturally as the horror and the comedy. With shades of giallo and fists of fury, “Human Lanterns” is Hong Kong’s very own distinctive and downright deranged brand of good storytelling.

88 Films lights the way with a new high-definition Blu-ray of the Shaw Brothers’ “Human Lanterns” from the original 35mm negative presented in Shawscope, an anamorphic lensed 2.35:1 aspect ratio that more than often displays the squeeze of the picture into the frame. One could hardly tell the upscale to 1080p because of the very reason I explained in the previous paragraph of the airy An-Sung Tsao façade that softly glows like bright light behind a fog. Nonetheless, the image quality is still stunning and vivid, a real gem of conservation and handling on this Blu-ray release. The Mandarin dubbed DTS-HD 1.0 master audio is synched well enough to the action for a passing grade. The foley effects, such as the swipes and hits, are often too repeated for comfort, but adds to “Human Lantern’s” campy charm. The newly translated English subtitles are synchronous with the picture and are accurate but, in rare instances, come and go too quickly to keep up with the original language. The release comes not rated with a run time of 99 minutes and is region locked at A and B. Why not go full region free is beyond me? Licensing? Anyway, special features include an audio commentary by Kenneth Brorsson and Phil Gillon of the Podcast On Fire Network, “A Shaw Story” interview with then rising Hong Kong star Susan Shaw who talks about the competitive and easy blacklisting Hong Kong and Tawain cinema market, “The Beauty and the Beasts” interview with in story brothel mistress played by Linda Chu often harping upon not wanting to do nudity despite directors begging her, “Lau Wing – The Ambiguous Hero” interview with Tony Liu that comes with its own precaution title card warning of bad audio (and it is really bad and kind of ear piercing) as the lead man really regales his time on set and in the industry between Golden Harvest Productions and Shaw Brothers Studios, and rounding out the main special features is the original trailer. The package special features is a lantern of a different color with a limited edition cardboard slipcase with new artwork from R.P. “Kung-Fu Bob” O’Brien, a 24-page booklet essay entitled “Splicing Genres with Human Lanterns” by Barry Forshaw accompanied by full colored stills, posters, and artwork by O’Brien, a double-sided fold out poster, and reversible Blu-ray cover art that can be flipped from the same, yet still awesome, O’Brien slipcover art to the original release art. The new 88 Films’ Blu-ray set conjures a renaissance satisfaction like none other for a highly recommended, genre-ambiguous, vindictive affray.

Own this beautiful release from 88 Films of the “Human Lanterns”

Steamed Pork Buns Stuff With EVIL! “The Untold Story” reviewed (Unearthed Films/Blu-ray)

Wong Chi-hang brutally beats and sets fire to a fellow gambler who refuses to lend him money.  After destroying his identification card and creates a new look and identity, Wong flees Hong Kong before he can be hunted down for first degree murder and be served capital punishment for his crime.  For the last 8 years, Wong has lived and worked on the island village of Macau, running a small, but well-known, steamed bun restaurant, Eight Immortals Restaurant.  He receives inquisitive letters everyday asking about the whereabouts of the former owner, Cheng Lam, by Lam’s older brother on the mainland.  The letters force Wong to attempt manipulating lawyers into signing over the restaurant to him without Lam’s presence.  When the police discover dismembered limbs washed up on the beach, an investigation ensues that connects the body parts to a Chan Lai Chun, the mother-in-law to Cheng Lam, leading a small task force of blockheaded detectives to Wong’s restaurant where he becomes the prime suspect in the disappearances, but he won’t break so easily after being apprehended, unwilling to cooperate and confess to the whereabouts of the bodies of the vanished owner, his entire family, and a pair of workers.  Yet, what were exactly in those steam buns that made them so delicious?

Full disclosure.  I’m not too terribly familiar with Hong Kong’s rating system of Category I, II, and III, but I’ve more-or-less dabbled in the Category III (Cat III) horror and exploitation cinematic market, owning only a handful of these gruesome-and-sexually gratifying guilty pleasure full of sex, violence, and taboo concepts of titles such as “Riki-Oh:  The Story of Ricky,”  “The Chinese Torture Chamber,” and “Three…Extremes” and only “The Story of Ricky” has ever been popped into my player for recreational viewing.  Also, in my collection, is a Tai Sing DVD copy of Herman Yau’s 1993 crime-and-cannibalism graphic thriller “The Untold Story” and, frankly, I never opened it either, but when Unearthed Films sent me their new Blu-ray release to review, I’ll never be able to see chop sticks the same way again!  The eye-opening experience also screamed that I should definitely rip open and see those other films to quench my thirst for Cat III’s offensive opulence.  Based off a true story of the Eight Immortals Restaurant murders in 1985 around the Macau area, the nearly unwavering from the truth storyline parallels the Kam-Fai Law (“Dr. Lamb”) and Wing-Kin Lau (“Taxi Hunter”) co-written story in which a madman slaughters an entire family over a gambling dispute and runs their family business, the Eight Immortals Restaurant, until the police capture him, but Yau sticks more sensationalism to the already brutal notoriety surrounding the actual case with ground human barbecue steamed buns to tease with abhorrent flavor under the Golden Sun Films Distribution distribution of the Uniden Investments and Kwan Hung Films production.

“The Untold Story’s” lead man in the shoes of the maniacal, rage-filled Wong Chi-Hang is “Ebola Syndrome’s” Anthony Wong who initially thought the script was greatly unattractive.  Little did he know that his performance would be so good, so osmosis with his wide-eyed lunatic stare through the luminating pixels of the television screen, that the role would honor him with a Hong Kong Film Award for best actor; Hong Kong’s equivalent to the best actor award for an Oscar in the States.   The “Hard Boiled” actor embodies a soul of frustration and anger to rise his character up to the demented level of nihilism and heartless exploitation that unforgettably scores being the face of “The Untold Story’s” cruelty.  Yet, there is a Jekyll and Hyde complex with Yau’s film that cuts the cynicism with a risible troupe of police officers supervised by Officer Lee (Danny Lee “The Killer”).  With a beautiful foreign woman, a blatantly announced hooker, always at his side and being the sharpest detective on the force, Lee’s a contradictory, authoritative commander meshing immoral principles and duty into one while leading a four-person squad of non-initiatives comprised of three rubbernecking men, craning their gulping jugulars toward Mr. Lee’s arm-candied gals, and one tomboy woman with an affinity for Mr. Lee who struggles with being taken seriously amongst her peers as an unenticing woman in cop’s clothing.  The officers’ western names are a slither of satire to poke fun at the nicknames of tough or macho cops go by in the States with Bo, King Kong, Robert, and Bull (respectively Emily Kwan, King-Kong Lam, Eric Kei, and Parkman Wong of “Dr. Lamb”).  The cast rounds out with Fui-On Shing and Julie Lee. 

“The Untold Story’s” embittered nihilistic violence, gratuitous rape and sodomy, and steamy, mouth-watering cannibalism leverages this Cat III film as tiptop horror exploitation from the far East.  If broken down more, director Herman Yau pins and sews together a liaising three act prong story of a horrid man’s attempt at deadly stability in society and a madcap group of officers, with a penchant for police brutality and coercing confessions, bumbling their way through clues that ultimately funnel into a blended third act of magnetizing the two sides together toward a satisfying, almost faithful, ending of “The Eight Immortals Restaurant:  The Untold Story’s” purloin and murder fiction and non-fiction exploit.  Yau spares no expense for gore, serving up a platter worth the splatter of some nifty chop’em up and grind their meat into the dough effects that’ll turn stomachs as well as heads and doesn’t exude as bargain basement quality; yet, just enough gore goes uncovered to tantalize without a full onslaught tarp covering the ground of disembodied limbs and floor-splattering entrails that boil down to an overshadowing character that detracts from the cast performances as such can accompany with the more extreme Asian horror catalogue.  There’s nothing gentle about the actions of Wong Chi-Hang, but the way he’s scribed to manifest spur of the moment carnage, stemmed by the most minute disputes, and the way Anthony Wong carries and maneuvers of a monstrous villain with ease takes an esthetical point to not stray away from his, or rather his victims’, story.  “The Untold Story” is, in fact, meta-exploitation fiction of non-fiction down to the very last tasty morsel. 

In what is perhaps the epitome of Hong Kong’s Category III film index, “The Untold Story” arrives onto high definition Blu-ray courtesy of the gore and shock genre label, Unearthed Films as part of the label’s Unearthed Classics line and distributed by MVDVisual. The well preserved, near flawless transfer is presented in a widescreen, 1.78:1 aspect ratio, and the picture is a vast improvement over the slightly washed previous DVD releases though favors a higher contrast resolution that ekes trading out the details for a brighter, softer film in an overall compliment of Cho Wai-Kee’s beaming cinematography. Whether in the police station or the restaurant, fluorescent lumens light up the scenes with a sterile-driven madness. The Cantonese, Mandarin, and some English 1.0 PCM audio track denotes, without surprise, the lossy quality doddering from age and antiquated equipment, but renders well enough without the imperfections of hisses, distortions, or any vocal impediments. The option English subtitles display without error with only the issue in their breakneck pacing when attempting to keep up with reading the subtitles and the rapidfire dialogue. You basically have to skim read. The special features include commentaries with star Anthony Wong and Herman Yau, the superbly dark and traditional film score isolated for audible pleasure, commentary with Art Ettinger from Ultra Violent magazine and Bruce Holecheck of Cinema Arcana, a Q&A with Herman Yau, a featurette of the history behind Category III films of Hong Kong Exploitation Cinema, a interview with Rick Baker entitled Cantonese Carnage, and Unearthed Film trailers. There’s also an two-page insert of Art Ettinger’s write up about Hong Kong cinema and “The Untold Story.” Resilient to the test of time, “The Untold Story” benchmarks a high point in High Kong exploitation cinema, recalls the tremendous feat of performance by Anthony Wong, and displays the sheer mastery of disciplined filmmaking from Herman Yau in this unforgettable gruesome black comedy.

Must Own Christmas Gift! “The Untold Story” on Blu-ray!