I Saw A Film!
A Shaw Brothers production with a lush set and great colors and a reasonably spooky and terrifying killer with a Buffalo Bill twist, nearly a decade before the Silence of the Lambs shtick reached its crescendo.
What we have here are a pair of rival lords in small town Ming or Qing era China fighting over who deserves the respect. Lung and Tan, though they are nearly identical in most manners, maintain a pointed aggression (sometimes quite childish) with one another, and, of course, their fighting is of epic style and kung-fu action.
It’s really the stage set of the town that is so impressive though, much of this film takes place in this almost magical little, fairy town, replete with cute little bridges, over lovely watery landscapes lit by endless lanterns. They had terrific craftspeople create this thing, and for all I know they shot many films on it (I know I would!).
The lanterns become a point of rivalry. There is a apparently a festival in which lanterns are competitively displayed. In fact, each winter we get a taste of this as we have a Chinese lights festival in a big outdoor amphitheater. The lines getting into it are often upwards of a mile long. At any rate, Lung must beat Tan and he locates a hidden lantern artist of renown who he once fought bitterly with and left permanently scarred. Revenge is on this lantern maker’s mind, and Lung just figures he can persuade a peace with his wealth. Why not, wealth seems to abolish most other issues. But Chun Fang is not taking this opportunity lightly, he decides to act out an ancient tale about a wicked lantern maker who uses the loveliest of human skin to win all the contests. We aren’t really given the folk tale, but we’re allowed to imagine how it would go. Chun Fang goes about his terrible business dressed as a terrifying ghost and flitting about bagging lovely women to turn into lanterns. He is remarkably creepy too. Often in these kung fu productions the evil ends up being more comical but they avoid most of the hilarity here and maintain a stern monster. I was surprised that there was even some very brief nudity and a rape scene! So that’s the trigger warning. This is one of the wickeder kung fu epics I’ve come across, and it’s apparently a rather famous one.
As usual the police are at their wit’s end, and it requires the special mastery only the wealthy lords have to subdue our villain. Ho hum. Why is it always the rich who get to be heroic? I guess the Chinese have imbued their fat cats with special powers just like we have, why wouldn’t they? The villain (Chun Fang) is the only really interesting character in the film, what with his crazy half monkey melded with ghost moves. The fellows are just two ends of a meaningless fight we have no real idea the background to and the ladies are a set of diverse porcelain beauties, each with her own particular aspect of heart to break (all of them ours). I always feel like these sorts of things resemble that opening sequence in the original Jaws film (I’m sure there are many just as precise)–as we watch a gorgeous young woman strip off her clothing and prance invitingly to the water, causing our hearts to throb with pleasure and hope only to have her gobbled up by a monster. It’s a great story trick to create and then immediately tear our emotional connections. This film has a number of such moments.
I have to say the lanterns of title look more like Eastern European Christmas ornaments (or gaudy saint effigies) than examples of otherworldly award winning lanterns, but who am I to judge? I don’t know lanterns.
All in all this is a surprising and tightly crafted little horror/kung-fu movie for free on Prime!