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From director Sun Chung, the same man who gave us Big Bad Sis, The Sexy Killer and City War comes this grim martial arts/horror film, Human Lanterns, also known as Human Skin Lanterns.
The film follows the rivalry between two men, Tan Fu (Chen Kuan-tai) and Lung (Lau Wing), who are competitive on pretty much any level they can be. They bicker over money, prestige, and fighting skills and lust after the same women. When it comes time for the local lantern festival, an important local event that carries with it some sizeable ego boosting prestige and notoriety, Lung decides that he's going to beat Tan Fu for good by enlisting the aid of his former rival now turned lantern maker, Chun Fang (Lo Lieh), widely regarded as the best lantern maker around.
This may seem like a great idea initially, but when the local stock of pretty girls starts to dwindle, it soon becomes obvious where Chun Fang is getting the delicate tissue that he makes his lanterns with - right off of the bodies of the nubile young ladies who live in the area! You see, Chun Fang is still pretty pissed off that Lung whupped him all those years ago and he carries a pretty serious grudge. He's also more or less completely insane and prone to zipping around town wearing a cloak and a skull mask. Of course, while Chun Fang is abducting women, Tan Fu and Lung are suspecting one another as the actual culprit, which leads to plenty of fisticuffs and macho chest pounding on their parts.
The kung fu on display in this film is decent enough, but Human Lanterns doesn't really do anything we haven't seen countless times over in that regard. The fights are fairly well-choreographed and are highlighted by a nifty ‘guy with sword fights guy with fans' sequence that is interesting to watch. The horror elements are pretty keen, however, and while more frequent macabre set pieces could have helped things along, there's enough skin peeling, fake severed heads and bloodshed in the movie to rightfully assert its place in horror film territory.
Chen Kuan-tai and Lau Wing are decent enough as the 'protagonists,' but, not surprisingly at all, it's Lo Lieh who steals the show this time around. He's pretty sinister in this part and he makes the most out of his character's more devious traits. He's also quite a bit more likeable than the two supposed heroes of the film, both of whom are absolute pompous douche bags. Anytime Lo Lieh is on screen, whether he's leaping around like a giant monkey with his face hidden behind the grim visage of a white skull mask or just sort of hanging out making lanterns out of pretty ladies' skin, the movie is gold. The rest of the cast, made up of a few pretty lady types like Linda Chu and Susan Shaw, are serviceable enough, particularly when you consider that they're basically little more than background characters or foxy victims. The three leads do all of the heavy lifting here and they do a pretty fine job of it.
88 Films brings Human Lanterns to Blu-ray framed in 2.35.1 widescreen in AVC encoded 1080p high definition taking up 25.7GBs of space on a 50GB disc using what is probably an older, existing master. Colors look quite good here and black levels are fine but detail is on the soft side and the image is seemingly free or natural looking grain, indicating that some digital noise reduction has probably been used here. There's virtually no print damage, however, and the transfer is free of obvious edge enhancement but there are some visible compression artifacts at times as well as some noticeable trailing. Around the twenty-five minute mark, during the skin peeling scene, there's a quick dip in quality
A 24-bit LPCM 2.0 Mono option is provided in Mandarin with English Subtitles. There's a tiny bit of sibilance in a few spots but otherwise the audio is fine. The score sounds pretty decent and there are no issues with any hiss or distortion.
Extras start off with an audio commentary by Kenneth Brorsson and Phil Gillon of the Podcast On Fire Network. They talk about the genre crossover elements of the picture, the way that the title sequence sets things up, the arrogance of some of the characters in the movie, biographical details of the different actors that appear in the pictures, shooting in Cantonese versus Mandarin, the European style of lighting used in some of the scenes, details on Sun Chung's life and career, the film's home video release history and some of the censorship issues it dealt with, the quality of the film's soundtrack, how the film compares to other Shaw Brothers horror films, the action choreography featured in the movie and lots more. No dead air here, these guys have a lot to say and seem to be having a good time saying it.
From there, we get a few interviews starting with A Shaw Story, which is a fourteen Interview with Susan Shaw where she tells us that she feels she got her start in the film industry mainly due to her willingness to show some skin, how she was accused by Taiwanese officials of being a Chinese spy and getting blacklisted because of it, what Sun Chung was like to work with, her thoughts on the violence in the film and what she's been up to, career wise and in her personal life, since making this movie.
The Beauty And The Beasts is an interview with Linda Chu that runs for fifteen minutes and covers how she got her start in the Hong Kong film industry, how the Shaw Brothers studio was treating its actors during this period, receiving some basic martial arts training when she signed up, not being able to choose her own projects, refusing to do nudity, her thoughts on the content of Human Lanterns, her thoughts on Sun Chung as a director, what was involved in shooting her torture scene, getting along with Lo Lieh and why she eventually left the film industry.
Lau Wing: The Ambiguous Hero is a lengthy fifty-one minute interview that goes over how he got his start in the film industry in 1968 after being recruited by Golden Harvest, moving over to work with the Shaw Brothers and the amount of work he did for them, what goes into becoming a successful action movie star, making multiple films at once when, his thoughts on being typecast as a bad guy, how the film industry changed over the ten years he worked for Shaw Brothers, his thoughts on Human Lanterns and what it was like working on a horror wuxia pictures, getting along with his co-stars, Sun Chung's directing style, how Run Run Shaw saved him after he got arrested for playing with a knife, how the director always got to overrule the script writer, his thoughts on the script from Human Lanterns, memories from the shoot and quite a bit more.
Rounding out the extras on the disc is an original trailer for the film, menus and chapter selection options.
This release also comes packaged with a slipcover, some reversible cover sleeve art (featuring newly created art by "Kung-Fu Bob" O'Brien on one side and the original one-sheet art on the reverse) and, folded up inside the clear Blu-ray keepcase, a nice double-sided replica of the film's poster art on one side and the newly created art on the reverse. Also included in the case is nice full color booklet containing an essay on the film by Barry Forshaw titled Splicing Genres With Human Lanterns.
While not on the same level as some of the more insane Shaw Brothers horror films, Human Lanterns has got enough action, chaos and carnage to make it worth a look. 88 Film's Blu-ray release won't win transfer of the year but it does improve over the older DVD release and it throws in a really solid array of supplements to complement the really entertaining feature attraction. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.