Sun Chung’s Human Lanterns is many things: it’s gory, it’s actiony, but most of all, it’s a bloody good time! Tony Liu and Chen Kuan-tai play rival martial artists Lung Shuai and T’an Fu respectively. Following a public embarrassment, Lung Shuai seeks the help of Ch’un-Fang, a lantern maker who Lung Shuai appoints to make him a special lantern. Having suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of Lung Shuai years ago, Ch’un-Fang intends to exact his revenge by pitting both martial artists against each other. Fists fly and body counts rise as Lung Shuai and T’an Fu try discovering who is responsible for disappearances of the people closest to them. Very rarely do you see a film manage to effectively mesh horror with action, but Human Lanterns plays both genres very well while also serving as a cautionary tale.
Amidst the action and horror, there are layers and dimensions to the film which keep it from being a forgettable genre mashup. Lung Shuai is an arrogant yet skilled martial artist who goes through a well-written character arc. It isn’t simply the strength of the writing that makes the character fascinating, but Tony Liu’s performance is what brings this character to life. Liu fully displays his prowess as a martial artist, but he also brings with him a charisma that helps to make Lung Shuai easily accessible despite his cockiness at the start of the film. It’s no easy feat to be able to pull off the stunts that Liu does, but to also balance that physicality with a good acting performance is a tall order that Tony Liu manages to deliver.
For viewers anticipating an all-out horror film, Human Lanterns might not be as scary as you’re hoping for. However, the bits of horror that we do see manage to leave an impression. The film’s opening credits are a montage showing off the lantern maker’s murderous dungeon. As lightning strikes the frame, the camera cuts to various images of skulls and a body hanging lifelessly from a rope. There are roughly two skinning sequences that are grotesque and stomach-churning. The practical effects of the human skin as well as the fake blood are very well-done and are guaranteed to make you lose your appetite.
Lo Lieh delivers a frightening yet diabolically fun performance as Ch’un-Fang. Much like Lung Shuai, Ch’un-Fang is also an expert martial artist which makes him a good physical foil for Lung Shuai and T’an Fu. On top of being a great fighter, Ch’un-Fang also gets a scary horror villain outfit! Cloaked in a skull mask and bear claws, Ch’un Fang’s costume is certainly one of the more unique costumes of any horror film. In terms of costume design, Ch’un-Fan deserves a place alongside icons like Jason Vorhees and Michael Myers. Lo Lieh injects so much personality into his character and the way he relishes playing this character is contagious to the viewer.
One cannot discuss a Shaw Brothers film without mentioning the kung fu sequences which are guaranteed to delight action junkies! The choreography moves so beautifully that it almost takes on the form of a dance. All the actors and stunt performers are perfectly in sync with each other which allows the action to flow elegantly. The characters also use a variety of weapons ranging from axes to hook swords which keeps the action from getting stale and one-note. All of this wonderful choreography would be meaningless without a good cinematographer and the cinematography moves with purpose and a clear sense of geography. Human Lanterns does not have back-to-back action, but when they do happen, each set piece is memorable and thoroughly exciting.
In conclusion, Human Lanterns is a thrilling genre mashup that also has great characters, beautiful visuals, and some fun action set pieces. Sun Chung takes both elements of horror and kung-fu and utilizes them to their highest potential. This is sure to please both horror and action movie fans alike while also welcoming newcomers to the Shaw Brothers filmography. Very few films have such a unique style and personality the way that Human Lanterns does which is why this must be seen by any and every cinephile!