The magnificent artifice of the Shaw Brothers studio films, at their most heightened, could be truly splendorous, exultant in the pastel glow of sublimely detailed, sprawling interiors of happiness and serenity, perhaps the most magnificent of all being The Love Eterne
. But with light there must be darkness, and in those perennial Shaw sets, that seem cookie-cutter and endless, as if a whole year's worth of movies were ingeniously shot on and around the very same set, whose color scheme and decor were changed from project to project—darkness could be found within. Look no further than Sun Chung's 1982 Human Lanterns
for the grimmer side of the Shaw's interiors, where palatial sprawl and intimate village alleyways are given such a treatment of wide-angle lenses and handheld camera that the mise-en-scène
becomes far too unstable and disturbing for a normal
film, and actors and extras are less characters than ghosts stalking a set abandoned at night for demonic concerns.
And demonic they are: a swordsman (Lo Lieh) on the losing end of a duel protracts his vengeance on a pompous man of wealth and fame (Tony Liu) by agreeing to make the man the winning lanterns in a contest with the nobleman's rival, another leading aristocrat (Chen Kuan Tai). As the title somewhat anti-climatically gives away, the revenge is in the lanterns the swordsman creates, finely crafted from the human flesh of the beloveds of the two rich men, pitting one man against the other and sowing terror and discord in the town frightened by missing maidens and severed heads.
A brash and inelegant combination of martial arts and the rising trend (in the West) of slasher horror, Human Lanterns is an excessively dark Shaw picture, one of a madman terrorizing an unlikable ass, leaving no character for the audience to latch onto, to save them from this grim world. To compensate—relatively—for this tone, the film treats the lantern maker's insane monkey-skull mask night attacks and female flayings with a combination of horror and tongue-in-cheek humor as the film relentlessly catalogs both bloody vengeance and the protracted bafflement of the (relatively) sane characters.
Ultimately, everyone involved, including the madman, seems overjoyed whenever the film's nightmare rises from the realms of gory, unpredictable horror to the superb, weighty, and realistic martial arts fights, which intersperse, and finally conclude the film. They are a desperate grasp for something normal, a respected, skillful way for men to express everyone's frustrations and hatreds with one another and themselves, and as the men's rivalries devolve into expertly choreographed, darkly shot swordplay and fisticuffs, left forgotten in the underground lair of the villain are a gorgeous series of lanterns, each sculpted to resemble the woman whose skin was flayed to make the object itself, and each a hint at the dark excesses of the shadow-world existence of every Shaw set.