Halloween Review/Amazon Prime Review – Human Lanterns: The Kung-Fu Horror Movie Someone Asked For

I got a request to review a Chinese horror movie and it was definitely unique.

SUMMARY (Partially inspired by Romeo and Juliet)

Two Households, both alike in dignity,

In pre-industrial China, where we start the show,

Where Master Tan humiliates Master Lung,

By showing Lung’s wife Chin, Yen-Chu, Lung’s former ho.

Okay, that’s all the poetry, because I’m running out of time. 

So, two local rich guys, Kung-Fu Masters Tan (Kuan Tai Chen) and Lung (Tony Liu), have a long-standing rivalry. Lung mocks one of Tan’s lanterns before the upcoming lantern festival, but in return Tan shows Lung’s wife Chin (Ni Tien) a prostitute, Yen-Chu (Linda Chu), with whom Lung had an affair. Yen-Chu is now with Tan. Lung proceeds to insult Tan and decides to show him up by commissioning the most magnificent lantern imaginable for the festival. He goes to the best local lantern maker, Chao Chun-Fang (Lieh Lo), whom Lung had formerly defeated in a battle for the hand of his wife. Despite still hating Lung, Chun-Fang agrees. 

HumanLanterns - 1Shade.png
Lung is throwing SHADE at Tan’s LAMP. Get it?…. I hate myself for that joke.

Soon, a man in an ape suit and skull begins abducting women related to the two Masters and skinning them to make them into lanterns. Each master believes the other is behind it, leading to growing enmity between the two while the women of the town are at risk. 


So, this is an interesting combination of horror and kung-fu (Wuxia) film. The style of the movie is reminiscent of the other martial arts movies of the 1970s (though this was 1982), and the two leads are all veterans of the genre. Tony Liu was in three separate Bruce Lee films, and Lieh Lo was a superstar before Bruce Lee’s star was on the rise. The writer of the film, Kuang Ni, as well as the director, Chung Sun, both did a lot of those movies, including 36th Chamber of Shaolin, the namesake of the Wu-Tang Clan’s first album. The reason I bring this up is that the horror elements in this movie are significantly smaller than the kung-fu elements, but I imagine that’s because the latter was more solidly in the team’s wheelhouse. That said, while the horror elements are relatively small, they’re horribly graphic and disturbing. 

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Seriously, well choreographed fight scenes.

Naturally, since a lot of the movie is done in the Wuxia style, the villain in this movie can’t just be a crazy person who abducts and skins women, though that would be horrifying enough on its own. No, instead the villain is a martial arts master whose physical prowess is on display most of the time that he’s on-screen. It’s not just that he’s clearly extremely dextrous and has the traditional Wuxia ability to jump 30 feet in the air and land on a lily pad, his movements are wild and erratic, reminiscent of capoeira or drunken boxing, which only feeds into the idea that he’s insane. When he’s abducting women, the camera adopts a predatory feel, following him as he stalks his prey, particularly the first abduction. More horrifyingly, he’s not just crazy, he’s loving what he’s doing. When he knocks out a victim at one point, he just keeps flipping her skirt up and down and laughing maniacally, something that is more notable because the other laughter in the film is very formally styled. Seriously, it’s like people loudly reading the word “HA” off of the script. 

HumanLanterns - 2Villain.png
Looks ridiculous, is insidious and vicious. Books are not their covers, people. 

Unlike most US horror films at the time, most of the victims in this story are not guilty of any particular societal indiscretion (as far as I know of Chinese culture). Yes, one of them is a prostitute, which I suppose merits death in almost all cultures for some reason, but she’s still portrayed as a good person. One of the victims even appears pretty much random and is shown to be a skilled martial artist in her own right. I guess pretty much all the victims are guilty of the crime of being women attached to powerful men, and that’s, again, something that usually can merit death in a film in the 80s in almost any country. However, they aren’t just murdered, they’re fairly graphically sexually humiliated, raped, and then skinned alive. While the blood and gore in the movie truly look fake, we get a look at all of the minute details of the things that the villain is preparing to do and then the actual flaying is shot from a distance, which lets our imagination take over. The effect is disturbing. 

HumanLanterns - 4Closeup.png
Oh, and close-up reaction shots which just make it all the more tragic.

The rivalry aspect of the film adds another layer because, even though the villain is the maker of the human lanterns, the two Masters are more focused on each other than the abductor. At one point, the villain literally just capitalizes on an opening because they’re trying to kill each other. Now, the two aren’t unreasonable for believing that the other is behind the abductions, given their mutual hatred, but it really is interesting to see just how much distrust exists between the two. When they do manage to work together, that makes it all the more interesting, because they can’t quite cooperate fully. It’s always a struggle to get past old grudges. 

HumanLanterns - 5Fight.png
For the record, more horror movies need this kind of finale.

I’d never heard of this film before, so this request was definitely one of the more random ones, but I am glad I saw it. Sure, it has a bunch of stuff in it that was so upsetting I genuinely thought about turning it off, but it also had a lot of things in it that were extremely impressive, particularly the martial arts scenes. Also, it has a fan made of knives, which is one of the first times that it makes sense as a weapon to me. If you’re a fan of horror, particularly visceral horror, and also love martial arts films, this is your Citizen Kane. If you aren’t, then I’d recommend giving it a miss and watching Modern Love. Either way, go on Amazon Prime.

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All TimeCollection of TV EpisodesCollection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

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