Human Lanterns is probably widely talked about as a cult martial arts film with some dabbling on the macabre. The opening credits show a warehouse with plenty of human remains atop a bloody grinder. In fact, it has all the ingredients of a torture porn flick, except that, horrors of horrors, this DVD edition comes censored! So gone are the scenes where the victim's skin are peeled off their bodies to make the titular lanterns, though there was a fleeting boob shot from afar that the censors seemed to have missed.
Anyway, the story is nothing remarkable, with two town braggers, Master Lung (Tony Liu Yong) and Master Tan (Chen Kuan Tai) at loggerheads and always scheming to be one up against the other. Tan shows off his latest human-sized lantern which gets the admiration of the simple townsfolk, and Lung decides to go one up on his rival. His search for a master lantern maker leads him to one time love rival Chun Fang (Lo Lieh), who agrees to make him the most stunning lanterns ever seen, with a condition that he never visits his workplace. Best of all, they celebrate their strange union by visiting the whorehouse. Hmm.
Also, a mysterious masked creature looking like an overgrown hairy ape with highly skilled kungfu start to terrorize the town, kidnapping young nubile females such as the #1 courtesan and the sister of Master Tan, and given the nature of the disappearance, the animosity between the two men deepen to a deadly duel. However, it doesn't take you a second to figure out just who the man is behind the creature, and there's some needless tension built up around this mystery which seemed a little waste of time. The "police" too turn out to be rather foolhardy and inept, with the sergeant always listening to the two rich men, allowing his investigations to be poisoned by ill opinions from each of them on the other. Talk about siding with those who are rich or in power.
While it can't be comparable to stuff we see today, for it's time I think the fight scenes were still interesting enough to engage audiences, given its myriad of weapons from swords to fans (and the creature's gloved claws), and stunts. In fact, the stunts and sets were really impressive for its climatic battle, and I thought there was no stinginess in creating multi-layered sets for the actors to ply their martial arts abilities. What seemed to be interesting here though, is not the choreographed martial arts display, but rather the portrayal of the women's role in cultures back then. They are treated like playthings, with zero say in the ways of the world, reduced to gossipy aunties, and helpless damsels in distress. In fact, Lung's wife had to even tolerate, and even approve of her husband's infidelity.
That said, Human Lanterns could have been a more entertaining watch, if not for the censoring of those crucial moments, making it like eating Char Kway Teow without the See Hum!
The Code 3 DVD from Celestial Pictures is presented in letterboxed format. Visual transfer is decent but not fantastic, and audio is available only in mono Mandarin with subtitles in traditional Chinese, English, Bahasa Malaysia and Bahasa Indonesia. Scene selection is available over 12 chapters.
The Special Features are woefully few, which includes the remastered trailer for Human Lanterns (0:57), Temple of the Red Lotus (0:54), The Last Tempest (1:11), Last Woman of Shang (1:09) and Big Brother Cheng (1:12). Movie Information contains a Photo Gallery made up of 14 stills, an Original Poster still, Production Notes which is actually a one paragraph synopsis in English and Mandarin available on the back cover DVD sleeve, and text Biographies of actors Liu Yung, Chen Kuan Tai, Lo Lieh and director Sun Chung.