Hong Kong Digital is sponsored by Poker Industries. Please see the Hong Kong Digital home page for a special offer from Poker Industries to Hong Kong Digital readers.

Issue #161a HOME E-mail: mail@dighkmovies.com BACK ISSUES May 26th, 2003

Human Lanterns
(1982; Shaw Brothers)

A Masterpiece
Highly Recommended
Very Good
Marginal Recommendation
Not Recommended
Definitely Not Recommended

Cantonese: Yun pei dung lung
Mandarin: Ren pi deng long
English: Human Skin Lanterns

One of the most enticing aspects of Celestial's on-going release of the Shaw Brothers catalogue is the opportunity to see more of the company's horror thrillers. First out of the gate on DVD is Sun Chung's 1982 production HUMAN LANTERNS, which had a badly cropped, heavily censored video release through the Taiwanese label New Ship Enterprises during the 80s. Celestial's edition turns out to be a mixed blessing: its widescreen presentation looks and "reads" far better but the source is the same incomplete version as before.

Desperate to best rival Tan Fu (Chen Kuan-tai) in the annual lantern contest, impudent nobleman Lung Shu-ai (Liu Yung) discovers that his usual craftsman is actually not the one responsible for the construction of the exquisite ornaments. The true designer is Chao Chun-fang (Lo Lieh), a disfigured misanthrope who dwells in a dilapidated mill deep in the woods. Years earlier, the two met in battle and the contest ended with Lung deeply scarring Chao's face. Although he initially spurns the idea of helping his greatest enemy, Chao has a change of heart when Lung impresses upon him the wealth and fame that will result from victory in the competition. The man does insist on one condition, however: Lung may not visit his home at any time and will be contacted only when the lantern is finished. Lung views the lantern-maker as a benign eccentric but Chao is actually quite insane, using human skin as raw material and pledging that "I must have whatever Master Lung has and destroy whatever he owns." Seeing that his adversary is in love with prostitute Yen-chu, Chao dons a mask and gloves that make him look like a simian demon and abducts the woman. Back at the mill, he kills Yen-chu, peeling the delicate skin from her body. With the police (led by Sun Chien) suspecting Lung (who had a very public quarrel with Yen-chu the night before), Chao proceeds to carry away Tan's teenage sister, effectively setting Tan and Lung at each other's throats. Tan hires a wandering swordsman (Lo Meng) to mutilate his rival and, to stir the pot some more, the incredibly limber Chao ambushes and murders a group of Tan's men, leaving their severed heads hanging in the marketplace. While the two of them continue to point fingers, Chao claims more human epidermis to use for his creations.

This arresting period film unfolds largely amidst the usual gorgeous Shaw Brothers studio settings (complete with a pond and waterfall), giving the proceedings a gloss that is a nice contrast to the atmospheric sequences in and around the ghoulish lair where Chao performs his bloody deeds. The late great Lo Lieh is wonderfully malevolent in a role similar to the one he essayed in the studio's 1976 production BLACK MAGIC PART II (released stateside by World Northal as REVENGE OF THE ZOMBIES) and the mixture of horror and kung fu is reminiscent of Shaw's co-production with Hammer Studios, LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES. More intricately plotted than that earlier effort, HUMAN LANTERNS offers an effective hybrid of prolific co-writer Ngai Hong/Ni Kuang's signature martial arts mystery and the kind of gruesome horror that began to appear in HK theatres during the 70s with the release of Ting Shan-si's BLOOD REINCARNATION (1974). The kung fu on display (choreographed by Tang Chia/Tong Kai and Huang Pei-chi) is fluid and often wire-enhanced, adding to the otherwordly atmosphere engendered by the production design and lighting. Excellent use is made of the scope frame, with the carefully planned and executed set-ups offering plenty of exposure for the intricate art direction and lighting. The soundtrack includes music lifted from Akira Ifukube's score for the original DAIMAJIN (1966) and, in the final moments, PHANTASM. The credits have been video burned on and the source material is missing the Shaw Brothers logo at the height of the film, quite unusual as these re-releases go. Tanny/Tien Nei co-stars as Lung's far more enlightened wife; Ha Ping, and SB sex star Yum Yum Shaw also appear.

Cover art courtesy Intercontinental.

Back cover art courtesy Intercontinental.
Image courtesy Intercontinental.
Image courtesy Intercontinental.
Intercontinental #611704 (Hong Kong label)

Dolby Digital 2.0

Post-synced Mandarin Language Track

Optional Subtitles in English, Traditional Chinese, Malaysian, or Indonesian

12 Chapters Illustrated in the Menu With Clips

Letterboxed (2.35:1)

Coded for Region 3 Only

NTSC Format

91 Minutes (at 25 frames-per-second)

Contains moderate violence and horror

DVD menu courtesy Intercontinental.

Hong Kong: IIB
Ontario: R (Brutal Violence)
Singapore: PG


The transfer looks exceptionally good, despite a lack of anamorphic enhancement. The image is extremely sharp, colors are wonderfully saturated (preserving the integrity of the various lighting gels and the elaborate traditional costumes), contrasts are excellent, and blacks perfectly solid. Some very slight DVNR jitter can be seen at times but it is a minor trade-off, considering how beautifully clean the picture is throughout. As with most Shaw productions, slight bending can occasionally be seen at the extreme horizontal edges of the frame, a fault of the CinemaScope lens the company used (the image looked fine on the slightly curved movie theatre screens of yore). Thankfully presented in its original mono, the post-synched Mandarin language track is crisp and noise free, suffering only from some mild distortion during particularly loud moments, and a momentary dropout. The Movie Information section offers a medium-sized photo gallery, the original theatrical poster, and small bios/filmographies for the director, Liu, Chen, and Lo. The original trailer is not on offer but there is a video promo spot and ones for four other titles. As with all of the releases, the disc comes in a clear keepcase with an outer cardboard sleeve.

As mentioned, the presentation is marred by several instances of censorship and these jarring edits even disrupt the soundtrack. Chao's killing and mutilation of Yen-chu is bracketed by two very obvious jump cuts, leaving only a brief bit of skin peeling. We never see the fate of one female victim, and Chao's murder of an elderly male interloper in chapter 9 is missing entirely. The original version reportedly also contained some nudity but there is none to be found here. Celestial has not commented on this but, if they are indeed working from the original materials, then the Shaws cut the footage in question right out of the negative. If that is indeed the case, the odds of it ever being restored are virtually zero and none. It is possible that the eliminations were ordered by HK censors but posts from people who saw the movie in HK during its original run back in 1982 and the writings in Pete Tombs' book MONDO MACABRO refute this. Alas, we are left with a stunning and highly polished approximation but not the genuine article.

HUMAN LANTERNS is available at Poker Industries.

Having problems printing this review with Netscape? Go to the File option in the Netscape Task Bar, click the Page Setup from the sub-menu and make sure that in the Page Options listings, the Black Text box is clicked. This should resolve the "no text" printing problem.

Click here for more information about The Hong Kong Filmography

Copyright © John Charles 2000 - 2003. All Rights Reserved.
E-mail: mail@dighkmovies.com