Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 35 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
(Mandarin with English subtitles)
Directed by: Chung Sun
Written by: Kuang Ni & Chung Sun
Starring: Tony Liu, Kuan Tai Chen, Lieh Lo, Ni Tien, Linda Chu, Hsiu-Chun Lin, Meng Lo & Chien Sun
HUMAN LANTERNS is the fourth film I’ve seen at Brewvies’ Kung-Fu Theater. Seeing as it’s October, Utah’s cinema pub decided to select a horror-based martial arts flick. HUMAN LANTERNS is a goofy kung-fu movie mixed with a cheesy slasher. It’s every bit as entertaining as that description makes it sound. This definitely balances out its stupidity and fun in equal factors making for a dumb, but enjoyable experience that’s perfect for a B-movie action fan’s Halloween party.
Lung Shu-Ai (Tony Liu) is a cocky samurai who finds himself constantly at odds with rival Tan Mei-Mei (Hsiu-Chun Lin). After publicly humiliating himself and then bitterly refusing to make amends with Tan, Lung vows to win the upcoming lantern contest. To ensure his victory, Lung hires reclusive craftsman Chao Chun-Fang (Lieh Lo). While the rivalry between Yung and Tan escalates, women with ties to both men begin disappearing and it soon becomes clear that a masked psycho is killing women to turn them into…well, you read this film’s title. Things inevitably head towards a stylized showdown that will result in swordplay, “despicable” martial arts styles, and certain death for at least a few people.
HUMAN LANTERNS’s plot is a basic morality tale. It’s a Grimm’s fairy tale that got relocated to China and had martial arts thrown into it. Unfortunately, the simple story makes this film incredibly predictable. To make matters worse, the viewer may struggle to latch onto deeply flawed protagonist Lung, because he acts like an irredeemable jerk towards everyone. The rest of the characters aren’t exactly great either, but they’re far more interesting to watch than Lung’s arrogance. Rival Samurai Tan is an antagonist/protagonist at the same time, while Lung’s girlfriend merely serves as a weak attempt at a moral compass. There’s also the woefully inept Officer Poon, who adds comic relief that’s both intentional and unintentional. The theater burst into laughter every time his name popped into the subtitles for obvious reasons.
The film’s horror results from the masked villain, who looks like werewolf Skeletor and kidnaps his victims in a convenient human-sized bag. This costumed killer isn’t exactly intimidating because he looks so silly, but there’s a nasty streak to him. HUMAN LANTERNS contains some graphic gore and not all of it looks over-the-top (aside from a pile of severed heads). There’s skinning involved in the construction of human lanterns and those moments are appropriately gross. The killer mainly uses a small axe and a pot of molten metal for some strange reason that’s never fully explained. There’s also a victim who takes a literal blood bath. Though the gory kills are entertaining in a slasher kind of way, there’s one downright depressing moment that’s included purely for the sake of shock value.
While the film’s plot may be so-so, it certainly doesn’t fail to deliver with its fight scenes. Various weapons are used in the showdowns, including a fan that becomes a deadly instrument and the villain’s furry clawed gloves. A random assassin seemingly comes out of nowhere, but serves as an excuse for two of the film’s best fights. The action scenes only falter when it comes to the repetitive climax. On a technical level, the camera work is occasionally shaky and amateurish. This is especially true in one early sequence where the only acceptable excuse for the shoddy headache-inducing shakiness is that the cameraman was having a seizure.
HUMAN LANTERNS has a predictable story that leaves plenty of room for gory kills and cool fights. In a movie like this, those latter qualities are really what count in the long run. The plot’s nihilistic tone can occasionally be a bit much, especially during one uncomfortable scene that sucks all of the fun out of the film for a solid ten minutes. However, the gore and fights keep things entertaining and enjoyable in the cheesy B-flick way that kung-fu flicks thrive on. HUMAN LANTERNS is a flawed, but fun mixture of martial arts and gory horror.