Monk and folk hero Fong Sai Yuk (Chi) is captured along with an ex-prostitute, Dau Dau (Lee), by the minions of Elder Kung (Wong). They are taken to the Red Lotus Temple, where Kung has many dark horrors to share with them.
In this dark, almost gothic horror take on martial arts folklore, Shaolin monks are imprisoned in a subterranean castle by a lord who has set himself up as religious figure specialising in cruelty and death.
The premise of the film is a weird kind of reality check on one of the main tropes of Shaolin movies: usually the monks must overcome traps and feats of endurance as part of their training; here they are enslaved, herded around like cattle and plain tortured, just so that the evil lord can build a sort of anti-nirvana, an evil spiritual empire on their pain.
This film looks great – especially if you can toggle your tv to get the right ratio – but each framed shot still feels a little squeezed: widescreen would have been much more impactful for the underground lair shots as well as the fighting. In one sequence, Kung paints a mural using the blood of one of his concubines. The painting highlights the palette used in the main part of the film, after the desert-based intro: dark blues and greys interspersed with shocks of scarlet.
Rotting corpses, decapitations, candle in human skulls, a Blubeard-esque room full of cobwebbed, pale dead women, hyperkinetic wire work – yes it’s all here and most of it is refreshingly unique for a martial arts movie. Having said that, the wire work, framing and editing owes perhaps more to producer Tsui Hark’s excessive, ultra-stylised 90s look than anything auteurish from Lam. There also seem to be a lot of fights on the same burning bridge.
Ringo Lam is better known for the series of gritty urban thrillers he made in the footsteps of John Woo’s ground-breaking mid-80s films: City on Fire, Full Contact, Wild Search, all starred Chow Yun Fat and are great (Full Contact is surely well overdue a Blu-ray release over here). Lam then spent some years flitting between Hollywood films starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and HK thrillers.
Outside of Burning Paradise, you’d never find yourself asking this of a Ringo Lam film, whereas one often asks it of Tsui Hark productions: is it all too much, or not enough?