Burning Paradise (1994)
Director: Ringo Lam
Cast: Willie Chi, Carman Lee & Wong Kam Kong
Language: Cantonese (with optional English subtitles, newly translated for this release)
Runtime: 105 mins
Release Date: 29th May 2023
Books are being burned. A massive statue of Buddha is smashed by a battering ram. The Shaolin Monastery is under attack by soldiers of the Qing army, in an attempt to crush the rising anti-government unrest there.
Some monks watch on, praying devoutly. Others flee, including Fong Sai-yuk (Willie Chi), a lay disciple and his uncle Chi Nun, a Buddhist Grand Master. We first meet them as they ride through a desert region, with thirty or so soldiers in hot pursuit. It’s not long before the action kicks off and when it does, it is immediately gruesome – no wonder producer Tsui Hark has compared this part of the movie to a video game.
Fong brandishes a giant sword and uses it to slice in two a soldier on horseback coming to attack him, with Lam happy to show the blood gushing ferociously from the lower half of the bisected body. There’s even a flying guillotine involved in the clash (and, as an aside, if you’ve never seen Master of the Flying Guillotine from 1976, you’re missing out).
The fugitives decide to hide out in what looks to be an abandoned shack but soon discover that a young woman, Dau Dau (Carman Lee), whose mother has just died, lives there. She helps them but is later captured along with Fong, while Chi Nun is mercilessly killed.
Fong and Dau Dau are sent to the Red Lotus Temple, an underground prison run by the maniacal Elder Kung (Wong Kam Kong). Kung runs what he sees as his kingdom like a totalitarian regime – maybe a comment on China from Lam as Hong Kong’s handover loomed even closer.
No martial arts or Buddhist chants are allowed. Kung opts to exploit Dau Dau as his sex slave and warns that after he’s finished with her, he’ll pass her down to his servants: ‘And we’ll keep at it until you’re completely broken.’
Blood is everywhere, Kung even uses it as paint. This is Lam at his bleakest and most nightmarish, especially when Fong is thrown into a deep, rat-infested pit of corpses and left for dead.
Is there any chance of escape? As Kung declares: ‘If escape were possible, I’d be the first to go.’
Today Ringo Lam is best remembered for City On Fire, a movie that is often cited as sharing several plot similarities with Reservoir Dogs, Lam’s crime thriller predating Tarantino’s debut by five years.
He’s one of those directors whose work is always worth a watch. Confession: I even liked In Hell, a later prison drama of his that starred Jean-Claude Van Damme (not that he coaxed a convincing acting performance from the Muscles from Brussels, but that is likely beyond any director who has ever lived).
Burning Paradise is admittedly a movie without subtlety. Shaolin is a force for good, and the Manchus are evil. Some of the wirework is a little too obvious for my liking and a few early attempts at humour fall flat, but I was very surprised to discover that on its initial release it had flopped at the box office.
Lam’s only entry into the wuxia genre features some skilfully choreographed action sequences, superb cinematography and imaginative set designs. It also showcases two very likeable young actors who share a convincing chemistry, and a veteran who gives one of the most memorable turns in 1990s Hong Kong cinema.
Another surprise for me was learning that Willie Chi’s career failed to flourish. According to IMDb, he only ever notched up four cinematic credits. This is a real shame as he showed such potential here. And it’s a shame too that Ringo Lam is no longer with us, having passed away at his home in December 2018. He deserves to be much better known in the West and hopefully this release helps at least a little in that respect.
Eureka Classics here present the film for the first time in the UK since the VHS era in a special edition. Special features include a limited edition O-Card slipcase featuring new artwork by Darren Wheeling [2000 copies]; a brand new feature length audio commentary by Frank Djeng; an archival interview with Tsui Hark, the original theatrical trailer and a collector’s booklet featuring new writing by James Oliver.
For more on the film click here.
All words by Jamie Havlin. Jamie has written a couple of short films screened on British TV and at international festivals and he regularly contributes to the glam rock fanzine Wired Up! More writing by Jamie can be found at his Louder Than War author’s archive.
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