Review: Burning Paradise (1994)

Directed by:
Cast: , , , , ,

Distributed in Australia by:

Burning Paradise is a collaboration between two of the greats of contemporary Cantonese cinema: director Ringo Lam (Prison on Fire, Full Contact) and producer Tsui Hark (Once Upon a Time in China series).

The opening action sequences of this martial arts feature quickly establishes the cinema landscape via a series of human and animal decapitations. The prologue describing the persecution of Shaolin monks by the Manchu government during the Qing dynasty, has been used in Shaw Bros films many times over.

With a cast of newcomers and location shooting in China, Ringo Lam brings a fresh approach to this narrative. Willi Chi is Fong Sai-Yuk (This role was originally created by Hark for Jet Li.), a student monk from the Shaolin monastery, whose martial arts skills are outstanding. He has become the target of a Manchu general named Crimson.

Fong, along with his Uncle and a fellow traveller Tou Tou (Carmen Lee) are captured by Crimson and imprisoned in the Red Lotus Temple – a subterranean charnel house ruled by Lord Kung, a sadistic Manchu jailer. It’s not giving too much away to say Fong Sai-Yuk defies his captors and eventually leads a violent uprising against Elder Kung.

The film really takes off once it goes underground where Lam and Hark have overseen a production design of caverns where slivers of natural light illuminate the raw beauty of these dark passages; at the same time showing the human suffering taking place in these chiseled rock walled prisons.

The nightmarish visuals of Burning Paradise are matched by its visceral fight sequences created by Chris Li Kin-Sang, one of Hong Kong’s top action choreographers (In the Line of Duty 3, The Wicked City) who has worked before with both Lam and Hark. One tremendous bout ends with Sai Yuk pinned to a stone wall by a steel arrow through his knee….hanging like a human Catherine wheel.

And to offset the righteousness of Fong Sai-Yuk, we have the despotic Elder Kung, who, with a flick of his finger controls life and death in the Red Lotus Temple. A frustrated artist he enjoys cave painting using human blood, and takes time out to make conversation with severed heads. Kung is played with an over-the-top relish by veteran Canto actor Wong Kam-Kong (Wonder 7, From Beijing with Love).

Director Lam makes some obvious references to legendary Shaw Bros film-maker Chang Cheh, with quick cuts to rotting bodies and bleached bones – icons of the 1960’s Jade screen made famous through Chang’s One-Armed Swordsman films.

On its original cinema release in Hong Kong, Burning Paradise turned out to be a box-office dud, due mainly to the fact by the mid-1990s Hong Kong audiences were tiring of martial arts movies. Ringo Lam never returned to the martial arts genre and Willi Chi made two more films and disappeared from the industry altogether, whilst starlet Carman Lee found her niche in Johnnie To productions mostly co-starring with Lau Ching-Wan (Lifeline, Too Many Ways to be No. One). Burning Paradise found an appreciative world wide audience through various DVD releases. Unfortunately, this Siren version is of a poor standard with no extras at all, plus a transfer taken from a shoddy print. The subtitles are annoying and amusing for all the wrong reasons and are identical to the theatrical print.

In all, Burning Paradise is a first-rate martial arts film from director Ringo Lam which has been given a thoroughly second-rate Region 4 DVD release.

8 Crazy Cave Paintings out of 10.
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