In the West (and indeed by me), Ringo Lam is perhaps best known as the director of Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicles like Maximum Risk and the underrated In Hell, but like most of the Hong Kong filmmakers who started doing English language work in the ’90s and ’00s, he had a long history in action movies in his home country. He directed many contemporary action films, notably City on Fire, which Quentin Tarantino took liberal inspiration from for parts of Reservoir Dogs.
Burning Paradise, made in 1994, is Lam’s sole wuxia film. A remake of 1965’s Temple of the Red Lotus, starring the legendary Jimmy Wang Yu, it follows Fong Sai-yuk (Willie Chi Tian-Sheng), a survivor of the sacking of Shaolin Temple by the Manchu army. However, he is captured, along with a young girl, Dau Dau (Carman Lee Yeuk-Tung), who helped him and his master hide from the Manchu. They are taken to Red Lotus temple, where many Shaolin survivors are imprisoned, including the treacherous Hung Hei-Kuan (Yang Sheng) and Dau Dau is added to the harem of Master Keung (Wong Kam-Kong). Determined to escape, Fong Sai-Yuk battles Master Keung, his deadly right hand woman (Cathy Lam Chun) and tries to win Hung Hei-Kuan back to his side.
Burning Paradise begins with an image of the monks of Shaolin Temple praying, beheaded brothers alongside them, as the Buddha statue is demolished by the Manchu. This is the film near its quietest and most reflective. Ringo Lam and martial arts director Chris Li barely let the pace slow down from the opening chase with the Manchu following Fong Sai-Yuk and his master to the final confrontation.
Action wise, while this is described as a wuxia film, it has little besides the use of wire work, in common with what the stereotypical view of the genre has become. Lam and Li don’t use the wires to create graceful moments as their fighters glide and float lyrically through the air, rather they use them to give moves extra impact. There are many great fights here, but my favourites are probably those between Fong Sai-Yuk and Keung’s female lieutenant. I think it’s unlikely that Cathy Lam did most of her own stunt work, but the half mask she wears means doubling her is easier, and the fights choreographed between her character and Fong Sai-Yuk are fast and brutal.
Their first face off might be my favourite fight in the film, as Fong Sai-Yuk tries to battle past her and kill Keung just after he is captured. The characters are well matched, and the way the dynamic between them and between Lam and Yang Sheng develops gives the later fight a different feel. Lam creates one of the film’s most memorable characters, and I’m stunned that she never made another film. This evolution of character through fight sequences is even more visible between Hung Hei-Kuan and Fong Sai-Yuk; former brothers with all but equal skills, now on opposing sides.
This is a relentlessly brutal film. Lam infuses that sensibility in everything; it’s there in the bones and bodies that litter the underworld of Red Lotus Temple (and which mark the passage of time as they rot outside), it’s there in the violence meted out to control the Shaolin prisoners, and it’s especially there in the treatment of Dau Dau and the other women in Master Keung’s harem. Blood is spilled frequently and plentifully, with sword slashes, impaling and Keung literally ripping the head off a woman who dares interrupt him and Dau Dau being among the nastier moments.
In many ways, the film is often reminiscent of a more extravagantly nasty Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Sadly, one of the ways that this is true is in Dau Dau’s relatively late transformation into a Willie Scott figure. She’s actually fairly resourceful early on, using a promise that Keung offers to all his women on the first night to get Fong Sai-Yuk out of the pit of bodies he’s been thrown into. However, in the last act she becomes just another squealing female character who needs rescuing all the time. This is a real pity, because Carman Lee Yeuk-Tung is very good in the first half of the film, but she can’t make this unmotivated character shift play.
Like Cathy Lam Chung, Willie Chi Tian-Sheng had a very short film career, making only four films total. Again, this baffles me. He’s an appealingly active and optimistic hero; always looking for the next way he can fight back against the injustice and violence meted out to him and his brothers. Keung is one of the most out and out evil bad guys I’ve seen in a movie for ages. There’s no real shading here, he’s just a totally psychotic bastard, and I love the relish with which Wong Kam-Kong plays him. The writing is a bit thin for Hung Hei-Kuan’s story to fully convince, but that’s not the fault of Yang Sheng, who gives a good performance, and is great to watch in the many fight sequences he has.
On the whole, Burning Paradise only falls down on the relatively limited moments at which it tries to shoehorn a comedic or romantic beat into an otherwise relentlessly grim and dark tale, but outside those moments it’s a strikingly nasty yet enormously entertaining piece of action cinema, ripe for discovery on this, its first UK Blu Ray release.
This is another in a long line of excellent restorations and encodes from Eureka. The quality of the picture is shown off by clips elsewhere of the pre-remaster image, which are low resolution and feature heavy combing. I suspect, again, that this is as good as the film has ever looked in the UK. Subtitles are easy to read, and largely seem accurate and reasonably detailed, but a handful of grammatical errors do sneak through (you’re instead of your).
Extras wise, there are only a couple of things here, but both are worthwhile. An archival interview with producer Tsui Hark covers a reasonable amount of ground in just four and a half minutes, and Frank Djeng contributes another dense commentary, full of interesting details.