Film Reviews

Burning Paradise (1994) – Blu-ray Review

When most people think about martial arts movies they either picture slick modern productions, or older films that were made with little budget and felt like they were churned out to cash in on the popularity of the genre. Whilst more modern martial arts movies vary in tone quite a bit, older films tend to feel much the same: fairly light movies, with a comedy sidekick or two, and some over-the-top spectacle thrown in to wow the audience. Burning Paradise immediately feels different, and from the first few minutes of the movie I was surprised at how dark, violent, and bloody this Wuxia film ended up being; a feeling that would only grow as the film continued.

Directed by Ringo Lam, best known for grittier crime flicks such as City on Fire, and Prison on Fire, as well as the Van Damme action movie Maximum Risk, Burning Paradise takes a step away from the more whimsical side of martial arts action movies, and takes viewers to a darker place, ending up feeling like the nightmare version of the genre. The film opens with religious texts burning, statues of Buddha being destroyed, and the decapitated bodies of Shaolin monks. There’s no way to sugar-coat what is being depicted on screen, and Lam drops the viewers into the middle of a massacre with no apology.

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From here we meet Fok Sai-yuk (Willie Chi Tin-sang), a young Shaloin disciple, and his master as they flee the massacre in the desert. Unfortunately, they’re pursued by more than a dozen soldiers on horseback. With no way of escaping, the duo have to make a valiant stand; at which point Fok Sai-yuk draws his huge sword and starts cutting his opponents into pieces. As soon as one of the soldiers is cut in half, his severed legs still on the horse, spraying blood whilst his upper torso hits the ground in a gush of body fluids, it becomes clear that this is a film that isn’t going to shy away from the violence. Despite being a Wuxia movie, this film doesn’t glamourise or enhance the fighting a great deal, and other than one or two moments much of what we see in Burning Paradise feels startlingly real.

Managing to defeat the soldiers, Fok Sai-yuk and his master take shelter in a small building, where they meet Dau Dau (Carman Lee Yeuk-tung), a young woman trying her best to survive. When the three of them are captured, Fok Sai-Yuk’s master is killed, and he and Dau Dau are taken prisoner and sent to the Red Lotus temple. The Red Lotus temple is ruled by the evil Elder Kung (Wong Kam-kong), a sadistic jailer who tortures his prisoners, fills his temple with death traps, sexually abuses women, and spends his days painting using blood. As Dau Dau is taken away to be his latest concubine, Fok Sai-yuk must find a way of escaping the prison with his life.

It’s once the film reaches the Red Lotus temple that things really click into place with Burning Paradise. From this point on the film loses all daylight, and we’re stuck underground, in a dark and twisted place filled with death and suffering. The temple has cages filled with suffering prisoners, pits where the dead are dumped, rooms decorated with corpses, and deadly arenas in which troublemakers are forced to fight to the death. In a lot of ways it feels like the heroes of the movie are stuck in a hell on Earth, and that tone bleeds into almost every part of the movie.

However, this means that Lam is able to concentrate upon the setting, and we get some really interesting set-pieces because of this. One of the fights in the film sees two opponents on a suspended platform, flames and spikes below them, fighting to the death. Blades and spikes shoot out of the platform at different points, adding a dangerous dynamic to the fight that means the combatants are never sure if their next step is a safe one or not. It feels like a Mortal Kombat arena brought to life, more so that any location in the actual Mortal Kombat films, and the ultra-violent deaths that occur feel like a vicious fatality move.

The traps that are scattered throughout of the movie also add a delightful wrinkle to things, as you’re never sure if a character is about to die horribly. And yes, it does happen more than once, as so it never feels like an empty threat just thrown in. The traps are cleverly thought through, and the moments that they come into play make for some truly shocking scenes that result in an ‘oh my god, did you see that?’ moment.

With the film taking such a serious tone, or at least such a dark tone, it’s not spoiled by any of the acting. Hong Kong cinema has a wonderful tradition of marrying comedy into its action movies. Some of the better loved movies and bigger name stars in Hong Kong cinema use comedy to keep their movies light and to keep the moments between fights fun. Burning Paradise doesn’t have any of its cast making jokes or acting the fool between its action scenes, and instead embraces the dark tone the movie has. We get to see Fok Sai-yuk getting pushed to the edge as he realises that he’s either going to have to kill to escape, or die in the temple, and Dau Dau goes from an outgoing and confident young woman to one almost broken by the torture that Elder Kung puts her through, with one of the most disturbing scenes being the moment that leads up to her rape. The cast act their hearts out, and it’s their performances that help to keep the intensity of the piece going.

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The new Blu-ray release features a newly restored 1080p HD presentation of the movie from the original 35mm negative, making this one of the crispest and cleanest versions of the film to date. The film is also presented in its original Cantonese with English subtitles, though there is an English language audio commentary from Asian film expert Frank Djeng, who has provided commentaries on a number of Eureka’s releases. Unfortunately, the rest of the disc runs pretty light, with an archival interview with the movie’s producer Tsui Hark, and a trailer.

Those that come to Hong Kong martial arts movies expecting a bit of light-hearted fun are going to find Burning Paradise quite different, and something of a surprise. But it is a pleasant one. Lam has crafted a film that feels unique and different, yet also reminds me of a number of other films with a similarly dark tone (though I’ve struggled to put my finger on exactly what it is it reminds me of). Compared to a lot of films in the genre, Burning Paradise feels like one that will stick in your memory a lot longer.

Burning Paradise is out now on Blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment.

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