As God is my witness, it had nothing to do with Ed Kowalczyk. The erstwhile singer for Live used to have a largely shaved head with a long, braided ponytail. This was something I wanted to do with my hair. This was also back when I was initially going bald and fought tooth and nail against this by growing what hair I had long (I’m slightly ashamed to say that, yes, Virginia, there was a skullet). I wanted to just have a small patch of hair growing from the back of my head and a wicked long tail forming from it. The difference between Mr. Kowalczyk and myself (I assume) is that I was inspired by a lifelong love of martial arts films. It was to the point that I actually wanted to dye this thing white like the great, old, cinematic Kung Fu masters of old (the better to toss over my shoulder and cackle malevolently). Thing is, not only was I going bald (something I swiftly learned to accept and let go of fairly gracefully), but what hair I had was insanely curly, so, no matter what length I grew my tresses out to, they wound up being about down to my shoulder once the follicles dried after a shower. This was in no way like my idiotic attempt to mimic Kurt Harland of Information Society’s locks (a tale I told in a previous review; track it down, if you dare). This was more like…I hesitate to use the word “serendipity.” More like dumb luck or shitty coincidence. Either way, every single time I watch a film like Ringo Lam’s Burning Paradise (aka Huo Shao Hong Lian Si aka Destruction of the Red Lotus Temple aka Rape of the Red Temple), I’m reminded of this ignoble chapter of my life. Thank Christ, I went completely bald before I was able to get this thing off the ground (but, sadly, before bald was considered sexy).
Burning Paradise is yet another in the long list of films about the legendary Wuxia hero Fong Sai Yuk (here played by Willie Chi). He and his Shaolin brothers oppose the vicious Manchus, and, while escaping from their clutches, he and his elder Chi-Nun (Kuei Li) meet the lovely Tou-Tou (Carman Lee). Needless to say, the Manchus clutches are, in fact, inescapable, and our protagonists find themselves prisoners of the reptilian Lord Kung (Kam-Kong Wong), warden of the Red Lotus Temple. Much martial arts mayhem ensues.
I am in no way an expert on the character of Fong Sai Yuk, and, frankly, I simply don’t have the time to correct this. I do know that he is an extremely popular character (I’m still confused whether or not he was an actual person, but that’s neither here nor there when discussing films like this one). The picture’s scenario is one we’ve seen many times before. Fong is young, highly skilled, and a staunch opponent of a totalitarian government. This is nothing new in the Wuxia genre. Truly, a great many movies from a great many countries center on this type of struggle. The two cinematic genres that best capture this conflict, to my mind, are martial arts films and science fiction films. This is because it is more palatable to a mass audience to augment the totalitarianism on display to encompass wild flights of fantasy. It entertains while making a point, one that needs no true reinforcement since most people empathize, on some level, with the notion that their own government is not on their side. Or worse, they are apathetic to the common folks’ plight (as people love to wryly exclaim, it can never happen here, right?). What Lam and company do with this movie, and this is something that one could argue that the vast majority of martial arts films do, is play with elements of the western. It is set in the desert. The house at the beginning of the film is straight out of the American Southwest (I kept thinking of Stagecoach and The Wild Bunch whenever it was on screen). The characters are more hands-on versions of gunfighters, their skills being continually challenged until a final duel settles all scores. The heroes come into a situation where they are required to free a “town” (okay, here a prison full of Shaolin devotees) from a gang of “outlaws” (here an entire government; the major difference between the two genres being this dichotomy). The heroes are attempting to civilize a savage land (here through their Shaolin beliefs and practices). The dynamics are essentially the same despite the divergences in the details. I would argue that Lam understood this connection, because he not only embraces it but also borrows (as just about every filmmaker in existence has, consciously or unconsciously; just ask Orson Welles) from the visual vocabulary of John Ford. Burning Paradise is littered with frames within frames, and there is even a direct reference to Ford’s famous doorway shot from The Searchers. This, layered on top of some classic Hong Kong action stylings helps push this film into the top tier of the genre, in my opinion.
The film also centers heavily on the idea of passions. Fong is passionate about his fight against the Manchus. He is passionate about how he finds his Shaolin brother Hong (Yamson Domingo) in the temple prison. He is passionate about Tou-Tou, and not just physically. Similarly, characters like Boroke (Chun Lam), Kung’s right hand, have passions outside the martial world. She craves the touch of a man, allowing her feelings to sway her professional decisions. Tou-Tou is a former brothel worker, a place where passion is rented, yet she cares enough about Fong to sacrifice her freedom for him. The setting for the film is a metaphor for Hell, its inhabitants working constantly at blazing forges, shaping weapons for their enemies to use against the prisoners’ friends and families. Perhaps the most significant symbol of passion is the villain Kung. In public, he is aloof, can’t be bothered with these gnats that pester him so. In private is another matter. When he goes to Tou-Tou for the first time, he wants her to resist, to fight back, to give him some sense that he’s still alive. His bigger passion, however, is art. He paints throughout the film, dark, ominous images, reflective of his soul. He even incorporates art into his Kung Fu style, using paper like flying daggers and paint droplets like bullets.
Burning Paradise is as kinetic, inventive, and awe-inspiring as any Hong Kong action film I can think of (perhaps even moreso than many). Lam marries the darker elements (and there are some pretty dark elements in this thing) with fast-moving action with bouts of gore with some great humor beats (that are refreshingly un-cringeworthy and mesh nicely into the rhythm). It does all of this while giving its characters some depth and compelling us to want to follow the villains as much as the heroes.
MVT: Lam’s near-flawless union of the variegated components.
Make or Break: The bedroom scene between Kung and Tou-Tou is simultaneously scary, insightful, and melancholy.