For those new to the myriad pleasures of the Shaw films, the best indication of them is probably through Tarantino’s KILL BILL. The actual Shaw Brothers films are like madcap post-modern kung fu cum Peking opera joints with crazy costumes, goofy special effects, outdoor scenes that are clearly filmed indoors on brightly lit sound stages (often with bare, black soundstage floors). The effect is similar to the weird indoor/outdoor planets Spock and Kirk explore in the original STAR TREK series. My personal recent favorite, available at retail for $19.99, is HEAVEN AND HELL (directed by Chang Cheh, of FIVE DEADLY VENOMS fame) a goofy blend of goofy kung fu action, weirdly surreal humor, and a tour of grisly punishments reminiscent of the Japanese film (avail. on Criterion), JIGOKU.
The film opens with a forbidden love affair up in heaven, which is represented by lots of fluffy clouds, white fog machine fog, and very bad fight scenes (intentionally ballet-like?). When the heroes are sent tumbling to earth, we promptly get a new set of credits, and the tone of the fighting and action shifts to a bizarre expressionist, crypto-Bollywood Kung Fu dance odyssey where the menacing gangsters leap around like they’ve been studying Russ Tamblyn’s moves in WEST SIDE STORY. If you’re not digging this sudden shift to bizarro dance world, you might as well hang it up now, because it only gets weirder from here. The question is, are you going to label it cheap or are you gonna dig that its “Brechtian”?
Certainly the sets--as with many of the more fantastical Shaw Brothers productions--are so minimally rendered as to make expressionism in films like THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI seem opulent. Our heroine’s bedroom prison is a huge, blackened soundstage, demarked by a poster bed, a Caligari-esque distorted free-standing door portal, lots of colored gel lighting, and a window frame. Elsewhere action occurs in front of monochromatic gray walls that stretch into infinity, and with the glory of widescreen, one can almost peer around the set and see the Exit sign and a gaffer or two eating their lunch in the corner.
By the time the lovers and their friend have fallen into Hell, where the bulk of the film will subsequently play out, the fight scenes have improved and the soundstage has transformed into what looks like one of those charity-driven walk through Halloween haunted houses (replete with black lights shining on foil covered cardboard saw blades.) There are all sorts of hells being shown off, from Ice Hell, to Gambling Hell (we pause for some shots of an endless game of mahh jong) to Booze Hell (a boozer tries to get a sip out of a fickle giant bottle of Johnny Walker Red that tilts back and forth above him like one of those weird red “drinking birds”) to the Greedy Hell (where misers are forced to drink liquified gold running down what looks like a mini-golf course volcano) to “Tongue-Pulling Hell” and on and on to the big final, infamous “Plow Hell” where victims are forced to lie on hell's dusty concrete floor while big wooden plows with spikes in front are dragged over them.
Luckily Buddha himself comes to the rescue and instructs our hero to find four other innocent souls over in the next hell, who all happen to be kung fu experts who have been wronged and killed unfairly. We see all this in patient flashbacks for each fighter, and then, conveniently, the villains who wronged them on earth are revealed to be guards and officials in the kingdom of hell, with big ribbons hanging out of their mouths to represent long tongues. Now will come the time for each man to have his revenge, and to fight masked demons for what begins to seem like eternity to even the most patient viewer.
Eventually we wind up in a golden “other” place where souls can now be reincarnated. Some bad humans end up as chickens, but the good ones, standing in the center of a giant swirling spiral of color painted on the soundstage floor, are granted the right to return in a (hopeful) sequel.
If this doesn't sound like cinema heaven to you, then I condemn you to "Endless Chickflick Movie Hell!"
If it does, then good for you, you can come back to this wondrous land where king fu movies now run remastered and cheap with glorious color and original Cantonese language tracks, and coherent, well-written English subtitles.