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Heaven and Hell (1978) February 2, 2008

Posted by Cal in : Horror, 1970s films, Kung Fu, Wacko, Supernatural , 3 comments

Director: Chang Cheh  Cast: Lee I-Min, Sun Chien, Phillip Kwok, Chiang Sheng, Lo Meng, Fu Sheng  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: Shaw Brothers

A man and woman are kicked out of the Court of Heaven on trumped up charges of bringing shame onto the Kingdom.  Reincarnated as a taxi driver, Xin Ling (Lee I-Min) courageously takes on and kills a gangster harassing Chen Ding (Fu Sheng) and his sweetheart (Jenny Tseng), but is himself mortally wounded in the conflict.  Now sent to hell, Xin Ling applies for leniency when the annual heavenly Buddha happens to appear pretty much as soon as he gets there.  In another stroke of luck, the Venoms themselves are in hell and keen to get out, and the heavenly Buddha allows them all to fight their way out.

The more perceptive of my readership have probably noticed a leaning towards the “spooky” in my Hong Kong film viewings of late, and I’ve always had a bit of an interest in this film as it looked like a wacky bit of fun.  The reality, though, is a film just a bit too out there for my tastes.

You can’t fault the film for being different.  We start off in heaven in this three act film, a section which of course has a strong fantasy feel to it, and reminded me a little of the film Na Cha the Great.  It soon becomes apparent that the first two sections of the film are just setting the scene for the “Hell” part as the “Heaven” section barely lasts ten minutes before switching to modern day Earth.  The Mortal World is the most striking part of the film visually, which, for reasons unfathomable to me, is portrayed in a kind of theatrical way as a stage play complete with stylised sets and props (and a couple of musical numbers from Jenny Tseng which are surprisingly not too bad).  Fu Sheng takes on a gang of dancers pretending to be thugs in a fight scene without sound effects of any kind and with visible lack of contact.  It’s a very brave style choice, and definitely something I’ve not seen before.  Unfortunately, I don’t think it really pays off.  The film then confusingly switches to a more realistic, external setting for the encounter between Fu Sheng, Lee I-Min and the gang boss played by Kong Do.

Check out the minimalistic set! 

The lion’s share of the screen time goes to the Hell sequence, but this is interspersed with flashbacks to various periods in the world’s history when the Venoms’ backstories are told.  Hell itself is primarily made up of cheesy sets, cheesy costumes (Hell’s workers are kind of like human pigs) and ultra cheesy lighting.  There are a few torture scenes and a little moralising along the way, but basically, the Hell sequence is just a prelude to the introduction of the Venoms and the film becomes a Kung Fu-fest from there on in.  While the Venom stories are good, the whole film just descends into a fragmented mess and I couldn’t wait for the whole thing to finish.

This might sting a little. 

You could walk in on Heaven and Hell at various points and think you’re watching a fantasy film, an avant-garde 70’s pop art piece, a comedy, a horror, a period Kung Fu flick, a modern day actioner and a musical variety show.  With so many elements involved, it was sure to turn out badly, and Heaven and Hell was a real struggle for me to sit through.  You’ll never see another film like it, but that’s meant more of a warning than a recommendation.

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