|Heaven and Hell (1980)|
|Writers:||Chang Cheh, Ni Kuang|
|Starring:||Li Yi-Min, Alexander Fu Sheng, Phillip Kwok, Sun Chien, Lo Meng, Lu Feng and Chiang Sheng|
|The Plot: In Heaven, the gate keeper in charge of guarding the portal between Heaven and Earth lands in deep dutch when a couple manage to escape on his watch. Punished for his lack of discipline, this guard named Xin Ling (played by Shaw Bros. veteran Li Yi-min) is re-incarnated on earth as a taxi driver in contemporary Hong Kong. While out and about he meets up with Shiqi (Alexander Fu Sheng) and Chen Ding (Jenny Tseng), who are two star crossed lovers trying to be together despite Jenny’s gangster ex-boyfriend making trouble for the two. In the midst of saving Shiqi’s life however, Xin Ling is killed and his soul is then banished to hell. When he awakens in hell, he meets up with another lost soul known as Red Dress who tells him of her woeful story of experimenting with drugs which lead to her death. The only way for Xin Ling and Red Dress to escape the torments of hell however is to get in touch with the Buddha of mercy and then fight their way out of this Inferno. With the help of some other just souls, Xin Ling will take on all the forces of hell in an epic battle of supernatural martial arts!
While speaking on that sense of imagination, I won’t say that the visuals alone are enough to save this picture. There are many beautiful sets in this movie that capture simplicity on top of ingenuity, but when you get right down to the basics Heaven & Hell lacks narrative structure unfortunately. I am a big fan of visual stimuli however, and I love that aspect of the film. It’s almost as if Chang Cheh said “okay, the audience can tell that this is a set so why don’t we just go overboard?”, and this actually pays off. The problems arise with the story and how it essentially disintegrates as the movie goes along. What starts off as a strong piece of character work devolves into a series of fights, gimmicks and crazy images. That may work for Alejandro Jodorowsky, as he mixes his imagery in with subtext and ideas, but for Chang Cheh it remains fun and inventive visual pastiche that doesn’t equal out to anything, unfortunately.
Li Yi-min really leads the cast here however, and although he wasn’t as well trained with martial arts in real life as many members of the cast were, he was a fantastic performer. He stands tall next to the venom clan as the group has to eventually fight their way out of hell during the final minutes of the film. He does well in carrying the both in both the fight sequences and in the dramatic moments, but mostly he is called upon to react to the various forms of torture that Chang Cheh concocts during the “hell” segment of the film. Chang Cheh will always be known to me as a filmmaker who loved his gimmicks, and during this sequence he demonstrates that passion yet again. People who gossip too much are shown having their tongues pulled by hooks, those who are greedy are shown being forced to drink liquid gold and gamblers are forced to play cards in a game that they always lose, and must then have their fingers chopped off in retaliation. My description likely makes this sound a lot more grotesque than it actually is, I am sure. The final minutes are completely Chang Cheh in attitude, as we see the group of fighters who must escape from hell with Li Yi-min were wronged during their lifetime and each man must search out his own vengeance during their escape. These wronged men each have their own particular story that they relay for the audience, crafting small vengeance tales for each man similar to many Venom Mob films.