Heaven and Hell (1980)
Director: Chang Cheh
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!

The Review
Currently I am writing this for the 2010 Varied Celluloid Kung Fu Christmas spectacular, which has truly only just begun at the moment, but I have a good feeling that no matter what I manage to watch this month I will not be able to scrounge up a more surreal or bizarre entry into the celebrations. Director Chang Cheh provided films that ran the gauntlet in terms of Kung Fu cinema possibilities, but I have never seen anything from the filmmaker that matches the general insanity that Heaven & Hell manages to provide. A martial arts action picture only in the most basic of terms, Heaven & Hell is an experimentation in style that doesn’t regularly succeed, but does manage to provide a great deal of intriguing moments. Whether for good or for bad, there’s no doubt that this movie takes every bit of fashionable style that Chang Cheh ever managed in any of his films and amplifies it by increments of thirty. Is it weird in a good way or is it weird just for the sake of being weird? This is a question that I don’t know if I have a suitable answer for just yet, but I still say that the movie delivers an entirely unique experience, to say the least.
A psychedelic trip through a disjointed world of fantasy, action, romance and comedy, Heaven & Hell was bound to confuse its audience even upon initial release. Apparently it was a very troubled production, being shot over five years from 1975 to release in 1980, it seems that the episodic nature of the film could be attributed to this. The film is segmented into parts, as the locations and story seem to change on the fly. There are three very noticeable segments that loosely make up the film, and give it a somewhat cohesive feeling. We have our initial segment that takes place in heaven, which is followed by what happens on earth and then finally we have the great escape from hell. Cheh shows his masterful eye for the absurd as he crafts a theatrical world of bizarre sights and wonders. The film takes on the appearance of a studio musical or stage production, as Cheh veers heavily away from anything that resembles reality. I have always liked the “stage” atmosphere of older Shaw productions anyway, so this was a welcome change in setting. In today’s society we are so obsessed with capturing reality that we tend to forget just how creative and amazing something can seem by simply ignoring the illusion of ‘reality’ and instead focusing on raw imagination.

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.
The main selling point here though should be the all star cast that makes up this production. The film features a cameo by David Chiang, right off the bat. I assume that his involvement came at the very beginning of the project, but as time drew on he was unable to continue with the production. After this quick glance at David Chiang, we get the incomparable Fu Sheng who is featured alongside then-girlfriend Jenny Tseng, and the two actually sing a duet with one another! At that point in the movie, I had no idea what to expect. With the set design being the way that it is and this couple breaking into song out of the blue, it didn’t seem far off to think that this could actually turn into a musical. Thankfully It does not, and the bizarre musical number is never revisited. Featured amongst the stellar cast, we also have five out of six members of the venom mob. Featured in the film we have Chiang Sheng, Lu Feng, Lo Meng, Sun Chien and Phillip Kwok. The only venom missing would be Wei Pai, but he only worked on a handful of films with the clan anyhow.

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.

The Conclusion
While Heaven & Hell is a special project due to its visual tenacity and the epic cast that it boasts, the overall project is a bit on the underwhelming side. The audience never gets wrapped up in the story and it is possibly too weird for the average Kung Fu film fan to really get behind. I give the movie a three out of four. While I do recommend it to Venom fans and those wanting to see how special and unique Chang Cheh could be in his directorial palette, for those lookin for a good time this might not be the movie for you.