Director: Ringo Lam
Notable Cast: Willie Chi, Carman Lee, Wong Kam-Kong, Yamson Domingo, Maggie Lam Chuen, John Ching Tung, Kam-Fai Yuen, Ng Hey-Sin, Lee Chi, Chris Lee King-Sang
Wuxia films from the 90s, particularly the early 90s, are their own breed. After the genre lost some favor with audiences throughout the 80s as urban and modern action films started to dominate the box offices, Tsui Hark rekindled the genre with his epic Once Upon a Time in China series, and a new age of wuxia was born. In the wake of the success of that franchise, a lot of studios and filmmakers took their own stab (swing? slice?) at the genre but with slightly updated tones and style for the 90s.
One of the most intriguing gaps in my own experience of working through the bigger titles from this decade was Burning Paradise. Directed by the iconic Ringo Lam, only two years before he would exit the Hong Kong industry to make his attempt at breaking into Hollywood, Burning Paradise was the only time he would dabble in the wuxia genre.
And while the film had its own cult reputation through bootlegs, it’s only just recently did the film find a fantastic home video release via Vinegar Syndrome for fans, like me, to finally experience.
…and with enough fire, blood, and relentless flipping of bodies, Burning Paradise lives up to the hype. The story of Fong Sai Yuk, played by Willie Chi, has him captured by Qing soldiers and imprisoned in the cavernous (and trap-laden) Red Lotus Temple. Here he finds many of his Shaolin brothers captured when trying to escape the burning of the Shaolin temples by the military. Against the odds, he must align with a few other monks to overthrow the cruel prison warden and break free from the chains that bind them.
Yes, that means Burning Paradise is a film that is a wild mixture of wuxia, prison break, and just a hint of horror elements. And while that concoction could lead to mixed results, somehow - in some awesomely weird way - Ringo Lam makes it work.
Burning Paradise mostly takes place in one location, after a massively long desert chase reveals to the audience that this film will be lightning quick and quite brutal in its violence, and yet it still manages to feel unique in each of its setups. At times, the underground prison temple feels almost Roger Corman gothic in its look and feel, with Poe-style traps to complete the tone, and it adds a relatively fantastical element to the proceedings. Certainly, the wuxia elements add to this, gravity-defying action notwithstanding, and it gives the entire thing an almost dream-like quality while maintaining its brutal grittiness.
While the film certainly has to overcome some of the sheer ludicrous elements of its plot and concept, it does it with enough visual flair and a preposterously driven pace that performs a light-foot kung fu technique right over the plot holes. It’s almost miraculous to watch. The action is impressively entertaining with enough hard-hitting kung fu throwdowns to keep the die-hards hooked too. By the time they introduce the traitorous rival Shaolin monk to Fong Sai Yuk, the film has already been firing on all cylinders in action and the continued battle between our hero and the villains only gets more outlandish as the film progresses. When the finale hits, with enough fire effects to make me sweat in my movie chair, Burning Paradise was already solidified as one of the great unsung action flicks of the 90s - and that’s a hard list to get on.
As a side note, Willie Chi is an underrated leading man, mostly due to a career that only spans four films, and he’s charming enough to grab that 90s slapstick humor that pops up occasionally. While the performances in the film range in the usual Hong Kong spectrum of “why is everyone overacting?” to “why is this so effectively engaging in its weirdly somber manner?,” I was shocked at how much he’s bringing to the legendary character in the small moments. Yes, some of the secondary characters get to eat the scenery often, but Willie Chi needed to be addressed. He owns the character here and it is relatively impressive.
For wuxia fans, Ringo Lam enthusiasts, or - in this case - both, one cannot go wrong with Burning Paradise. It’s a diamond in the rough, occasionally snagged by its off-beat humor or bolder swings in style, but the overall experience is just as engaging as one would hope. It’s a genre-bending narratively impactful wuxia with great performances and some impressively shot and choreographed action set pieces.
Makes me sad that Lam never dabbled in the martial arts genre more.
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