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
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