Prior to decamping to Hollywood to crank out umpteen direct-to-video vehicles for Jean-Claude Van Damme, Ringo Lam ranked among Hong Kong's most respected auteur directors. Best known for gritty social satires and contemporary crime thrillers, most notably City on Fire (1987) the heist movie that inspired Reservoir Dogs (1992), Lam delivered his only period martial arts film with Burning Paradise. In Ching Dynasty China the Manchurian government, fearful of rebellion, massacre the martial arts skilled monks at Shaolin temple (a real historical atrocity that inspired numerous kung fu films). On the run from Manchu soldiers young kung fu superhero Fong Sai Yuk (Willie Chi Ting-Sang) and his sifu Chi Nun (Ng Hey-Sin) escape to an abandoned hut where they bump into Tou Tou (Carman Lee), a runaway prostitute.
Unfortunately Sai Yuk and Tou Tou are apprehended by Crimson (John Ching Tung), a crazed killer who wields a razor-edged flying guillotine. He brings them to the infamous Red Lotus Temple, hideout of degenerate Elder Kung (Wong Kam-Kong), a respected official so drunk on power he transformed this sacred place into an elaborate torture den and sex-trafficking ring. An enraged Sai Yuk takes on Kung's entire army but is left reeling by a shocking betrayal from former Shaolin student Hong (Yeung Sing), who remains conflicted but determined to survive. Kung flings an injured Sai Yuk into a pit full of rotting corpses then turns Tou Tou into his personal plaything. Of course Sai Yuk breaks free and stirs up a rebellion, but escape seems impossible given Kung has death-traps hidden in every corner of Red Lotus Temple.
Burning Paradise was originally intended as an installment in producer Tsui Hark's successful Once Upon a Time in China series but eventually became its own distinctive beast. In place of the series' stock protagonist Wong Fei-Hung, the central figure is another historical hero: Fong Sai-Yuk, the impetuous, seemingly invincible hot-headed young patriot famously portrayed on screen by Jet Li. Or if you are one of those kung fu film purists that hate everything from the New Wave era: Meng Fei in Prodigy Boxer (1972), Alexander Fu Sheng in Heroes Two (1974) and Shaolin Temple (1976) and Hsiao Ho in Disciples of the 36th Chamber (1985). The Red Lotus Temple was also the subject of numerous martial arts epics, from Shaw Brothers' breakthrough effort Temple of the Red Lotus (1964) to the surreal, special effects laden Burning of the Red Lotus Monastery (1982). Lam's film portrays the grim reality of this nightmarish historical hot-spot in gruesome detail. Burning Paradise is more or less a kung fu horror movie with characters trapped in a haunted house with piles of skulls, corpses strewn everywhere, rat-infested torture dungeons, and masked sadists boiling dead prisoners in alive while monks sell captive sex slaves. Lam's gloomy vision proved too strong for a Hong Kong audience in 1994 when the movie flopped. Yet today Burning Paradise ranks among the most ambitious and artful kung fu films ever made.
Fans routinely liken the film to Apocalypse Now (1979) in terms of its oppressive tone, genre revisionism and philosophical aspirations. Some feel it it is more a throwback to the gore-soaked sagas of Shaw Brothers' favourite Chang Cheh, but Lam's drama cuts a lot deeper. He crafts a consistently exciting adventure film that doubles as an angry, embittered allegory. Much like Marlon Brando's mad Vietnam veteran Colonel Kurtz, Elder Kung stands as a monstrous figure driven insane by an unending war and corrupt political system. Yet through the morally conflicted Hung, the film dares the viewer to ponder whether they would willingly trade their own safety and security to challenge such a system? Away from the carnage and bleak satire Lam leaves room for some humour, character development and even romance via Fong Sai Yuk's verbal sparring with the feisty and comely Tou Tou.
Elsewhere Lam proves himself a master of the widescreen frame with some epic action sequences, fusing the wire-fu spectacle of New Wave wu xia with the visceral gore and brutality of Japan's Lone Wolf and Cub films. Alongside the striking, often unsettling visuals (e.g. the passing of time is charted via flesh decaying on the uprooted arms of a buried corpse) Burning Paradise crafts a unique, nightmarish soundscape worthy of Walter Murch's achievements on Apocalypse Now or even Goblin's soundtrack to Suspiria (1977). Witch-like wailing melds with Buddhist chants, bells and unearthly synthesizer effects. Fitting for a kung fu film that often feels like a journey into the very bowels of hell.