As the title suggests, this is a remake of the Shaw Brothers horror classic Human Skin Lanterns (1982) though it bears little resemblance to its source. Shifting the action away from the original period setting into the twentieth century, the plot concerns Tong Fai (Tony Leung Ka Fai) an uncouth street punk plagued with a seemingly endless run of bad luck. Acting as an informant on behalf of bullying police detective Kwong (Tommy Wong Kwong-Leung), Fai bumbles into the middle of a gang war between established triads and wealthy and powerful boss Hung (Roy Cheung), who is secretly skilled in black magic, but is rescued by a ghost maiden named Yung (Chingamy Yau). Driven to consult sagely medium Granny Four (Teresa Ha Ping), Fai relives his past life in 1963 when he was a lawyer working for none other than Boss Hung and in love with Yung, an aspiring actress bullied by bitchy opera diva Sister Wai (Lok Wai). Sister Wai’s psychotic jealousy coupled with Boss Hung’s own lascivious interest in Yung result in the lovers reaching a tragic end. Now to break his streak of bad luck and redeem Yung’s soul, Fai must retrieve the bones of his earlier incarnation and steal back the lantern made from his lover’s skin.
This was an early collaboration between cinematographer-turned-director Andrew Lau and schlock writer-producer-director Wong Jing who went on to redefine the Hong Kong blockbuster with Storm Riders (1998), A Man Called Hero (1999) and The Duel (2000), and is yet another vehicle tailored around Wong’s then-girlfriend, comely Category III starlet Chingamy Yau. All New Human Skin Lanterns - also known by the less cumbersome variant title: Ghost Lantern - opens unpromisingly with a surfeit of the usual gleefully lowbrow comedy for which Wong Jing is famed. However, those who bear through the avalanche of vomit, piss and knob gags that comprise the first ten minutes, will be rewarded with a surprisingly engaging and poetic supernatural love story.
Rather than mount a straight remake, Wong has the grisly skin-stripping premise serve as a bridge between one plot styled after a contemporary triad crime thriller and flashbacks paying tribute to the classic Cantonese love stories of the Sixties. It is possibly Wong’s involvement with Chingamy Yau influenced the atypically sensitive and affecting tone of the flashbacks, although the film also packs a few solid jolts when it shifts into horror. Notably an unexpected moment where one character morphs into a fright-wigged, crimson-clad ghost. Andrew Lau’s restlessly inventive and often beautiful camerawork shifts from blue tinted present into lustrous gold for the flashback scenes and brings a lot of energy to Wong’s admittedly cluttered script.
In a typically tasteless Wong Jing twist, Fai discovers the gravesite of his former incarnation is now located beneath a disgusting public toilet behind a notorious gambling den. Having Yung inhabit Kwong’s body so that the star-crossed lovers can enjoy a slow dance together, allows for all manner of cross-gender gags reminiscent of All of Me (1984) while the finale is best surmised as John Woo re-imagining the climax of A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) by way of The Terminator (1984) in a police station besieged by triads. If that makes any sense. It is a testament to the charismatic performances of Tony Leung Ka Fai and Chingamy Yau that the film remains so watchable despite these jarring shifts in tone. Still, Wong’s hand is evident in an endearingly surreal gag wherein Fai’s right hand man (Dion Lam Dik On, also the film’s action choreographer) rides to his rescue along with gun-toting members of the Dutch football team. Only in a Wong Jing movie.
Hong Kong director and cinematographer responsible for some of the biggest hits in recent HK cinema. Born Wai Keung Lau, he photographed classics such as City on Fire, Curry and Pepper and Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express. As a director, Lau brought a flashy, commercial style to films like Naked Killer 2, Modern Romance and To Live and Die in Tsimshatsui, all produced by the prolific Wong Jing.