Heaven and Hell

heaven-1.jpgSeeing the words “Shaw” and “Brothers” was all it took to get me interested in watching this film, and when I read the synopsis on the back, and then saw that it was directed by the legendary Chang Cheh, I was all over it. I have long been a fan of kung fu movies produced by Shaw Brothers studios in Hong Kong, and as my appreciation for the genre has grown, so too has my work for Cheh. The director who brought us such classics as One-Armed Swordsman, The Five Deadly Venoms and Vengeance is considered by many to be the best director to ever work for Shaw Brothers. But even geniuses have moments where they lose their footing, and Heaven and Hell appears one of those moments.

The film starts out in, of all places, Heaven. Kicking off with a bizarre dance number that seems to have been inspired by an odd combination of Busby Berkley and Vincent Minelli, we are quickly introduced to a pair of angels who have fallen in love. Unfortunately, falling in love is forbidden in Heaven, and they are to be punished for their crimes, so they decide to escape to Earth. When enforcer angel Xin Ling (Li Yin-Min) helps the young lovers escape, he is also banished back to Earth, where he is reincarnated as a taxi driver. Manwhile, the former angels have been reincarnated as actors Alexander Fu Sheng and Jenny Tseng, who are kept apart by an evil gangster. Following some musical numbers (?!?) the lovers are reunited, only to face the wrath of the evil gangster. Luckily, they run into Xin Ling and his cab, who comes to their rescue, but is killed for his troubles. This leads Xin Ling to Hell, which is where thing really start to get weird. After wandering around Hell looking for a way to escape, our hero meets Buddha, who informs Xin Ling that he must recruit several other warriors, each one wrongly sent to Hell, and together they can escape.

I’m not really sure what to say about Heaven and Hell. It is certainly one of the more strange films I’ve ever seen. And I’m not just talking Hong Kong cinema, I’m talking one of the more strange films I’ve ever seen, period. It is clear that director Chang Cheh was trying to do something a bit different, and on that level he succeeds. But exactly what it is he was trying to do is unclear. The sequences in Heaven are weird, but really give very little indication as to what lies ahead.

Once the action shifts to Earth the film takes an even more surreal turn, which is saying a lot because things in Heaven were pretty bizarre. Cheh stages nearly every scene on minimalist sets that are clearly not real. It is almost as if the action is taking place on a stage. The same is true for the action sequences that are choreographed in such a way as to appear totally fake, and come across like someone was really inspired by West Side Story, but didn’t know how to pull it off. And of course there are the musical numbers, poorly dubbed in Mandarin and featuring really bad English subtitles.

By the time Xin Ling finds himself in Hell, the film finally starts to get “normal.” Don’t get me wrong, because things are still completely nuts, but definitely within the “normal” realms of Hong Kong cinematic insanity. It is in the netherworld that Heaven and Hell comes closest to resembling the sort of kung fu film most American audiences are accustomed to. But things still remain bizarre, especially when Xin Ling, under the orders of Buddha, recruits his team of wrongly damned to Hell warriors, who are basically the cast of Five Deadly Venoms.

The recent DVD release of several classic Shaw Brothers’ films by the Weinstein Company provided the opportunity to see a handful of great films. While Heaven and Hell is not nearly as well known as The 36th Chamber of Shaolin or One-Armed Swordsman, it is great to have an opportunity to see more films from the prolific studio. Heaven and Hell not exactly what I would consider a classic, but it is certainly an interesting film (and I mean that in a mostly positive way). I wouldn’t tell people to run out and buy it, but renting it isn’t out of the question.

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