It’s bizarre, experimental, and with several dashes of the macabre. If you don’t mind any of these, Shaw Brothers’ loopy Heaven and Hell (第三类打斗) is sure to delight.
Heaven and Hell (第三类打斗) Synopsis
A kung fu anthology consisting of three stories taking place in heaven, earth, and hell respectively:
Heaven: Heavenly guardian Xin Ling faces severe punishment after he permits another guard and a heavenly maiden to elope.
Earth: A pair of young lovers, Shiqi and Chen Ding, are keenly pursued by the minions of a gangster after Shiqi discovers the gangster’s narcotic trade. Luckily for them, they encounter a certain banished heavenly guardian while fleeing.
Hell: After ending up in hell, Xin Ling leads five other wronged souls in a desperate breakout from the horrific abyss.
It’s hard to pin a label on Shaw Brothers’ Heaven and Hell.
It’s hands-down weird, but not to the extent of movies like The Holy Mountain. The overall frame and stories in each segment are straightforward and simplistic, rather than baffling.
The movie is also a melange. Incorporating everything from kung fu action to classic Chinese mythology, to stage musical and pop art, to even fervent social commentary. If that sounds like a headache, the consolation is that acting and choreography are reasonable, often slick as well. No one’s going to win an (Asian) Oscar here. But no one is deserving of a Razzie too.
In view of everything, I guess the best way to approach this curious mishmash of everything is to describe it as a vehicle for Shaw Brothers’ then biggest and most popular kung fu stars. And not be too picky about story, logic, characters, and so on.
According to some online write-ups, Heaven and Hell was also sporadically filmed throughout the 70s because of budget issues. I’m not sure whether this is true but one other thing is clear. Famed director Chang Cheh was definitely indulging in artistic experimentation with this one. And taking every opportunity to toe the line on commercial appeal.
For most parts, his efforts are admirable; the Earth segment is bizarre with its minimalistic stages and dance-like fight sequences, but there is a certain mesmerizing beauty throughout. Actually, I would even say I enjoyed the brief Earth segment much more than the extended Hell chapter. The latter, for all its gore and action, and convoluted religious preaching, felt ordinary in comparison.
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