Director: Ringo Lam
Screenplay: Nam Yin, Wong Wan Choi
Starring: Willie Chi, Carman Lee, Yang Sheng, Kam Kwong-Wong, John Ching, Maggie Lam Chuen, Li Ji
Country: Hong Kong
Running Time: 104 min
Year: 1994
BBFC Certificate: 18

Burning Paradise was known as Huo shao hong lian si in Hong Kong and China. This translates to ‘Fire Burns Red Lotus Temple’ and was the title of the epic 1928-31 film serial Ringo Lam’s 1994 film is loosely based on.

Burning Paradise was Lam’s first period martial arts/wuxia film. Better known for his gritty, contemporary thrillers and dramas, most notably his ‘On Fire’ films, this also ended up being his last foray into the genre. You see, Burning Paradise was a massive flop, only running for 1 week in its native Hong Kong and grossing a mere HK$1,819,697, which was pitiful for a film with a budget of HK$23 Million.

The film did manage to gain a little more traction on VHS and DVD but it still isn’t one of Lam’s better-known films. It must have some fans though as Eureka have decided to polish up the film and release it on Blu-ray. The concept of Ringo Lam directing a wuxia appealed to me, so I got my hands on a copy and my thoughts follow.

Burning Paradise opens during the aftermath of the burning of the Shaolin temple by the Manchus, an event that actually occurred in the late 1640s and has been depicted on screen countless times. The Shaolin disciple Fong Sai-yuk (Willie Chi) and his master, Chi Nun (Wu Xi-qian), escape the carnage, fighting off a number of Manchu soldiers along the way.

They make it to an abandoned shack, where they meet Dau Dau (Carman Lee), who’s also on the run from the authorities. However, their freedom is short-lived as a swathe of soldiers appears the next morning. The already injured Chi Nun is killed by Officer Crimson (John Ching) whilst Fong and Dau Dau are taken prisoner.

The Manchus take them and all the remaining Shaolin to the Red Lotus Temple where they are held prisoner by the evil Elder Kung (Kam Kwong-Wong, a.k.a. K.K. Wong), whilst Dau Dau and the other women there are kept as his concubines. Kung’s reign in the temple is cruel and brutal, murdering anyone who challenges him.

Aiding Kung’s control over the prisoners is Hong Hei-kun (Yang Sheng), a former Shaolin disciple who has switched sides, and Tsui Ho (Maggie Lam Chuen), a skilled female fighter who is in love with Hei-kun.

Thus begins a fight to survive the hell that Kung has created.

I must admit, despite claiming to be a great lover of martial arts movies, I hadn’t heard of Burning Paradise before Eureka announced this release, so had no expectations from it, other than what I’d seen in their trailer. As such, I wasn’t prepared to love it as much as I did.

What likely put much of the original Hong Kong audience off on the film’s original release is what I loved about it. Namely, Burning Paradise has a very dark, grisly edge that sets it aside from most of the wuxia of the time (the genre experienced a resurgence after the success of Once Upon a Time in China). The lavish production design is much more reminiscent of gothic horror than Shaw Brothers movies or the classic wuxia of King Hu. There’s also a heck of a lot more blood and gore than usual. People are chopped in half, heads are ripped off and even a horse falls graphically victim to a flying guillotine.

All of this makes for a wonderfully grand guignol spin on the period martial arts epic that I adored. For one, it looks stunning. On top of the aforementioned production design, the film is beautifully lit and shot by Gao Zi-yi, who makes great use of fire and other reds.

There are also some striking paintings that feature prominently in the film. These and the calligraphy also on display are actually done on screen by K.K. Wong, who plays the Elder Kung character. Supposedly, Lam’s vision for the film was inspired by one of Wong’s paintings. I love the fact Wong’s character is also given super calligraphy powers in his climactic fight scene.

The film has come under criticism for how its grim brutality clashes with some surprisingly comedic elements. I’d agree that a number of the jokes seem ill-placed in otherwise very serious moments but I didn’t mind the earlier comic scenes, before the darker side of the film really kicks in.

This is a minor grievance in an otherwise thrilling film though. It positively hurtles along, always with a fight or other dramatic set piece around the corner. The action is excellent too. Fights are shot and edited with great energy, using wires to enhance some acrobatic, weapon-heavy choreography.

The cast does a great job in these fight scenes, looking entirely convincing as skilled martial artists among the wire-assisted feats. Lead Willie Chi was groomed to be a big star by Johnnie To, who discovered him not long before the film was made. He looked set to make it too, due to his martial arts talents and on-screen charisma. However, some surprising personal reasons got in the way of his rising fame. On the set of Burning Paradise, Carman Lee and Chi became a couple and stayed together for several years, but it later came to light that Chi already had a wife and child in the US. When To discovered this, he froze his contract with Chi and the young actor ended up leaving the industry.

As Frank Djeng mentions in his commentary on this disc, you could dig deep into the film too, viewing it as a metaphor for what Hong Kong faced after the handover, being trapped under a restrictive totalitarian regime. Whether or not this is intentional is debatable but it’s an interesting take and the issue was certainly on the minds of the people of Hong Kong in 1994, only 3 years before China would take control of the region.

It wasn’t on my mind as I watched the film though. I was simply entranced by the incredibly exciting blend of wuxia, horror and prison movie that played out before me at a blistering pace. Handsomely mounted yet blood-soaked, Burning Paradise is an action-packed thrill ride from start to finish.


Burning Paradise is out on 29th May on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Eureka Classics series. The film looks stunning, with gorgeous colours and sharp details. The Cantonese mono sounds great too, though I had one minor bugbear with the disc – I spotted a trio of grammatical errors in the subtitles. Not a big deal, but the grammar Nazi in me couldn’t help but notice.

– Limited Edition O-Card slipcase featuring new artwork by Darren Wheeling [2000 copies]
– 1080p HD presentation on Blu-ray from a 2K restoration of the films’ original 35mm camera negative
– Cantonese and English audio options (both in their original mono presentations)
– Optional English Subtitles, newly translated for this release
– Brand new feature length audio commentary by Asian film expert Frank Djeng (NY Asian Film Festival)
– Archival Interview with Tsui Hark
– Original theatrical trailer
– A Limited Edition collector’s booklet featuring new writing by James Oliver [2000 copies]

Frank Djeng can always be depended on to deliver a first-rate commentary loaded with facts about the cast and crew but here he outdoes himself, with some fascinating stories about those involved as well as discussing the film itself and the legendary characters depicted on screen. I kept pausing and rewinding sections to make notes for my review, which is always a sign of a valuable commentary. He must have had a cold or something though whilst recording because he struggles with clearing his throat a lot!

The interview with producer Tsui Hark is only 4 and-a-half minutes long, including a clip of the film, so it’s rather short. It’s worth a watch though, as he provides a useful overview of how the production came to be and how it went. He claims Lam pretty much produced himself, due to his great experience in the industry.

The booklet is another valuable addition to the set. James Oliver gives his thoughts on what makes the film special and suggests why it performed so poorly at the box office.

Overall then, whilst a little lower-key than some of Eureka’s other Hong Kong releases in terms of extras, what is here is excellent and the commentary alone covers a great deal of ground. That, added to my great love of the film, means it makes for a very high recommendation.


Burning Paradise - Eureka
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Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

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