“A terrorizing experience through the dimensions of dead and alive!” proclaims the Chinese trailer in fractured English. They ain’t kidding. If you’ve a phobia of Hong Kong fantasy’s loopy logic, stay well clear. Everyone else, strap in for a wild ride. Veteran chopsocky helmer Chang Cheh assembles a galaxy of Shaw Bros.’ biggest stars for this amazing – deep breath – time-travelling/musical/martial arts/fairytale/gangster melodrama/anti-drug/comedy/gory horror/morality play about reincarnation, star-crossed lovers and karmic retribution. (Gasp!)
Top-billed, kung fu legends David Chiang and Alexander Fu Sheng are special guest stars, our main man is the lesser- known Li Yi-Min. He plays a palace guard in the opening act set in Heaven, a wonderland of fluffy, pink clouds, golden temples, celestial beings and dancing girls. After playboy Chiang’s romance with a comely handmaiden angers the grumpy gods, kindly Yi-Min helps the lovers escape and is punished with a one-way ticket to reincarnation. Next thing you know he’s a cabbie (presumably the gods’ idea of the lowest form of life) in late seventies Hong Kong, witnessing happy-go-lucky artist Fu Sheng falling for lovelorn secretary Jenny Tsang. The cute couple (an item in real life until Fu Sheng’s tragic death) sing a love duet amidst a hyper-stylised, day-glo, 2-D set straight out of The Magic Roundabout, but a nasty triad boss (perennial baddie Lo Lieh) develops a yen for Jen. Kung fu badass Fu Sheng sorts out the triads, but when Lieh pulls a gun, it’s kind-hearted Yi-Min who takes the bullet (Can’t this guy catch a break?).
Next stop: the gore-splattered, torture dungeons of Hell, where demons slice off gamblers’ hands and yank tongues out of gossipy housewives, while ghosts with 10ft. tongues prey on lost souls. Yi-Min falls for Red Dress (Maggie Li Lin-Lin), a pretty spook whose flashback reveals she was abused by dope fiends. Together they beseech Buddha who proposes they assemble a crack team of martial arts experts and fight their way out of Hell! Fortunately, legendary kung fu quintet, The Five Deadly Venoms gather across space and time, each with flashback tales of woe…
Essentially, a martial arts remake of Jigoku (1960), a Japanese horror classic available on DVD from Criterion (Wonder why they gave this one a miss?), Heaven & Hell is nutty indeed. Its philosophical musings on karma and morality are sincere, but reactionary and shallow when compared to Tsui Hark’s Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983). But as a one-of-a-kind fantastical thrill-ride it’s heady stuff, a non-stop parade of frantic fistfights, musical numbers and outrageous gore. The candy-coloured splendours of Heaven and the garish, grand guignol of Hell are presented beautifully, in Cinemascope with razor sharp detail (Available on region 3 from Celestial and region 1 from Image). A perfect party movie, if watched back to back with The Dragon Lives Again (1976) and Fantasy Mission Force (1985) will surely explode your brain.