Saturday, March 30, 2024

Di san lei da dou (1980)

... aka: 第三類打鬥
... aka: 殺出地獄門
... aka: Fight Through the Gates of Hell
... aka: Heaven and Hell
... aka: Heaven and Hell Gate
... aka: Sha chu di yu men
... aka: Shaolin Hellgate

Directed by:
Cheh Chang

I'm so used to seeing amazing art direction from various Shaw Brothers productions that the opening scene here really threw me for a loop. This set, which is supposed to capture the splendor of heaven, looks incredibly cheap by their standards, with an obvious matte temple backdrop that looks like it could have been painted by some school kids. They do try to spruce it up with swirls of colorful fog, but it doesn't quite get the job done visually. What does work here is its amusingly atypical depiction of heaven that flies in the face of what a lot of folks are led to assume the "real" heaven would be like. A joyous place of eternal peace and contentment? Nah! This heaven is just as shitty as Earth; perhaps just as shitty as hell even!

I've always felt that if every sanctimonious, hypocritical, judgmental, pseudo pious, phony asshole who claims to believe made it through the pearly gates, and didn't receive a lobotomy or some kind of personality overhaul on their way there, that heaven wouldn't be all that it was cracked up to be. The makers of this film appear to agree with that notion. As depicted here, heaven is the usual assortment of haves and have nots, with the peasantry having to obediently serve the demanding, pampered jerks at the top of the hierarchy or else face the consequences. I'd imagine living through your earthly existence only to find the afterlife is essentially the same exact thing with the same exact problems and the same exact people you had to deal with as a mortal would be quite depressing. Make that doubly depressing; now you're also stripped of the possibility of death to finally put you out of your misery.

This also has a female ruler of heaven and the uptight and constantly scowling "Queen Mother" isn't such a nice lady. After participating in a silly choreographed dance, maid Zi Xiao (Maggie Li) finds out the hard way that you don't wanna upset the Queen. She's tasked with delivering a "magic peach" on a silver platter to her highness for her birthday, but accidentally trips, falls and drops it. Palace guards are then ordered to "punish" her by giving her 300 lashes and then locking her away in a cell for the rest of eternity. Peasant boy Zhou Bao (David Chiang), who's in love with Zi Xiao, steps in to save her and the two run off toward the South Gate, where they can escape heaven and return to Earth. Since heaven doesn't allow for marriage, getting out will also enable them to finally be together. For helping the two escape, royal guard Xin Ling (Yi-Min Li) is likewise stripped of all his supernatural powers and exiled from the kingdom.

Down on Earth, things get even stranger if you can imagine something even stranger than God demanding you be tortured and jailed for dropping a giant piece of fruit. For starters, we learn that the curiously subpar art direction of the heaven sequence is an intentional stylistic choice from the director, who is trying to make his film resemble a stage play, but only in the first 20 minutes. I'm sure there was some kind of artistic reasoning for this but whatever it was is completely lost on me. The same goes for the inclusion of several awkward musical numbers, which are also just in the first 20 minutes before the film completely forgets it was ever trying to be a musical. As for the characters, we meet entirely different sets of them at random intervals and continue to meet different sets until we get sick of meeting new characters and everything and everyone just becomes one big blur.

The first little subplot details artist Chen Ding ([Alexander] Fu Sheng) trying to save his bank secretary girlfriend Shi Qi (Fu's real-life wife Jenny [Tseng]) from brutal gangster Huo (Tao Chiang). While she's at work, some thugs show up to rob the place and kidnap her. She's then taken back to the gangster's home, raped and held hostage until her boyfriend can finally break her out. After Chen Ding defeats the thugs, the gangster enlists the aid of an experienced assassin (Lung-Wei Wang) to do him in and recapture Shi Qi. This leads to another brawl, but this one also involves Xin Ling, who's back on Earth working as a taxi driver. He manages to defeat the assassin but is also shot and killed in the process. Next stop: Hell!

Ditching the more minimalist approach of what has come before, hell here is actually a comic book-like visual treat in the expected Shaw Brothers way and filled with lots of gaudy colors, mutant guards, crazy tortures and maxed out set designs. While in heaven you're destined to be part of the slave class and have your eternity ruined for the most minor of infractions, hell's moral code is much more along the lines of letting the punishment fit the crime, only fairness and justice are absent because the residing judge (Miao Ching) is a bad combination inept and corrupt.

Interestingly, this hell has separate, specific departments, like one just for gamblers, who are forced into mahjong, domino and card games with cheaters and thus always lose; denying them of the gratification that once used to fuel their addiction. They then get their fingers chopped off, which miraculously reappear soon after and get to repeat the process over and over again. Greedy folks have to drink molten gold. Drunks are forced to ingest rivers of liquor. Gossips get their tongues ripped out. People hang from chains over beds of spikes, are frozen into ice cubes, bisected with giant saws, skinned alive, run over with plows, pulverized with grindstones, you name it! While heaven certainly isn't a treat, hell isn't such a fun place either. The impression given here is that perhaps it would be preferable for there to actually be no afterlife at all. Human contagion would probably manage to somehow screw it up.

Xin Ling befriends the beautiful Hung Chin (Chen-Chi Lin, who's completely wasted here in a decorative role but was used much more effectively by Tsui Hark in Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind this same year), who died after taking hallucinogens at a party and falling out of a window. After fighting back and causing some problems for the hell staff, Xin Ling is given a second chance at life after "The Buddha of Mercy" (Yung Henry Yu) shows up to answer his prayers. The merciful God allows him to assemble a posse of strong fighters to do battle with the hellish higher-ups. And, as if we needed even MORE characters, all four of these guys are given brief flashbacks to how they ended up in hell in the first place.

While engaged in a friendly battle, swordsman Tien-Yang Cheng ("Chui Kuo" / Phillip Kwok) was betrayed and then decapitated by his rival, Jia-Xiang Chang (Feng Lu). After avenging his father's murder, Tin-zan Yan ("Yen-Tsan Tang" / Bruce Tong) was captured and murdered while in prison by having a large metal rod pushed down his throat. Teenage ruffian Han-Ting Wei ("Mang" / Meng Lo) was shot in the back after a dispute with a corrupt cop who almost ran him and his friends over. Finally, Wei-Kang Lin (Chien Sun) was killed while trying to defend his girlfriend from some thieves / rapists. As you can probably tell, all of these guys unjustly ended up in hell just like Xin Ling, which also seems to explain why they still have red blood instead of black and are also given an opportunity to redeem themselves. But first they have to fight their way out of hell, which includes doing battle with all kinds fiends, including long-tongued wizards (one on stilts) and various H.G. Wells-looking animal-human hybrids (some of whom were the earthly enemies of the fighters) armed with spiked clubs and tridents.

With all of the unusual sights (including a truly trippy finale) and cheap make-up designs and weird costumes and great lighting schemes and crazy production design and non-stop, expertly choreographed action scenes, it's basically impossible not to be at least a little entertained here. And thank Buddha for that because the script couldn't be a bigger mess if it tried. Supposedly the film was made in fits and starts over the course of several years, which may explain why everything feels so disjointed and why the heaven and earthly lover characters are set up as leads but then never heard from again after the first 20 minutes. Though their stories are unresolved and unsatisfying (also rather pointless), this improves somewhat after it permanently relocates to hell for the final hour.

What this really feels like is a story-chucked-out-the-window excuse to not only squeeze in as many fight scenes as possible but also cram as many marquee stars from the Shaw Brothers stable into just one film as possible, coherence be damned!

Sheng Chiang (THRILLING BLOODY SWORD), Gary Siu (POSSESSED) and Dick Wei (THE SEVENTH CURSE) co-star as guardian angels that are decked out like drag queens complete with glitter, overdone eye make-up and feathery vests and skirts (!) Also here briefly are familiar veteran actors Ching-Ho Wong, Teresa Ha Ping, Chih-Ching Yang, Hsi Chang, Ching Tin and loads of others with hundreds of credits that I could mention. The director went on to make ATTACK OF THE JOYFUL GODDESS (1983) and THE NINE DEMONS (1984), which are both also strange and feature many of the same actors (a number of whom were Five Deadly Venoms vets) seen here.

There were several English-friendly DVD releases, including one through Image in 2007, who only offered the Mandarian language audio track with English subtitles. A characteristically awful English dubbed version is also available, though not recommended.

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