The Boxer's Omen
The latest in what has been an extraordinarily strong year for Chinese cinema on the New York repertory scene kicks off this weekend as the Metrograph presents a week-long series of “Shaw Brothers Horror” films, all but one of which are screening in 35mm, and all but one of which were produced by the Shaw Brothers studio. As Hong Kong cinema of the 70s and 80s has increasingly become a subject of cinephile interest (more or less in opposition to the genre thrill-seekers who have always loved it), the focus has primarily been on the martial arts genre and its major auteurs (Chang Cheh, Lau Kar-leung, John Woo) and stars (Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-fat). But beneath the surface of the high-class productions and dazzling physical and technical displays in the best of the colony’s output, there lies an electric undercurrent of the cheap, the weird and the flat-out disgusting.
By the end of the 1970s, with the emergence of a new generation of directors steeped in genre cinema both local and international and willing to work independently of the major Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest studios, that gonzo energy began to seep into the mainstream, resulting in heretofore unseen genre hybrids from veteran filmmakers like Yuen Woo-ping’s scatalogical take on the Wong Fei-hung legend in Drunken Master, Chang Cheh’s mystery wuxia The Five Deadly Venoms and its Gothic follow-ups, and Chor Yuen’s serialized Sternbergian fantasy wuxia adaptations Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre and Heroes Shed No Tears. The genre-mixing Hong Kong New Wave adopted horror as one of its specialities, with Tsui Hark’s eerie haunted house wuxia The Butterfly Murders and kung fu detective movie/cannibalism comedy We’re Going to Eat You, Yim Ho’s contemporary nightmare The Happenings, and Ann Hui’s The Secret and The Spooky Bunch leading the way. The Metrograph series captures this moment as it was reflected in the margins of the Shaw Brothers studio, beginning in 1976, with Ho Meng-hua’s Black Magic II, the second of two films that kicked off the Shaws horror cycle. That’s followed by 1979’s The Ghost Story, in many ways the odd duck in the series, directed by Li Han-hsiang. Then there is Human Lanterns, a wuxia by Sun Chung, Seeding of a Ghost, by Richard Yeung Kuen, and the one non-Shaw Brothers film in the series, Centipede Horror, produced by Winson Entertainment (who had distributed King Hu’s Legend of the Mountain a few years earlier). The series culminates with the related pair Bewitched and The Boxer’s Omen, by Kuei Chih-hung, the synthesis and high-point of this disreputable yet essential cycle of Hong Kong cinema.
I’m not sure why the Metrograph is starting their series with the second of Ho Meng-hua’s two Black Magic films, but I assume it has something to do with print availability and limited programming space. And besides, the second one is better anyway. The two films, in typical Hong Kong fashion, are not directly related in any way, only in cast, crew, setting and basic plot. That plot will be the basis of at least half the films in the series: a young, modern Hong Konger travels to Southeast Asia where they run afoul of an evil wizard, who uses a variety of mystical charms to torture them. Spells include but are not limited to: demonic possession, voodoo dolls, all manner of vile animals (bats, insects, worms, rats, scorpions) which attack from both outside and within the victims’ bodies, zombies, and spirit energy manifested as brightly-colored lights. The only defense the Hong Konger has is to turn to a priest, Buddhist or Taoist, who then engages in spiritual combat with the villain. Unlike in Western, Christian-sourced horror films, Chinese religions in these movies are not arbiters of moral clarity but rather mere window-dressing for the eerie special effects, their primacy over the primitive animism of Southeast Asia concomitant with the superiority of modern, urban Hong Kong Chinese culture.
Black Magic II features Ti Lung and Lo Lieh, major wuxia stars dating back to the late 60s. Ti plays a doctor who travels to “A Tropical City” (it’s in Thailand, in all these movies the evil comes from Thailand) with his wife to visit and help out a couple of fellow doctors. It seems Lo is an evil wizard with a mansion full of zombies, and his recipe for immortality requires young female victims. The doctors are on the case, evincing an impressive inability to accept the obvious mystical explanations for the phenomena they witness. The plot structure owes more than a little to Dracula, with Lo’s vampiric villain subsisting not on blood, but breast milk. Lo is always a reliable bad guy, and the sequel is better than its predecessor if for no other reason than that it centers him in the story rather than having him be a merely preliminary victim. This was not the first time Shaws sent a crew to Thailand to shoot a couple of movies at the same time: Chang Cheh did so five years earlier with Ti Lung and David Chiang, resulting in Duel of Fists and Angry Guest. It’s interesting to see how much of the studio’s distinctive style survived the trip and what, if anything they brought back. One item of note that did return is a dress that heroine Tanny Tien briefly wears, which Kara Hui will make iconic five years later in My Young Auntie (if you’ve seen that movie, you know exactly which dress).
Hui herself makes a brief appearance in 1979’s The Ghost Story, which is unlike any of the other films in the Metrograph series, in that it’s directed by a major filmmaker (Li Han-hsiang), is not especially graphic in its gore, and is not quite an original story. It’s instead sourced in the 18th Century short story collection Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, by Pu Songling, which also provided the basis for King Hu’s A Touch of Zen, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin and Tsui Hark and Ching Siu-tung’s A Chinese Ghost Story. Li himself had adapted one of the Strange Tales with The Enchanting Shadow, from 1960, when he was the star Shaws director, specializing in decorous huangmei musicals like The Love Eterne and Diao Chan. But by the end of the 70s he had been to Taiwan to help launch their film industry (where he also lured King Hu), begun specializing in softcore porn films, and made his way back to Hong Kong, where he tried to revive the huangmei genre with Sylvia Chang and Brigitte Lin in 1977’s Dream of the Red Chamber. The Ghost Story isn’t a musical, but it does have lots of sex and nudity. Essentially two mystical stories tied together by a framing device in which an elder is telling stories to a group of villagers (he sends the children away at the beginning the movie), the first is a variation on Homer’s Circe, with a group of Tang Dynasty women hoteliers turning the soldiers who try to rape them into pigs and selling them at the local market. The second jumps forward a thousand years (though ostensibly the same main characters thanks to the wonders of reincarnation) and tells of the consequences of lust as a young man falls for a demonic woman, mainly because he’s super-excited by her tiny, tiny feet.
Like The Ghost Story, Human Lanterns is a more traditional Shaws wuxia, not really a horror film at all but rather an example of the horror influence on the genre in the early 1980s. Director Sun Chang was, like Ho Meng-hua, one of the reliable craftsmen of the studio. In Human Lanterns he shows a keen eye, with some splendid compositions, and with Chen Kuan-tai and Lo Lieh (again) he has a fine cast. Chen and Tony Liu play rival swordsmen, the richest and most famous men in town who hate each other very much and compete each year at the annual lantern festival. Determined to win, Liu hires Lo to build his lanterns, which kicks off Lo’s extremely elaborate revenge plot. It seems that seven years before he too had been a jianghu swordsman, and when Liu defeated him (leaving him with a nasty scar across his forehead) he retired to underground lantern-making. As revenge, Lo will kill basically everyone Liu and Chen know and use their skin to make lanterns. It’s not quite as gruesome as the same film would have been a decade later, but it’s helped a lot by the fight sequences, which are very strong (and often feature Lo Lieh in a terrifying monkey suit) and a reminder of how important the fight choreographer was to the Shaws martial arts films. Human Lanterns was choreographed by Tang Chia, Lau Kar-leung’s partner in the early 70s, and looks terrific, while the first Black Magic has no credited choreographer and, though featuring equally great performers, the fights look amateurish and cheap (Black Magic II is better, and was choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping’s brother Yuen Cheung-yan).
Seeding of a Ghost is by another journeyman director, Richard Yueng Kuen, who apparently “directed two of the most popular erotic films of the era (early 1970s), Lucky Seven and its sequel Lucky Seven Strikes Again”. Seeding is about a cab driver who accidentally stumbles across an evil magician. When the driver’s wife (who has been having an affair with a married rich guy) is brutally raped and murdered by two teens, he enlists the wizard in his quest for revenge. The effects of their revenge are extreme, both in their gore (the very solid practical effects owe a strong debt to Alien and The Thing) and in their impact on the revenge-seekers, who are consumed by the evil they tap into in the name of cosmic justice, leaving tangible scars and deforming their bodies.
Centipede Horror is a much cheaper-looking film by far than any of the Shaws films in the series, reflecting its independent production. It follows the Black Magic story template: a Hong Konger goes to Thailand on vacation and runs afoul of dark magics. In this case, it’s a young woman who travels there despite the family rule that no one is ever allowed to go to Southeast Asia. Even worse, while there she doesn’t bother to wear the protective amulet her brother gave her for the trip. And so, of course, she’s devoured by centipedes while taking a bathroom break from her guided tour in the woods. Her brother goes to investigate (wearing the amulet) and uncovers a long-suppressed family secret (this part of the film could have been stronger, tying in the family’s present wealth to the past tragedy in Thailand, in which case you might end up with something anti-colonial, like Michael Haneke’s Caché, but with a lot more bugs). Like Bewitched, Centipede Horror taps into the millennia-old Chinese attitude of cultural superiority toward Southeast Asia, magnified in this period by Hong Kong’s rapid economic expansion and relatively political freedom under British rule while most of its neighbors were engulfed in various wars and dictatorships. Modernity’s lack of touch with, and therefore fear of, its ancestral roots and traditions, as well as those uncontrollable secrets of The Other, is the cornerstone of the horror genre, and this cycle, if nothing else, reflects an anxiety about the old and weird that was becoming increasingly distant from the steel and glass skyscrapers and overstuffed apartment complexes of the Hong Kong megalopolis. It’s also got a lot of centipedes. Hundreds of them. That’s thousands of creepy crawly legs scurrying across floors and walls and beds and people and inside people. Terrifying.
Bewitched too is about a Hong Konger traveling to Thailand. In this case it’s a man who has been convicted of murdering his small daughter. He tells a cop, in flashback, the story of how he travelled to Thailand on vacation and had an affair with a young typist, who he thought was a prostitute (which happens when you’re in a foreign country and don’t speak the language and just assume that every woman you meet there is a prostitute). When he leaves her behind and goes home, she gets a magician to start sending him curses, which cause hallucinations leading to the murder. The cop (played by Melvin Wong, one of the great supporting character actors of the late 80s heroic bloodshed cycle) then goes to Thailand to investigate, and becomes a target himself. Directed by Kuei Chih-hung, Bewitched shows the strongest New Wave influence of the series, as it’s told in the handheld immediate-realist style of contemporary police procedurals, complete with documentary-style title cards introducing each of the increasingly bizarre and fanciful curses. But things really get weird with the sequel, The Boxer’s Omen, which is deservedly the most well-known of all the movies coming to the Metrograph.
The Boxer’s Omen begins in a kickboxing ring, with a fight between a Hong Konger (the great Shaws villain Johnny Wang Lung-wei) and a Thai boxer played by the impressively muscled Bolo Yeung, a Shaws side player dating back to Chang Cheh’s early 70s films. Bolo breaks the Hong Konger’s neck (being a foreigner he has no regard for the refined rules of the sport of kickboxing), leading his brother to vow revenge. But before he can do that, the brother, Chan Hung (played by Phillip Ko Fei, the cab driver from Seeding of a Ghost) finds himself in what appears to be a Triad movie plot that gets interrupted by a vision of a deceased Buddhist monk. The revenge and the monk-ghost eventually lead him to Thailand, where he learns that he’s the spiritual twin of the dead monk, who was the same monk who defeated the evil wizard in Bewitched. Chan Hung now has to become a monk so he can defeat the master of the evil wizard, who is trying to prevent the dead monk from attaining immortality. There’s a highly compressed training sequence that owes a little bit to The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and yet also anticipates The Matrix, as all kinds of spiritual magic is uploaded into Chan, and then a spectacular fight between the two avatars of good and evil. The second half of the movie kind of resolves the boxing plot (the Triad thing never reappears) and ups the spiritual combat as three more evil wizards come up with all new ways of being super-gross and build a zombie woman out of a mummy and a crocodile corpse and a lot of regurgitated food and send her to Kathmandu to combat Chan and the magical ashes of the monk who first brought Buddhism to Nepal.
Truly a remarkable oddity, The Boxer’s Omen is one of the great cult movies of all-time, a dazzling and bizarre mashup of the sacred and the profane. You can find elements from each of the preceding films in the Metrograph series within it, yet it is somehow something greater than any of them. It’s one of the premier examples of Hong Kong special effects, alongside Tsui Hark’s Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, which came out the same year, reminiscent of the best of Ray Harryhausen, but unbounded by all sense of good taste or coherent logic. Suffused with the spiritualism of Lau Kar-leung and the physicality of Chang Cheh, but with none of the actual belief, it’s a dark, funhouse mirror reflection of the best of Shaws cinema, distorted beyond reason but every bit as alive and wondrous.
"Shaw Brothers Horror" is running October 19 — 24 at the Metrograph in New York.