Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Matter Over Mind

The Boxer's Omen (1983, directed by Chih-hung Kuei) is a late-period Shaw Brothers production that sees the studio trying to adapt to the changing film landscape of Hong Kong in the 1980s. The Hong Kong New Wave was in full bloom when it was made and the Shaws were struggling to break from their hidebound formulae and keep up with the rockets being sent up by the suddenly competitive rival companies. The results were often oddities, and none are as odd as this film, an exercise in goo and spew that aims to disgust as much as it aims to entertain (perhaps conflating disgust and entertainment as the aim of horror filmmaking).

I think I've mentioned before that I'm kind of a priss. I don't really enjoy watching people play with their food or excrement or cover themselves with filth. It puts me off my lunch. This film assaults my prejudices along those lines. It's filled with excremental tableaux, where offal and regurgitated puddings are essential components to the film's vision of black magic. It would be a mistake, however, to view The Boxer's Omen as a mere exercise in chewing with one's mouth hanging open (literally, as it so happens). Behind all the goop and revolting foodstuffs and animal mutilations, there's a shrewd filmmaker who knows what he's doing.

The story here finds Hong Kong thug Chan Hung hellbent for avenging his brother, a boxer who has been crippled in the ring by a Thai champion. He's a low level triad enforcer who is none too bright. The night his brother is hurt, he's off confronting rival gangsters without any back-up. He's extricated from his predicament by what amounts to divine intervention. It turns out that the abbot of a Buddhist monastery in Thailand is looking out for him. He's the abbot's spiritual twin. Unfortunately, the abbot has been poisoned by his enemies and he needs Chan to defeat the sorcerer who has laid him low. In order to take on this task, Chan must forestall his vengeance and become a monk, fulfilling all the strictures of monastic life: no gambling, no smoking, no killing, no sex. Chan is able to do this, but once his enemy is defeated, he retreats to his former life, rutting with his girlfriend and pursuing the Thai boxer. Unfortunately, the sorcerer had friends, and having backslid on his vows, Chan has lost his divine powers to take them on. He must atone for his transgressions by finding a holy artifact in Katmandu. His enemies resurrect a powerful female spirit to intercept him.

There is a stark divide between the spiritual and the physical in The Boxer's Omen. In its worldview, the evil is rooted in the world of the flesh, in viscera and excrement. It views bodies with disgust. It regards bodies as a shackle on our spirituality. This is by no means unique to Buddhism, but it's particularly pronounced here, in part because this film's wallow in physicality is so over the top, so disgusting. It's hard for me to reconcile this film's adherence to Buddhism and it's strictures against killing with this film's killing of a live chicken during one of its depictions of magic spells, but that's probably sniping.

The Boxer's Omen looks forward a bit to some of the berserko flights of fancy from the then-burgeoning Hong Kong New Wave, bearing as it does some resemblance to the horror action films produced by Tsui Hark and others later in the decade (particularly among those filmmakers who made Category III films). The emphasis on artifice is fully formed here, and even though that's carried forward a bit from the Shaw tradition, it more resembles the wire fu epics that were soon to come. The curious custom of having the villain's head fly off their body finds an early iteration in this film, as does the custom of the villain never really being down for the count until he or she explodes. This film elaborates on these customs by including a good deal of ropy viscera a la John Carpenter's The Thing. The influence of western horror movies, particularly movies by Sam Raimi and Mario Bava, is stamped all over this film, though the end result couldn't be more different. Bava's multi-colored lighting schemes, echoed here, would become a staple of the Hong Kong fantasy unto this very day.

This film is a weird conglomeration of moods, even taking account of its place at the crossroads of Hong Kong film. Its boxing scenes are intimate. This is a film that puts the camera inside the ring rather than around it, and these scenes have a thrilling brutality to them. This film is a globetrotter, too, with settings in Hong Kong, Thailand, and Nepal (not so coincidentally places where the Shaws had theater chains), and its use of these locations--particularly their temples--is grandiose. The locations in this movie suggest a film with resources, but those resources don't necessarily translate to its special effects, which are often cheap even for Hong Kong in 1983. I suspect, too, that its choice of actors for its bad guys had more to do with what they were willing to do on camera (including chewing and regurgitating a freshly cut chicken anus--no, really, I'm not kidding). Philip Ko is the familiar face in the cast as Chung. He's an actor better known for playing heavies, but he's fine here. I think the contradictory moods hurt The Boxer's Omen, but it's hard to judge these things with movies from this idiom, sometimes.

Current tally: 27 films.
21 first time viewings.

From Around the Web

Rod over at Ferdy on Film wraps up his non-challenge October with one of your humble bloginatrix's very favoritest horror movies, Mario Bava's anthology film, Black Sabbath. Rod and Marylin run an amazing film blog (it's the film blog I want to have when I grow up, actually). I regret that this is the first link to them I've posted all month. Some of their other musings on horror movies over the course of the month are must-read film writing. Check em out.

Bob over at Eternal Sunshine of the Logical Mind takes care of a couple of big blind spots from the classic Universal horror movies.

Dr. AC at Horror 101 makes it an even 100 horror movies for the month of October. I don't know how he does it.

Wednesday's Child heads to the big top for a Circus of Horrors over on In It for the Kills.

DeAnna over at All Things Perfect and Poisonous takes on the challenging Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer before moving on to two versions of The Phantom of the Opera and the Halloween-y comedy, Arsenic and Old Lace.

1 comment:

Timothy S. Brannan said...

Fantastic! I am wrapping things up for the October Challenge myself.

I think I'll spend my November reading the posts of everyone else!