The Delinquent (1973) — January 14, 2020
The Delinquent is credited to directors Chang Cheh and Kuei Chih-hung, though most likely Kuei was the dominant voice, albeit working with Chang’s regular crew (including screenwriter Ni Kuang and choreographers Lau Kar-leung and Tong Kai). Kuei is best known in the West for his hyperbolic 80s horror films The Boxer’s Omen and Bewitched, and the film is most distinctive for its thoroughly modern visual style: wild handheld shooting in the streets and slums of Hong Kong, distorted subjective imagery, over-cluttered and rapidly cut fight sequences. It’s a jolt of modernism at a time when Chang was churning out gorgeously composed, stage-bound costume dramas for Shaw Brothers. But in many ways it’s a typical action film of the period: a young man who is a brilliant fighter but nonetheless arrogant, hot-headed, and unable to keep a job, is tempted into working for a local gang leader, but ultimately, when the gang targets his father, his moral sense prevails and he enacts bloody revenge. It’s the early depiction of contemporary social conditions, defined in Hong Kong as much as anywhere in the world by a cavernous gap between the rich and the poor, that make the film relevant to today: because even though the British and their laissez-faire approach to the Hong Kong economy are gone, the gap remains.
The last 30 minutes or so are as intense and brutal a sustained action sequence as anything Chang (and Lau and Tong) ever did. You keep waiting for the hero to die, as he always does with Chang, standing up. But he doesn’t. He dies falling down, down, down, images of what led him there flashing before his eyes. He’s still alive when he hits the ground, and we see what he sees: black and white and then red all over.
But what struck me even more is an image from one of the film’s final fights. The young man’s father, trying to defend his warehouse against an army of goons, pulls out an emergency firehose and starts spraying his assailants. We see wave after wave of them washed away by the water cannon, an image with an exactly inverted meaning in the present, where water is the weapon of the police against protesters (and to twist the metaphor even more, where one of the movement’s mottoes is Bruce Lee’s admonition to “Be Water”).
Bewitched (1981) — October 19, 2018
Like so many Hong Kong horror films of its period, Bewitched 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 a strong New Wave influence, 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.
The Boxer’s Omen (1983) — October 19, 2018
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. 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.