Demons that look like Aliens, Chow Yun-fat with a pipe and 80s pastel sweater, and more Indiana Jones references than you can shake a stick at – what’s not to love?…
The Seventh Curse is one of those films that fall under the radar for most Asian film fans, even those that pride themselves on their knowledge of Hong Kong Cinema from the 80s. Perhaps one of the big problems is that it’s rarely been made available on DVD outside of Hong Kong, and even those editions quickly go out of print.
(To my knowledge, it was last officially released in the UK in the late 90s on VHS.)
And yet those who have seen it can’t stop talking about it! I remember first hearing it referenced in Stefan Hammond and Mike Wilkins’ Sex And Zen & A Bullet In The Head(1), and was pretty much sold on it from there on, quickly becoming a ‘must-have’ purchase when online purchasing started to free up borders (and money finally allowed).
And boy, did it deliver!
The director Lam Nai-Choi’s (Nam Noi-choi) most famous work, Story Of Ricky is well known for its extreme, stylised bloodletting that’s easily on a par with Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson’s early films. A live-action version of manga Riki-Oh, it’s so notorious that it’s said to be one of the first Hong Kong films to receive a category III rating for violence alone.
A flick through his filmography puts him at the most excessive end of 80s and early 90s filmmaking: Erotic Ghost Story features a pre-Sex And Zen Amy Yip; another live-action manga The Peacock King features Claymation work and an early appearance by a certain young Takashi Miike as assistant director (could the two be connected, I ask?); other titles include Men From The Gutter, Killer’s Nocturne and Her Vengeance.
And The Seventh Curse is no exception…
Within moments of the opening scene the film rattles into a (near) 80 minutes rollercoaster ride, wacky, crazy and a hell of a lot of fun! There’s exploitation, nudity, references to Evil Dead, Dracula, Alien and Indiana Jones, with just about the best riff on the classic ‘gigantic boulder chasing Indy’ scene ever.
It was the first of several films to an adventurer called Wisley (or in several cases, including this edition’s subtitles, Wesley) created by author and screenwriter Ni Kuang – a frequent collaborator with Zhang Che and writer of Bruce Lee’s Fist Of Fury – who himself appears in a rather wonderfully stilted introduction to the film, surrounded by Miss Aisa contestants. Wesley/Wisley would go on to appear in several films, including sci-fi based The Legend Of Wisley, Bury Me High and, much later, an attempted reboot by Infernal Affairs director Andrew Lau with Andy Lau the eponymous lead, as Wesley’s Mysterious File. (Producer Wong Jing had been involved in Wisley’s film adaptions from the start, having also co-written and produced Seventh Curse. He even makes a cameo in both films.)
Wisley had everything going for him, at least you’d have thought so, but it probably didn’t help he was played by a different actor each time. Here we find non other than Chow Yun-fat in the role, though looking decidedly unsuave with a pipe and 80s pastel jumper. It’s hard to believe this was released the same year he appeared as Mark in John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow, a character so super cool he was resurrected as his twin brother for the sequel.
It probably also doesn’t help that here he’s very much a side character, though one who constantly appears at the nick of time to save the day. (And sometimes with a bazooka.) Instead it’s the bespectacled Dr.Yuan Chen who takes the lead, played by Chin Siu-Ho who’d just come off of the massive success of Mr. Vampire. Sure, this guy might spend most of his time on various expeditions, but when the cops need someone to infiltrate a hostage situation, who they gonna call? Yep, Yuen.
That’s how Seventh Curse starts, all guns blazing and martial arts. And all nearly scuppered by Tsui-Hung (Maggie Cheung, In The Mood For Love, Hero, Ashes Of Time, Centre Stage, Song of the Exile), an intrepid reporter who will do anything to get her story.
Shortly afterwards a mysterious intruder attacks Yuen in his own home. Announcing himself as Heh-Lung (Dick Wei, Eastern Condors, Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain, The Prodigal Son) he leaves, asking Yuen to return to Thailand and cautioning that he should abstain from sex or it will accelerate the effects of his blood curse. Of course, his girlfriend needs comforting, so, well, you can see where this is leading…
After excruciating pain, one of Yuen blood curses pops. He heads to Wisley/Wesley’s place, and suddenly memories of Thailand come flooding back. Out on an expedition to find a cure for AIDS, Yuen and some other members of the team went and disturbed the rites of a neighbouring tribe that practised witchcraft, despite being told not to. (By this time you realise that Yuen makes a habit of not doing what he’s told, even when it’s in his best interest.)
There he saves Betsy (Chui Sau-Lai, Return of the Demon, City Girl – who spends much of the film in states of undress) from an evil sorcerer (played by an uncharacteristically Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen locked Elvis Tsui, Sex And Zen, Prison on Fire II, Butterfly & Sword, New Dragon Gate Inn), intent on sacrificing her to the tribes old ancestor. A flesh-eating demon who resurrects like a skeletal Ray Harryhausen cast off or a member Amando de Ossorio’s Templar Blind Dead, before blood turns him into a H.R.Giger style Alien on a budget. (A very low budget.)
Well, you’d have thought Yuen might have remembered that! But then, I’m guessing Yuen is pretty busy with adventuring and stuff. Warning that Yuen will die when the seventh blood curse bursts, Wisley/Wesley suggests heading back to Thailand pretty sharpish. Oh, and his young cousin wants to tag along, and she just happens to be a familiar reporter…
With little time to mull over the plot, director Nam Noi-choi takes the central premise of a Chinese Indy and rather joyously returns it fully to the serials of yesteryear. One great action sequence is linked to another with barely a narrative connection, yet in it’s own way the film holds together. Partly because every scene tries hard to better the last, in terms of gross out gore, old-school horror and wacky fights. (An untelegraphed fight with an army of Buddhist monks precedes the classic bolder, sorry, Buddha’s head scene.)
The references flow: the children sacrificed to make a flying demon are pure Indiana Jones and The Temple Of Doom, the baby come face hugger it creates pure Alien (again). The sorcerers coven seems straight out of The Satanic Rites of Dracula, complete with musical cues that sound straight out of Hammer and, if I’m not mistaken, Battle Beyond the Stars.
To call it naïve would be unfair, but it’s definitely uncynical in way few films can be nowadays. Sure, it’s hammy, even a little messy, but it’s unashamed fun. The action direction by Yuen Bun – who worked on dozens of films in the 80s and more recently collaborated with Tsui Hark on Triangle, Missing, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame and Flying Swords of Dragon Gate – is solid and well edited.
And there’s no getting around how good the film looks with interesting, imaginative compositions – even if it’s very evocative of that 80s Hong Kong, primary colour lit style, thanks to cinematographer Lam Chiu, who also worked with Nam on The Peacock King. (Though Nam’s background as a cinematographer himself before becoming a director probably meant he had high standards.)
Watching the film again, I was struck by what a wonderful contradiction Maggie Cheung’s character is. Despite the 40s caddish nature of the male leads to the women, happy to carry them out like Gable or Fairbanks, she’s definitely a classic Lois Lane type of character; feistier than her Western Indiana Jones counterpart companions, at home with machine guns. But she’s also the archetypal Katherine Hepburn character of her early romantic comedies like The Philadelphia Story, a prissy, spoilt, upper class girl who actually thinks she can buy off the bad guys when the chips are really down.
And even the character of Betsy is never completely just a victim. Now that’s pretty progressive coming from writer Wong Jing!
This is just simply a classic waiting for a Western distributor to restore to it’s upmost glory – with the various different longer endings too – and release back into the world.
Screening The Seventh Curse at the Roxy Bar & Screen
It was my great pleasure to introduce The Seventh Curse as a guest host for Joey Leung (Terracotta Distribution) and Adam Torel’s (Third Window Film) regular Asian Movies Meetup group at the Roxy Bar & Screen on Monday evening, 21 January.
Despite the adverse weather, and usual bout of illness we Brits seem to suffer from whenever a cold snap comes around (and did we have a cold snap!) there was a good turnout of folk to see the free screening.
Was I nervous? Sure, it was my first time presenting a film like this, in a curator type role. Of course, I bet most of us pundits fancy ourselves as being able to make a pretty good job of putting a festival together of our favourite films, given half a chance. And no, I’m not the sort that makes a habit of randomly getting up in front of rooms of strangers to talk at the best of times. But was it fun? Hell, yeah!
Any doubt I may have had on choice of film (and when you have such a wide selection to pick from as I have, there’s nothing but doubts) was quickly put to rest. Right from the beginning, it was obvious the audience was really enjoying the film, laughing, clapping. It was exactly what I wanted, of course – but lets face it, you can never be sure.
Okay, there’s lots of ‘unintentional’ laughter to be had at a film like The Seventh Curse, but I don’t think for a moment director Nam Noi-choi really took it that seriously either. It was fascinating to watch this play to a live audience. Outside of some of the big London Korean Film Festival premieres, I don’t think I’ve seen an audience engage so well with a film for a while. Even if it is, a quote unquote, a ‘terrible, funny, great movie!’
One attendee said: “Monday 21st January is supposed to be the most depressing day of the year but last nights meetup made it super fun. The movie was so terrible it was amazing – I loved every minute of it.” (Thank you!)
Festival curators please take note: get this one in your programmes quick!
Thanks again to Joey and Adam for giving me the opportunity to play an old favourite! And thank you everyone that made it out! Hope to see you again soon!
(1) I recently discovered just how lacklustre the research for Sex And Zen & A Bullet In The Head really was. Despite obvious enthusiasm, they managed to list Lam Nai-Choi’s name differently for every film included. Very confusing!
Distributor: Universe Laser & Video Co (UK)
Edition: DVD (2001)
An okay if not brilliant transfer of the feature, roughly typical for older films released on DVD at this time. Keeps much of the detail for the many darker scenes, which is probably better than can be expected. Sound is surprisingly ‘punchy’.
Includes Star Bios and trailers for The Seventh Curse, Witch from Nepal, Eighth Happiness, Flaming Brothers and Triads the Inside Story