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The Halcyon Horrors of Hong Kong

With Hong Kong horror in dire straits, we look back at some offbeat shockers from the last few decades…

Although Korea and Japan for some years now have ruled the Asian horror roost, for many fans of Eastern cinema it was Hong Kong genre films which first won them over. Whether it was the sleazy black magic shockers of the Shaw Brothers from the 1970s, the martial arts and fantasy epics of the 80s, or the Category III rated bad taste classics of the 90s, HK films arguably paved the way for the popularity of Asian horror today, with the likes of Spooky Encounters, Mr. Vampire, A Chinese Ghost Story, The Untold Story and others blazing trails and having been incredibly influential around the world.

Sadly, there’s no denying that Hong Kong horror has been in decline since the late 1990s, with factors like the Asian Stock Market Crash, the rise of piracy and the popularity of big-budget Hollywood fare like Titanic at the local box office having all taken their toll. Of course, the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to Mainland China had a massive impact, and although Hong Kong remained a ‘Special Administrative Region’, in theory helping it avoid the attentions of the notoriously anti-horror Chinese censors, commercial pressures and the need to make money from the Mainland market meant that the genre was largely side-lined, with the few fright films being made post-2000 leaning to the conservative and family-friendly side.

Matters took a turn for the worse recently with the sudden implementation of the Hong Kong National Security Law, which it quickly became clear would target the local film industry and would attempt to bring it in line with the draconian Mainland system. Confusing things further has been the lack of clarity as to what this actually means in terms of new rules and regulations for Hong Kong filmmaking and to potential bans for films and filmmakers, or as to how rigorously it will be applied retrospectively to older films. What is clear though is that this new law can’t be good news for the Hong Kong film industry in general, and for horror in particular, with very few past genre films from the region being likely to pass Mainland censorship, and with future productions facing an uphill struggle in terms of creative freedom and in finding financing.

With this in mind, and with Halloween fast approaching, now seems a suitable time to look back at some of the more offbeat Hong Kong horrors of the genre’s golden age, and at some leftfield gems from the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s. Listed in date order, the films below cover the supernatural, murderous psychos, cannibalism and the kind of sharp political criticism that we’ll probably not be seeing again anytime soon, and are all well worth tracking down –before at least some of them quite possibly disappear for good.

 

We’re Going to Eat You

地獄無門 | Hong Kong 1980 | Directed by Tsui Hark

It seems fitting to kick off the list with a film from Tsui Hark, unquestionably one of Hong Kong’s best-loved and most acclaimed genre directors. We’re Going to Eat You was Hark’s first outing after his bizarre but brilliant debut The Butterfly Murders, and is a bloody horror-comedy in which a secret agent tracks his quarry to an island populated by ruthless cannibals, chaos and carnage ensuing. Whilst rough around the edges, the film is still a lot of fun, combining flashes of Hark’s considerable creative talent with buckets of gore, as well as a soundtrack largely lifted from Suspiria, and it has a very different feel to the Shaw Brothers shockers popular at the time. Like his Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind, also released in 1980, though to considerably more success, the film similarly has a line in dark satire and political commentary, in this case targeting Mainland communism, something else which makes it a fascinating revisit.

 

Witch from Nepal

奇緣 | Hong Kong 1986 | Directed by Ching Siu-tung

Legendary filmmaker and action choreographer Ching Siu-tung followed Duel to the Death with Witch from Nepal, in which a young Chow Yun-fat plays a Hong Kong architect holidaying in Nepal with his girlfriend (the tragic Yammie Lam), who starts having visions of a beautiful witch (Emily Chu, who featured in a long list of HK genre productions, from the likes of Vampire’s Breakfast and Devil Curse to the considerably more respectable Rouge), finding himself caught up in an ancient other-worldly struggle. An enjoyable mix of fantasy, the supernatural and romance, the film ties in with the 1980s Hong Kong trend for shooting in exotic South East Asian locations for their mysterious and magical allure, seen in the likes of the similarly themed but far crazier The Seventh Curse. The film also acts as an interesting precursor for A Chinese Ghost Story, which Ching directed the following year, allegedly with assistance from producer Tsui Hark, also featuring supernatural romance.

 

 

Red and Black

鬼幹部 | Hong Kong 1991 | Directed by Andrew Kam

Written by novelist and screenwriter Lillian Lee (responsible for the likes of Rouge, Farewell My Concubine, Dumplings and more), Red and Black is a fascinating variation on the usual Hong Kong supernatural themes of the time that really deserves to be better known, not least since it features a fantastic cast headlined by Lam Ching-ying, Joey Wong and Tony Leung Ka-Fai. The ambitious story is set during the Cultural Revolution in China, when a blood demon imprisoned back during the Japanese invasion is accidentally released, causing havoc and spreading even more madness and persecution. Lam plays a man unjustly accused of being an intellectual and capitalist by his brother Leung, with Wong in the role of the woman caught between them, Lee’s script charting their struggle to resolve their differences and defeat the demon. A brave take on a difficult and controversial subject and an indictment of the personal cost of mob mentality communism, while perhaps lacking the wild spookiness of the likes of Mr. Vampire and A Chinese Ghost Story, both of which it does resemble at times, Red and Black is well-worth tracking down as a more thoughtful and dramatic supernatural film.

 

Thou Shalt Not Swear

月十四:不見不散 | Hong Kong 1993 | Directed by Wellson Chin

After starting his career in front of and behind the camera on a number of Sammo Hung films like Warriors Two, The Prodigal Son, The Iron Fisted Monk and others, Wellson Chin moved into directing himself, and in the early 1990s formed P.U. Production, focusing primarily on horror and the supernatural. Whilst his films were not always entirely successful, either commercially or creatively, Chin was known for trying to do something different with the genre, which often saw him throwing together a variety of elements and themes in his productions. Thou Shalt Not Swear, written by Abe Kwok (who also scripted Visible Secret and its sequel) is a great example of this, in which a fairly standard thriller premise following two policemen (played by Lau Ching-wan and Michael Chow) on the trail of a serial killer is enlivened by the fact that one of them is psychic, and that the killer appears to be a ghost. A wacky affair in the classic Hong Kong style, while not exactly frightening, the film is a great deal of spooky, and frequently very weird fun, and received several nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards, something which marks it as one of Chin’s best and most influential.

 

The Day that Doesn’t Exist

二月三十 | Hong Kong 1995 | Directed by Wellson Chin

Thou Shalt Not Swear was successful enough for Chin to move forward with a series of connected films based around the concept of a ‘day of horror’, featuring different characters caught up in supernatural situations. After Swear sequel The Third Full Moon, which also featured Lau and Chow, came The Day that Doesn’t Exist, a markedly less comedic and more horrific offering, starring Dayo Wong and Anthony Wong, and split into two stories dealing with variations on the life after death theme. With the first following a man who dies in a car crash and returns to life in a Frankenstein type form, and the second focusing on a man reincarnated in the body of another man who tries to get back to his family, the film has a genuinely creepy atmosphere and benefits from some effective Tales from the Crypt-style shock twists. While like all Chin’s works it’s a little uneven, it’s one of the few Hong Kong films of the mid-1990s which really tries to unnerve, and comes as a welcome alternative to the usual knockabout spookiness.

 

Intruder

恐怖雞 | Hong Kong 1997 | Directed by Tsang Kan-Cheong

No Hong Kong horror list would be complete without a bit of Category III carnage, and Intruder certainly fits the bill, following a Mainland prostitute (Jacklyn Wu) who murders a Hong Konger for her ID card and crosses into HK, where she targets and tortures a lonely man (Wayne Lai), trying to get his ID for her fugitive criminal husband. The only directorial outing to date for Tsang Kan-cheong, a prolific writer who worked on an impressive list of films Including My Heart is that Eternal Rose, The God of Cookery, Kung Fu Hustle and other commercial hits, what’s perhaps most surprising about Intruder is that it was a Milkyway production, produced by Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai. Sadly, the film wasn’t a hit, and remains relatively unseen, even by Cat III fans, a real shame, since its brutality and graphic nastiness come with an intelligence rarely seen in the form, and it’s one of the few to explicitly deal with the looming fear of reunification with the Mainland in such a fashion. In the hands of Herman Yau, this might have seen the film having a satirical edge, though Tsang goes for full on bleakness, and Intruder is a grim, hard-edged affair from start to finish.

 

The Demon’s Baby

猛鬼食人胎 | Hong Kong 1998 | Directed by Kant Leung

Equally, whether by choice or not, it’d be pretty difficult to come up with a list of Hong Kong horror films from the last forty years without including at least one that bears the mark of schlockmeister Wong Jing. Although The Demon’s Baby was written and directed by Kant Leung, who featured in a number of sleazy Cat III films like Chinese Erotic Ghost Story and who also directed Sexy and Dangerous 2, it’s very much a Wong Jing trash epic, a bizarre mix of horror, comedy, martial arts and tentacles which comes across like a random and not particularly well-advised exploitation take on Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern. Like most other Jing productions the film has a surreal high concept premise, with a group of women mysteriously falling pregnant to a demonic entity and then growing mouths on their huge stomachs to feed their monstrous foetuses, and comes with multiple baffling shifts in tone. Boasting an entirely unrealistic period setting and costumes (no doubt leftover from another Jing production of equal quality), plenty of low-brow slapstick humour, over the top gore and jaw-dropping practical effects and puppets, there’s really nothing here that won’t endear The Demon’s Baby to fans of trash cinema – though anyone looking for cinematic common sense and actual production values might be better looking elsewhere.

 

The Mirror

怪談之魔鏡 | Hong Kong 1999 | Directed by Siu Wing

Anthology horror films have long been a popular staple of Hong Kong cinema, though from the mid-1990s the form became even more prolific, buoyed by the success of the Troublesome Night franchise. Produced by industry legend Raymond Wong, The Mirror was a solid example of the trend, and like most other horror films from Asia post-1998 was influenced by the international phenomenon that was Ringu (or at least its promotional artwork was), its three tales dealing with urban legend or folklore scenarios connected to the titular haunted antique dressing table. Standing out from most of its peers thanks to a more serious tone and some genuinely eerie moments, the film also benefits from a then hot and up and coming cast including Nicholas Tse, Ruby Lin and Lillian Ho.

 

The Stewardess

非常凶姐 | Hong Kong 2002 | Directed by Sam Leung

While there were many, many Hong Kong horrors in the early 2000s that ripped off Ringu and other Japanese genre hits, The Stewardess was one of the few that actually bothered to take elements of these films and work them into a more chaotic local context. The film stars the always likeable Sam Lee as Keung, a young man stuck in a bizarre subservient relationship with Apple (Lee San-san, also in Johnnie To’s excellent My Left Eye Sees Ghosts), a stewardess and the daughter of a triad boss, who unwisely decides to start an affair with another stewardess, a Japanese girl living next door, not put off by the fact that her name is Yurei (basically, his stated motivation is that he’s always wanted to sleep with a Japanese girl). Played by Seina Kasugai, Yurei soon makes it clear that, while not the ghost that the film poster suggested, she’s really quite mad, with a fixed grin on her face and being determined to make Keung’s crappy life even crappier, leading to increasingly outlandish and sinister mishaps. For viewers attuned to the cheerful weirdness that often characterises Hong Kong horror, The Stewardess is an entertaining treat, lurching between genuinely unsettling scares, daft comedy and random parodies of films like In the Mood for Love in a surprisingly effective manner.

 

Haunted Office

Office有鬼 | Hong Kong 2002 | Directed by Marko Mak

Another anthology, Haunted Office features three stories – a man falls for a woman haunted by a sinister spirit, a female co-worker has trouble with a demon in the ladies’ toilet, and a nasty boss starts to suspect that all his employees are in fact ghosts. Although the three stories clearly aren’t anything new, the film has an enjoyably creepy atmosphere and features some nicely done scares, the office setting and its tackling of contemporary social themes giving it enough of a different feel. Marco Mak, a noted editor and director of classics like The Peeping and Slim Till Dead, keeps things moving at a fun pace, keeping the scares coming and avoiding the temptation to throw in too many laughs. The film’s biggest draw is undoubtedly its cast of famous faces, with Shu Qi, Karen Mok, Stephen Fung and Jordan Chan all appearing and putting in surprisingly committed performances, something which notches up the quality considerably.

Join us every Thursday for the latest in James’ #cineXtremes series.

About the author

James MudgeJames Mudge James Mudge
From Glasgow but based in London, James has been writing for a variety of websites over the last decade, including BeyondHollywood in the US and YesAsia in Hong Kong. As well as running film consultancy The Next Day Agency, James is also the Festival Director of the Chinese Visual Festival in London, an annual event which showcases Chinese language cinema... More »
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