Spooky Encounters: A Gwailo's Guide to Hong Kong Horror by Daniel O'Brien
Reading a book on movies one has, for the most part, not seen is the proverbial double-edged sword.
Reading a book on movies one has, for the most part, not seen is the proverbial double-edged sword. While one is presented with a slew of intriguing titles to be investigated, one has only an inkling of just how in tune one is with the author's critical sensibilities as a Rosetta Stone of mutually known titles is lacking. In the case of Spooky Encounters, my exposure to Hong Kong horror had been limited to Tsui Hark's Vampire Hunters (2002), Hammer's curious collaboration with Hong Kong's Shaw brothers, Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974), and the Hong Kong horror episode of the British series Son of the Incredibly Strange Film Show.
As it turns out that wasn't bad preparation. O'Brien credits the Hammer/Shaw project with jump-starting the horror film in Hong Kong; while a few traditional ghost stories had been made over the decades prior, they had been few and far between. There had been no fashion for them as there had been in Hollywood during the 1930s and '40s and in Britain and Italy during the 1960s -- and none had taken the radical step of combining horror with martial arts. Legend was seen as a failure by most Western fans (particularly in the U.S. where it was shown in a truncated version that did it no favors); Hammer, it seemed, had hit a nadir -- it would, in fact, cease activity as a film company a short while later -- and entered Wrestling Women vs. the Aztec Mummy territory. Easterners, however, were intrigued, and while they had no cultural tradition of vampirism they quickly adapted their myths of ghosts and the kyonsi to accommodate it.
The kyonsi is a reanimated corpse, though not of the George Romero variety. It is simply a dead body given temporary power of movement, generally by a Taoist priest and generally for the simple purpose of transporting it. Since corpses are stiff the kyonsi... well... there's no way around it... they hop. That detail is enough to make most Western horror fans bail out, getting the giggles visualizing, say, Night of the Living Dead with a yard full of zombies bouncing up to the deserted farmhouse. (There is a web site that spoofs The Exorcist with animated bunnies and one can easily imagine the treatment applied to the 1968 film.) Ripe for silliness though the concept might be, it can be quite effectively creepy in the hands of the right director; kyonsi provide possibly the creepiest moment in Vampire Hunters.
The Chinese also have a tradition that an evil person might withhold exhaling his or her last breath on the chance of reanimation, at which point a reign of mayhem is initiated; said mayhem is traditionally non-vampiric but it was this aspect that allowed for the creation of the Hon Kong vampire films. One difference between Western and Eastern vampires is that, like post-Romero zombies, they continue to decay (though some can cast a visually deceiving spell); the be-fanged, blood-drinking, rotting corpse in Mandarin robes (traditional Chinese funeral garb until fairly recently), often as much evil sorcerer as vampire, is Hong Kong's unique contribution to fantastic cinema.
Opposing them is Hong Kong's variation on the Van Helsing figure, often a priest but at the very least a spiritual master whose gifts generally include proficiency in the martial arts; in the East that discipline is seen as part of the physical path to spiritual growth, not merely an exercise and self-defense regimen, so a karate-chopping priest is not so outrageous a concept as, say, a pugilistic Catholic priest (though, come to think of it, such characters have been featured in films!). And while they may not deploy holy water or crosses (the last are shown in one film to be ineffective against defunct Buddhists), they possess an impressive variety of spells, charms and magic herbs.
Hong Kong horror is fairly limited in its subject matter. There are no werewolves or man-made monsters. Aside from the vampire/zombie films the only other theme explored is the ghost story. (Admittedly there are science fiction and fantasy films but, aside from Hark's Zu: Warriers from the Magic Mountain (1983), they fall outside O'Brien's parameters.) In most cases the story revolves around a female phantom -- her spirit held in bondage, and thus precluded from reincarnating, by some witch or demon -- who enters into a romance with a corporeal male.
What makes certain of the films candidates for tracking down is O'Brien's descriptions of some astonishing visuals -- a good many readers will probably be hitting deepdiscountdvd.com to check for availability (my own preliminary sortie uncovered relatively few, alas). Since the ideas for these derive from Hong Kong rather than Western culture they bear no relation to anything seen in Occidental fantasy, hence their potential fascination. The curious should be strongly cautioned, however, that Hong Kong films are extremely casual as regards animal cruelty (actual, onscreen killings occur -- snakes and chickens are the most frequent but not the only victims), strong on bodily function "humor," homophobic and often display an appalling attitude toward women -- at least as measured by Western sensibilities. They may also be disconcerting in their revisionism -- such as a making a cure for being vampirised from ground vampire fangs -- though, seeing as how they are inventing their own mythology that may not be the correct word. And one might do well to recognize how many of Hammer's elaborations were decried as radical at the time such as Van Helsing's creating a crucifix from crossed candlesticks or curing his own impending vampirism with a brand and holy water.
But Hong Kong and Hollywood are cross-pollinating; in fact they have been for some while. The obvious examples are the importation of the likes of Jackie Chan and John Woo to Hollywood but U.S. directors such as John Carpenter and Sam Raimi have been pilfering visual ideas for some time. Wire supported stunt work is only one example; the exploding vampires of The Forsaken are another. The there are the quicker-than-you-can-blink Hollywood remakes of Eye and
Ultimately the most intriguing thing about the rise in popularity of Asian (not just Hong Kong, but also Japanese and Korean) horror is that, for the first time in many decades Hollywood supremacy at the U.S. box-offices has been challenged. (And don't think Hollywood hasn't noticed; hence those remakes and Disney's attempted suppression of Spirited Away.) Some of us can remember a time, nearly half a century ago when there was virtually a world cinema; Britain, Germany and Italy in particular were thriving centers of production and their films were seen worldwide. Now their soundstages are primarily rented out to U.S. productions. Only Bollywood has continually rivaled Hollywood in productivity but despite a current curiosity value its films remain strictly domestic in their distribution (but then so were Hong Kong's until recently).
Will Asian productions make a long-term impact on Hollywood's supremacy? The mere fact that their success is currently limited to a single genre suggests that -- like Australian cinema -- their influence may be temporary.