This is the start of an irregular series of mine, where I will delve into the depths of Asian cinema, that has so many sights to offer.
In the following article, I will introduce you to an example of a sub-subgenre of Hong Kong horror films, the “sexually charged ghost story” (by the way, I came up with that moniker by myself, better don’t use it as a reference).
Sex Beyond the Grave (Fung lau yuen gwai) from 1984
directed by: Chun Keung Cheu
Shaw Bros. Logo !
The last years of WWII, in the outskirts of Hong Kong. The following prologue tells us the tale of how the mansion of a wealthy Chinese family becomes a haunted house. The owner of said house, a wealthy man named Tao, offers a young, former wealthy family of a once famous Hong Kong singer who became political refugees, shelter from the Japanese troops in his small barn outside the house. Immediately the audience realizes that he is up to no good, because he has that greedy look in his eyes.
Our worst fears turn out to be justified. Tao’s real intention is to steal the family’s secret money stash, that’s why he gives them away to the Japanese. Later that night, the merciless Japanese general Kimura turns up, ruthlessly kills the father and the son with his samurai sword and rapes the woman. After Kimura’s departure, Tao accidentally kills the woman in a fight over the money stash.
A narrator informs us that over the course of time all of the mansion’s occupants have mysteriously disappeared after that incident. Soon the bilious green-lettered credits crawl across the screen, accompanied by surprisingly effective eerie music.
Holy shit, this is starting out pretty dark and those were just the first eight minutes! Where will they go from here?
Fear not, because as soon as the credits have disappeared, we’re suddenly in for a tonally completely different movie. Fast forward to the early 80s. We are introduced to two befriended young middle-class couples who live in inner city Hong Kong. One couple is that of the humble Prof. Yang and his wife May. They also have a four year-old son called Nicky. The other couple is Mr. Tao (!) and his wife and in contrast to the former mentioned, they’re a little more on the trashy side.
The following portion of the film is dedicated to Mr. Tao’s misadventures as a gambler, awful husband and overall loser. Before you can say Mahjong, the movie turns into a mediocre gambling drama.
Of course, all of Tao’s endeavours to make big money are failing miserably. Cue seemingly endless montages of gambling: Poker, dice games, Mahjong…you name it. One day, his bad luck takes a turn when he meets a fortune teller who hands him two magic dice. Suddenly, he is on a lucky streak and wins every game. What does that mean? Exactly, another slew of sequences showing Poker, dice games, Mahjong, Mahjong, Mahjong…
Then, out of nowhere, a lengthy sequence of a stripper is thrown into the mix. The stripper even wants to seduce Tao, but he refuses, not out of loyalty for his wife, but because the fortune teller told him “not to screw foreigners” or otherwise his luck would be gone. Yeah, that’s how he rolls.
Tao’s restraint does not pay off anyway, as his wife, in an understandable rage over her husband’s lifestyle, destroys the home altar he had built to propitiate the goddess of luck, with devastating consequences, as Tao starts to lose every game from now on. Soon he owes a fortune to the local gambling mafia and gets beaten up. His wife proposes to sell the ancestral home he inherited, but he is initially hesitant, as this is the other thing the fortune teller told him not to do. Knowing no way out, he finally gives in and they sell the house to the family of Prof. Yang. Family Yang immediately leaves the city and moves into the house, which is – you guessed it – the haunted mansion from the beginning! (Tao’s name should have given that away, if you had paid attention.)
Instantly, the film shifts its tone again! Now we’re in for a shameless Poltergeist rip-off. The makers obviously took some of the most iconic scenes of the Spielberg classic and “adapted” it for their movie, with hilarious results. The clown puppet of the original is now a puppet that looks like an official of the Tang (?) dynasty.
You remember the TV being the original starting point and centre of the curse in “Poltergeist”? In this case, it is the fridge. I don’t know what that could be a metaphor for, but at one point in the movie this happens:
In another scene, the fridge flies (!) through the kitchen and attacks May and Nicky. Sure the boy has to be abducted by the ghosts just like the girl in Poltergeist, yet he does not get sucked into the tube (or into the fridge for that matter), but his puppet plunges him into the well in the garden. Subsequently, no efforts are spared to get the boy back alive, but he remains lost, namely in “the world in between” as some clairvoyants tell us later in the movie. Even the fat police detective cannot help the grieving parents, and he is very capable man, testified by his moustache and the fact that the first thing we see of him is a frame of his snake leather cowboy boots.
The parents grasp the last remaining chance and call for parapsychological assistance. But those “experts” are no great help either.
The attempts at rescuing the boy get more and more grotesque and preposterous each time, just like the attacks of the ghosts. People fly through rooms like in a pinball machine, a stuffed foetus is used as a ghost detector, zombies turn up… This movie makes Poltergeist look subtle by comparison. You are probably wondering by now if there is any relevance to the title of the movie at all. Well, in the end of the film there is a segment that in terms of tone, could be out of yet another movie and shows us the murdered woman from the beginning as a “sexy ghost” seeking revenge.
What we have here is one of the many occasions where Hong Kong film makers tried to get the broadest audience appeal possible out of a movie, which ended in a hilarious yet highly entertaining mess. It leaves Western audience members, who are not that familiar with this kind of cinema, scratching their head. Which Western movie starts out as a sleazy exploitation flick, turns into a Lifetime gambling drama, becomes a childish Poltergeist rip-off only to change into a genuinely creepy ghost story that suddenly ends on an erotic note?
This is one of many things I love about Hong Kong cinema. Like Hollywood, they’re trying to make the most commercial fare and reach every demographic possible. But while Hollywood mostly ends up with milquetoast-movies that seemingly cannot decide what they want to be, their Hong Kong counterparts rather resemble a roller coaster ride of different moods, genres and just plain weirdness.
Yet, there is method in the madness, because when everything comes together in the end, we’re surprisingly left with the impression (illusion?) that we have just watched a well-rounded film. If that ain’t storytelling magic, what is then?