Exploring Shaw Brothers films – can you stomach Chinese Horror?
When was the last time a horror film made you sick to your stomach? I don’t mean disgust or revulsion at seeing something that offends your moral sensibilities; I mean an actual physical reaction that leaves you gagging with nausea.
It’s becoming harder and harder to do this since each generation of horror-moviegoers is more jaded than the last. The novelty of an over-the-top cinematic bloodbath wears off quickly, nowadays. Pretty sad, right? One shudders at what it would take to shock and revile such a callous audience.
I really don’t want to go into graphic description of how I personally would make an audience lose their lunches, but needless to say, it has to be more messed up than buckets of fake blood and viscera. How about a horror film in which the blood and guts are real? And no, I’m not talking about snuff movies. Give my sanity a little credit. I’m talking about Hong Kong splatter-horror!
Lately, I have dabbled in the realm of the legendary Shaw Brothers horror sub-genre and have seen things that made my stomach churn. Shaw Brothers was a popular Chinese B-movie studio that existed from the 20s until the late 80s when they officially closed down their film unit.
Many Chinese directors, notably John Woo, began their careers under contract with Shaw Brothers before moving on to greater international acclaim. As primarily a producer of B-grade flicks, Shaw Brothers specialized in martial arts and wire-fu epics. You know the ones I mean: guys with swords and the fakest beards imaginable flying around on wires. Think Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon but made on the cheap.
However, in the 70s, Shaw Brothers began to branch into horror flicks. And being proponents of martial arts and Buddhism, their attempts at horror had a surprisingly strong spiritual angle to them. And because Chinese film censorship was relatively pretty lax about what they allowed on screen, they got away with a lot of really sick shit.
It seems that the Chinese public had a deep interest in voodoo, so Shaw Brothers answered the call by producing a surprisingly long line of voodoo-splatter flicks. The Black Magic movies follow the graphic misadventures of ordinary people being menaced by depraved voodoo sorcerers.
These movies, while differing in quality, always followed the same formula: evil voodoo sorcerers scarfing down mouthfuls of real animal entrails to power their spells in battle against the forces of good as personified by noble Buddhist monks. You heard me right, I said real animal entrails. That sort of thing was legal in China. I don’t endorse the practice, but it does contribute to some of the most genuine on-screen gross-out moments you will ever see.
Another notable voodoo-splatter flick is Seeding of a Ghost, a very Evil Dead-esque tale of supernatural revenge and depravity. When a Hong Kong cabbie’s wife is murdered, he seeks revenge with the help of a voodoo priest who summons all manner of sick means to drive the murderers mad. Demonic possession, food turning into rotten animal guts, and a rampaging tentacled devil fetus are on the menu for those brave enough to track this sick flick down.
As I said, these films follow a very strict formula and vary only by their quality. And in terms of quality, one stands not only above them, but possibly with the classics of surrealist cinema.
The Boxer’s Omen may have practically the same premise as the aforementioned movies, but its dedication to beauty alongside appalling gross-out thrills elevates it to being an art film as well as a low-brow horror exploitation flick. The movie’s plot follows yet another battle between black magic and Buddhism, but this time the movie takes its time and budget to build an atmosphere emphasizing the contrast between the dueling belief systems.
The main character is a cynical man of the world who must become a monk and achieve enlightenment for the chance to defeat the depraved acolytes of black magic who seek to further degrade and destroy him. Both sides are explored intimately and it becomes a battle not between men, but between the ideas of spiritual enlightenment as opposed to base human desire and despair.
And if that doesn’t interest you, the movie provides plenty of ‘memorable’ scenes such as maggots spewing out of eye sockets, a flying severed head strangling someone with its flailing blood vessels, and a guy eating a real chicken anus (you read that correctly).
Again, if you choose to take the plunge into these movies, remember that they rarely end with ‘no animals were harmed in the making of this film’.
Image credits: Shaw Brothers