I entered the realm of HK film fandom honestly enough; I watched one hell of a lot of the old school Kung Fu films while in high school and college, and gravitated toward a few actors and directors I really liked - but finding these on video was a formidable task. It wasn't until I moved to The Big City that I had a fighting chance at locating some of the martial arts flicks of my wasted youth. Like anything else, 98% of the stuff available on video was absolute crap (as according to Sturgeon's Law, remember), and eventually I drifted on to other pursuits.
Then, a couple of things happened. First, I saw a review for John Woo's The Killer in Time magazine (The Killer was making the rounds of film festivals at the time), and it was glowing enough that I filed the title away for future reference. It would be a couple of years afterwards that I would find a copy of it at a convention (before it was generally available on domestic video). About this time, A&E was showing the British production The Incredibly Strange Film Show, which devoted some time to HK films, relying heavily on clips from Chinese Ghost Story and Zu - Warriors from Magic Mountain. And brothers and sisters, I was hooked all over again.
Now, I didn't do the logical thing at first, i.e., take advantage of Houston's large Asian community (though when I was told about a shop that rented imported laser discs, I began salivating heavily). No, I began to comb the ads you find at the back of film magazines. I hit on one, and ordered a single tape, just to test out the service. Knowing next to nothing about the modern crop of movies, I chose one that sounded good. That movie was Seventh Curse, and I have never regretted that purchase.
Seventh Curse opens at a cocktail party, as an author makes chitchat with several beautiful women from the "Miss Asia" competition. He is, of course, asked where he gets his ideas - this happens to all writers - and he replies quite honestly: he listens to his friends, and an evening of good conversation will usually provide him with plenty of material. Of course, it also helps that he has...well, interesting friends, and he introduces two of them - Dr. Yuen (Chin Siu Ho) and Wisely (Chow Yun Fat!).
By way of digression, it should be noted that these two were characters in several successful series of pulpy novels by Ai Hong. Their popularity is best pointed up by the movie's original title, Yuan zhen xia yu Wei Si Li, or Dr. Yuen and Wisely. The character of Wisely showed up in another movie that year, The Legend of Wisely, and again in 1991 in Bury Me High, which is, as far as I know, the only movie ever made about geomancy. The author introducing them, incidentally, is Ai Hong himself - it's nice to see the original author acknowledged in this way.
We find out immediately how interesting Dr. Yuen's life is, as he is called upon by the local SWAT team to walk into a hostage situation and treat a hostage who has had a heart attack (Yuen gets the call because his bravery is legendary). The plan is that a policewoman will accompany Yuen disguised as a nurse - at midnight, when the SWAT guys attack, she is to set off a flashbang and help take out the terrorists. Unfortunately for this plan, an impetuous young reporter named Tsai-hung (Maggie Cheung!) is so desperate to get a story, she knocks out the policewoman and takes her place.
This is bad news in more ways than one, as not only does Tsai-hung not know the first thing about being a nurse, she's also foolish enough to let the terrorists see the policewoman's gun in the medical kit. The terrorists know something is wrong, and it is up to Yuen and his fighting skills to put some bad guys in their place and activate the flash grenade. After the terrorists are all either shot or beaten to pieces, and Yuen thinks this particular adventure is over, Tsai-hung still continues to pursue the doctor for a story, even seeking him out at a cocktail party.
Losing the girl by jacking up her rear tires at a traffic light, Yuen arrives home to find his girlfriend (Joyce Godenzi - the future Mrs. Sammo Hung) waiting for him. Unfortunately, also in his lavish pad is a tough-looking Thai Guy named Heh Lung (Dick Wei). Not taking too kindly to Heh Lung interrupting his fun time, Yuen goes on the attack (Yes! Big fight scene!) , but is outmatched by the burly Thai. This fight scene illustrates an important axiom of the Hong Kong fight scene: If there is glass present, it must be broken, preferably by having a body thrown through it in the most dangerous-looking way possible. And Yuen has a lot of glass in his apartment.
Once he has Yuen on the floor, Heh Lung tells him he must come back to Thailand "to help yourself and Bachu" - it has been a year, and his blood curse will relapse, and Bachu is under a ghost curse. Yuen voices the audience's thoughts, and asks the Thai what the hell he is talking about. But Heh Lung hands Yuen an ornate earring the doctor obviously recognizes, and a piece of paper bearing an address in Thailand - he will wait for Yuen for three days. Spying Joyce cowering in a doorway, Heh Lung warns Yuen to stay away from sex, or his relapse may occur sooner.
Yuen ignores this last warning and gets down to business with Joyce, but soon must break his embrace and clutch his leg in pain as one of the veins in his legs swells and bursts, gushing blood...
Thus Yuen finds himself at the home of his friend Wisely, who Knows About Such Things. Yuen begins the tale of a year before, when he was working with a medical team in deepest darkest Thailand (the Transylvania of HK films), searching for medicinal herbs and a possible treatment for AIDS. It is there that he chances upon the lovely Bachu* bathing in a lake. After some cute pleasantries (I guess Yuen speaks her language) drums are heard, and Bachu, suddenly worried, heads for her village.
At camp, The Professor in charge of the expedition tells Yuen that the girl is obviously from the nearby Worm Tribe, and he had best forget about her. And judging from the constant drums, there is some sort of black sacrificial ritual going on tonight; The Professor makes everyone at the campfire promise not to go see it.
So of course Yuen and some of his pals sneak to the Worm Tribe village to check it out.
Once there, they find the resident witch doctor, Aquala (Yasuaki Kurata - again, maybe) is lording it over everybody and putting the moves on Bachu. When she rebuffs him in favor of her exiled lover Heh Lung, Aquala chooses one other guy and Bachu for the sacrifice to "Old Ancestor". When a tribesman begs Aquala to spare Bachu because she was the former chief's daughter, Aquala unleashes the Little Ghost - a flying, toothy Murder Muppet that chews through the dissenter's neck and burrows out through his chest, clutching its victim's heart so the dying man can see it - all of which is quite messy, it goes without saying.
With no further disagreements voiced (Aquala, it must be admitted, has a very forceful management style), Bachu and the other sacrifice are dragged into the temple. Yuen tells his fellow Peeping Toms to go fetch the Professor and reinforcements - he's going to help Bachu.
Inside the temple, Aquala splashes buckets of blood over a stone sarcophagus while Bachu and the Other Guy are tied to nearby stakes. The witch doctor and his henchmen beat a hasty retreat as the coffin begins to smoke and shake. Yuen sneaks in and watches in astonishment as the sarcophagus opens and a skeleton, tightly cloaked in mummified skin, rises from the tomb.
Well, there's only one thing to do at a point like this, and it is to have a kung fu fight with the skeleton. In aWestern film, this would be done with stop-motion animation, or given the state of current technology, a computer generated skeleton. But here, it is accomplished with a life-sized skeleton, most likely a combination of rod and cable puppets - and more surprising yet, I buy it. It seems so much more real to me this way, I am more than willing to overlook the times the puppet's obvious stiffness and lack of mass breaks the illusion - and such moments are amazingly few.
Gaining a few seconds, Yuen tries to untie the Other Guy, but fails as Old Ancestor lays hands on the unfortunate, and Yuen must fall back and try to release Bachu, instead. Old Ancestor rips the guy's head off and then proceeds to suck out his spinal cord. This has the effect of enabling Old Ancestor to morph into a winged, Alien-type creature with Ultra-Slime dripping from its maw. Bachu and Yuen decide to run - apparently a very wise course of action, as Old Ancestor does not follow.
Outside the village, Bachu splits off as Yuen meets the Professor and the reinforcements and everyone decides to get the hell out of Dodge - too late, as the wrathful Worm Tribe descends on the camp, slaughtering everyone except Yuen and the Professor - Aquala has something special arranged for them. Back at the temple, the witch doctor dumps some green concoction on the Professor, causing the man to scream in agony and literally start tearing off his own skin, revealing thousands upon thousands of worms crawling in his flesh and around his entrails. It's a real Chinese horror kinda moment, if you know what I mean. And I know some of you do.
For Yuen, Aquala pulls out a charm which was imbedded in the chest of one of his henchmen killed in the attack, and forces it down Yuen's throat. This sets upon him the "blood curse" - his veins begin to swell and burst. Aquala tells him there will be seven blood curses, and then he will be dead... and, like all good Bond villains, he leaves our hero to die.
Well, like all good heroes, Yuen escapes, but there's still that bothersome blood curse, which is still doing a terrific job of killing him. But he is found by Bachu, who cuts a similar charm out of her chest, and feeds it to Yuen, saving his life.
Ladies and gentlemen, we are now only 35 minutes into this movie.
As Yuen finishes his flashback, another vein bursts. Wisely surmises that Bachu's charm has only forestalled the Blood Curse for a year. The Curses are striking once every 24 hours, and Yuen has only five days to live - unless he goes to Thailand. Wisely promises to follow in a day or so. And who should enter but Tsai-hung, who still wants to do a story on the Brave Young Doctor, and who, as luck would have it, is Wisely's cousin! AI!
Trekking to Thailand, Yuen finds Heh Lung barricaded in his house. Aquala's reach, he tells Yuen, has extended far, and the sorcerer has even entered into alliances with local gangsters. To punctuate this, several dozen thugs bust in through doors and windows and attack the two men. (Yes! Big fight scene!) Both men hold their own very well, dishing out huge discount volumes of pain to the bad guys - until Yuen's third Blood Curse bursts, causing him to falter, and giving the thugs an opening. Luckily for our heroes, Tsai-hung has once again followed Yuen against all orders (or sense) and has used Daddy's unlimited charge account to pick up some mercenaries and enough heavy weaponry to take care of several dozen bad guys (Important lesson learned: Thai mercenaries and arms merchants take plastic).
Heh Lung takes Yuen and Tsai-hung to a village near the Worm Tribe, populated by peaceful types. But the peaceful types are worried now: all the children of the village have vanished. The Little Ghost spell only lasts three years, and to renew it, Aquala requires the blood of a hundred children. Heh Lung and Yuen scout the Worm Tribe hangout, but lethal booby-traps take out most of their party. Tsai-hung has tagged along yet again, but once more proves herself useful; she studied Viet Cong deathtrap technology while she was in America, and helps our two heroes get past the other booby traps. She and Yuen argue while Heh Lung checks ahead; Yuen manages to get her angry enough to make her go back to the village... but once she is out of sight, she stumbles through a trap door.
Heh Lung returns to report the children are in cages and heavily guarded. He and Yuen seek out Bachu, whose Ghost Curse, guided by Aquala, has disfigured half her face. She tells Yuen that Sacred Ashes can heal all curses, but the only ones in the land reside in the eyes of a great statue of Buddha in a mountain cave - but no one who has ever gone there before has returned alive. Of course.
Yuen and Heh Lung return to the village to await the mercenaries, only to find that Tsai-hung has not returned. Determining her to be a prisoner of Aquala, they do what heroes do best: they storm the castle. Charging through the village in their Jeep, they drive it up the steps of the temple and rampage through its halls coming into the main chamber and finding Tsai-hung tied to a stake - and also finding that Aquala has gone ahead with the Little Ghost ritual, and the last of the children has just been murdered.
Time for another stop, here; I have to say that I have seen a lot of cinematic death and horror in my time. But few things have shocked and horrified me down to the core as this scene, mercifully brief as it is, where a screaming, whimpering child is passed into a giant crushing device. It's obviously a variation of an old stage illusion - the child ducks down while the fake stone plates pass safely overhead, but still.....
Try that in a Western movie.
Tsai-hung is rescued and taken to the village, but hee hee hee (yes, Aquala is one of those villains, the ones who like to go hee hee hee), the Spunky Young Reporter is under a spell, has soon armed herself with a sword, and is attacking everyone in sight, especially the nimble Yuen. (The village, I noted, is one of the most easily breakable villages I have ever seen, but that could be because there wasn't any glass around to break.) Wisely (remember him?) and his wife Su arrive, startling Tsai-hung and causing her to hesitate long enough to be subdued. Bachu arrives, and orders a bath of the blood of "black goats, oxen, dogs, cats, lizards and eagles" to break the spell.
Preparing to journey to the mountain to procure the sacred ashes, Yuen's sixth curse bursts. Wisely tells him that the last curse will open his heart and cause him to bleed to death. Then, discovering that Aquala has started the Little Ghost ritual, Wisely orders up the placenta of a pregnant cow and the blood of a black dog - it does not pay to be an animal in this village.
Heh Lung and Yuen reach the monumental statue of the Buddha and climb to its lap, where they are beset not only by various booby-traps meant to skewer and squash intruders, but also a legion of orange-robed, bungee-jumping, kung fu-fighting monks. (Yes! Big fight scene!) After a pitched battle, Heh Lung finally prevails upon the monks, convincing them that they only want the ashes to help people - and the statue aids their cause by shedding tears. They prise out the eyes of the idol, but this also causes some sort of mystical repercussion, as the emptied eyesockets gush blood and the head falls away from the idol, rolling after our heroes as they frantically try to avoid being crushed. Probably the best running-away-from-an-enormous-boulder-rolling-just-a-couple-of-feet-behind-you scenes that I have witnessed since Raiders of the Lost Ark. Good is agile, though, and Yuen survives to swallow the eerily glowing sacred ashes just as his last curse is about to burst.
Next challenge: they only have four hours to get the other eye back to Bachu to cure her.
Well, next next challenge: Heh Lung and Yuen return to the village, only to find the last remnants of a battle between the villagers, the mercs and the Worm Tribe. Wisely tells them that Tsai-hung and Bachu were both captured by Aquala.
To be sure, the witch doctor is once again slopping blood all over Old Ancestor's coffin, going hee hee hee and making with the bad guy gloating. Heh Lung and Yuen arrive on the scene and a fight starts (Yes!) between Heh Lung and his old enemy, with the result that Aquala is eventually knocked onto Old Ancestor's sarcophagus, and the beastie, tired of waiting, yanks the screaming witch doctor into the coffin. Not satisfied by that little snack, though, Old Ancestor bursts from his coffin and slips into Alien mode, flapping its wings and pursuing our heroes all over the sacrificial chamber.
Help arrives in the form of Su (remember her?) and some of the mercenaries, though Old Ancestor doesn't seem too impressed by their machine guns and disposes of the mercs in various bloody, messy ways. Su then releases the Little Ghost, which Wisely had captured and turned against its creators. The Murder Muppet does pretty well for a while, causing gaping wounds and generally cutting up Old Ancestor in a messy fashion, but the Big Beastie eventually gets its claws on the Little Ghost and reduces it to its constituent molecules (messily). Now our heroes seem truly doomed! Wait a minute... where's Wisely?
Oh, there he is, at the top of the stairs with... a rocket launcher??! Woo-hoo! Leave it to Chow Yun Fat! Two rockets later, Old Ancestor is reduced to Old Ancestor kibble. Messy Old Ancestor kibble.
Victory comes at a price, however: the time limit is up on the sacred ashes, and Bachu must remain disfigured forever. Heh Lung swears his love for her regardless; "Beauty lies in one's heart, not in one's face," Wisely tells his wife. The end.
What impressed me the most about Seventh Curse was its sheer exuberance. After a decade of mainly formulaic horror movies, all of which seemed to move at the same pace, this pulp-fiction upstart was more than a breath of fresh air, it was the whole damn tank of oxygen. Here was the type of movie I wanted to see, something with a little bit of everything. The only American director I could think of doing similar work was Sam Raimi. Though director Lam Ngai Kai doesn't employ Raimi's discombobulated camera style, the directors share a zest for outrageous situations and a sure hand in their action pieces (though I give Lam the advantage in the action field). Lam would later score another hit along similar lines in the fantasy-based Peacock King, and prove he was equally unafraid of excess in the hyper-violent Story of Ricky. His work is definitely worth checking out.
The movie also has other things going for it besides heart - several times a sort of eerie beauty insinuates itself into the gruesome proceedings, as when Heh Lung and Yuen look up from their climb up the Buddha statue to discover that they have been silently surrounded by reposing monks, apparently from nowhere; or when Tsai-hung awakens cured from her zombie spell, and the steaming dark blood that she has slept in has turned white, like milk. Adding to these agreeable aesthetics is an honest-to-God orchestral score that enriches the experience suitably.
I have to say, however, that the movie hasn't aged that well with me. As an attempt, as mentioned earlier, to cover all movie bases, there are some comedy scenes between Maggie Cheung and Andy Lau that simply don't translate well, and I fast forward through these with wild abandon. I find myself aggravated more than ever at dubious plotting - what, a hundred children aren't worth our heroes risking their lives, but let Maggie Cheung get captured, and suddenly they're deathmatching their way through the enemy stronghold, armed with only a bow and arrow, and a shotgun (admittedly, one of those Chinese shotguns that knocks its target back a dozen feet)? Doesn't say too much for our heroes, does it?
Oh, well, the movie still thrills the jaded palate of this viewer, and should fulfill the same function for the similarly genre-fried (extra crispy!). Like a lot of the great HK flicks of this period, it reminds you that films - even horror films - used to be fun. And if that last fight reminds you more of the final battle in Inframan than the closing fight of a more conventional action-horror story, say, End of Days, well, so much the better, right?
Like dim sum - a little something for everybody's taste
- July 9, 2000