Step into the magical, mind-bending world of Hong Kong horror films

Left to proper: Screenshots from Mr. Vampire, Oily Maniac, The Boxer’s Omen, and Dumplings. (Graphic: Allison Corr)

Primer is The A.V. Membership’s ongoing collection of newbie’s guides to popular culture’s most notable topics: filmmakers, music types, literary genres, and no matter else pursuits us—and hopefully you. This installment: Hong Kong horror films.

Japanese horror films have had a profound affect on their Western counterparts, completely altering the grammar of what international audiences discover scary. Hong Kong horror, in the meantime, has remained a comparatively area of interest curiosity, at the same time as Hong Kong motion cinema has reshaped the way in which the world movies violence. That’s at the least partially as a result of it took some time to take off: The style does have its foundational texts—1937’s Tune At Midnight, the primary Chinese language-language horror movie, has been remade a number of occasions in a number of codecs—however horror films weren’t a outstanding a part of the by-then bustling Hong Kong movie trade till the 1970s.


Earlier than then, the vast majority of Chinese language movies coping with the supernatural had been influenced by the work of 17th-century scholar Pu Songling, whose Unusual Tales From A Chinese language Studio smuggled critiques of the feudal system into folktales about fox spirits and lovesick feminine ghosts. (This model of fantasy-horror would return to recognition within the ’80s, however we’ll get to that in a minute.) Then British horror studio Hammer got here to the powerhouse Shaw Brothers, hoping to reinvigorate its flagging fortunes with just a little little bit of the kung-fu motion that was trending worldwide within the early ’70s. The consequence was Legend Of The 7 Golden Vampires (1974), which grafts martial arts sequences directed by Shaw Brothers mainstay Chang Cheh onto the staid Hammer Dracula method. Whereas satisfying sufficient, the movie doesn’t symbolize Hong Kong horror reborn a lot as an undead Hammer Studios. A very distinctive, and sometimes actually gross, new model of Hong Kong horror wasn’t born till a 12 months later.

Because it did all around the world, The Exorcist (1973) influenced this new growth in Hong Kong. Upon observing the rave critiques (and spectacular field workplace receipts) for William Friedkin’s movie, producer Runme Shaw determined to attempt to re-create the movie’s success. The consequence was the field workplace smash Black Magic (1975), the story of a supernaturally influenced love triangle that impressed not solely a sequel but additionally a complete collection of shockingly visceral, wildly creative horror films primarily based on Southeast Asian people magic each genuine and utterly made up. As Pete Tombs writes in his 1998 ebook Mondo Macabro, the Southeast Asian angle in movies like The Boxer’s Omen (1983) and Centipede Horror not solely performed to Hong Kong audiences’ unique view of their neighbors to the south, however it additionally elevated the movies’ possibilities of success in international locations like Thailand and Malaysia, the place horror was already huge enterprise.


Over the following decade, horror films would show to be the identical fertile floor for younger administrators in Hong Kong because it did in America, its low budgets and disreputable popularity giving budding masters the chance to develop their voices in comparatively lawless circumstances. Vietnam-born, Texas-educated director Tsui Hark particularly actually ran with the chance with movies like We’re Going To Eat You (1980), a mix of gross-out cannibal flick, wild slapstick, and pointed critique of the Communist authorities in mainland China. However it was a longtime trade participant, director/producer/actor/extraordinarily nimble fats man Sammo Hung, who reinvented the style once more for the ’80s.

Hung diverted from the Western-style vampires featured in Legend Of The 7 Golden Vampires in his 1980 movie Encounters Of The Spooky Form, about an bizarre schmuck whose dishonest spouse hires a witch to kill him and who retains accepting challenges to spend the evening in creepy temples for no matter purpose (delight, principally). Mixing horror, kung fu, and comedy, the movie set the template for the so-called “hopping vampire” (jiangshi in Mandarin and geung si in Cantonese) style. However it was Mr. Vampire (1985), produced by Hung and directed by newcomer Ricky Lau, that may flip the reanimated corpses of Qing Dynasty officers into one in all Hong Kong horror’s favourite cinematic villains.

The factor about geung si is that they aren’t actually vampires within the Western sense of the phrase; in some ways, they’re extra just like the Western zombie. Though they’re drawn to, and feed off of, the life power of the dwelling, geung si can’t discuss, are animalistic moderately than seductive, and aren’t essentially evil, as D.D. Crowley wrote on iHorror earlier this 12 months. (They do sleep in coffins and keep away from daylight, although.) As arts professor Aaron Han Joon Magnan-Park tells Time Out Hong Kong, “Hong Kong horror movies will be extra nuanced and gray, moderately than extremities of black and white, since they draw on Chinese language folklore, Buddhism, and Taoism,” versus the dualistic good and evil of the Christian custom.

They’re made by Taoist clergymen, who magically resurrect the our bodies of those that die overseas and herd them again to their hometowns for a correct burial, tying bells to their stiff ankles (they’ll’t transfer their arms or legs because of rigor mortis, thus the hopping) to announce pack of lifeless individuals is passing by means of. The issue comes when the spell affixed to a geung si’s brow that retains them docile is eliminated—often both by a stiff wind or a bumbling assistant—permitting the creature to run wild. That’s when a geung si chew turns into an actual risk.

Spawning 4 sequels and a legion of imitators, Mr. Vampire was a cultural occasion all through Asia (geung si grew to become particularly well-liked in Japan) on the extent of Ghostbusters within the U.S. It even has its personal equal to final 12 months’s Ghostbusters remake: the 2013 horror-comedy Rigor Mortis, which introduced again most of the forged members from the unique Mr. Vampire whereas amping up the horror issue with CGI results sequences that may have been not possible to drag off three many years earlier. And the undead proceed to hop into theaters: Earlier this 12 months, the horror-comedy Vampire Cleanup Division tweaked nostalgia receptors in Hong Kong and at worldwide movie festivals. Regardless of this, makes an attempt to translate the “hopping vampire” to the West have by no means actually taken off, with the obscure 1989 Canadian movie The Jitters being the primary, and mainly the one, English-language movie effort.


Hong Kong horror-comedies are extraordinarily enjoyable for many who love creature options, presenting a monster-movie vocabulary that’s each acquainted and completely contemporary alongside universally translatable bodily comedy delivered by expert performers (who regularly double as martial artists). Equally enchanting is A Chinese language Ghost Story (1987), one other genre-bending effort combining romance, horror, fantasy, comedy, and, after all, just a little little bit of martial arts. Produced by Tsui Hark and directed by famed combat choreographer Ching Siu-tung, the movie reaches ranges of visible invention and special-effects magic hardly ever equaled, each in its monsters—which embody a mile-long tongue and dozens of flying decapitated heads—and the thrilling wire work of its kung fu scenes. Steven Jay Schneider included A Chinese language Ghost Story in his ebook 1001 Films You Should See Earlier than You Die, by which it’s described as “a mix of Sam Raimi, Jean Cocteau, Georges Méliès, and Tim Burton.” If nothing about that sounds interesting, you in all probability don’t like films.

The worldwide crossover success of A Chinese language Ghost Story—which was nicely obtained in Europe in addition to in Hong Kong—sparked a brand new wave of fantasy-action-romance-horror hybrids impressed by conventional Chinese language folklore within the late ’80s and early ’90s. These shiny, effects-heavy productions stand in stark distinction to a different subgenre, the so-called Class III movies that took off within the late ’80s. The phenomenon was an unintended aspect impact of Hong Kong’s movie rankings system, first launched in 1988; the naughtiness of a movie branded “Class III” (equal to an X or NC-17 ranking) proved irresistible to audiences, prompting a flood of movies with the ranking to hit the market. Most of those had been softcore pornography, however there was additionally a major subset of intentionally ugly, ultraviolent horror titles as nicely. Males Behind The Solar (1988) and Dr. Lamb (1992) predate American “torture porn” by a decade or extra, and director Herman Yau made a collection of Class III movies, most notably the irredeemable Ebola Syndrome (1996), in between extra mainstream efforts. Not all Class III movies are nihilistic slogs, nevertheless; some, like 1995’s Everlasting Evil Of Asia, a.ok.a. “the dickhead film,” are crazy, sex-crazed enjoyable.


Class III was a determined effort to cease the monetary hemorrhaging that film studios throughout Hong Kong had been experiencing within the ’90s. But when flooding the market with shameless sleazefests on low cost VCDs almost killed off Hong Kong horror, mainland Chinese language censorship contributed as nicely. With their fortunes overseas struggling badly, Hong Kong studios started relying more and more on mainland audiences and co-productions with mainland studios to outlive. This put them into direct contact with communist censors, who forbade the depiction of something that “promote[s] cults or superstition,” i.e., ghosts and wizards, in movies. (They nonetheless do, after they really feel prefer it: Crimson Peak and Ghostbusters had been each banned in mainland China.) As Aowen Jin factors out on the BBC, this was extra of a political cudgel than something, a lingering impact of the Cultural Revolution that sought to purge conventional Chinese language tradition and its metaphorical ghosts.

Technically, Hong Kong filmmakers might nonetheless make films with any type of content material they wished. These films simply wouldn’t play in mainland China. And there are compromises: Offering rational explanations for seemingly supernatural occasions within the ultimate scene of a movie is one method, as is having the primary character get up from a dream, Wizard Of Oz model. However as the ability of the Chinese language field workplace elevated (and continues to extend to this present day), it’s nonetheless had a chilling impact on the romantic spirits and Taoist vampire hunters who beforehand dominated Hong Kong horror—and, extra particularly, their budgets. Desire a huge finances? Then it’s important to play ball with the Chinese language censors, who could make exceptions for movies primarily based on Chinese language mythology however nonetheless strictly forbid nudity, homosexual romance, and overt political commentary, in addition to ghosts. “For us, it’s difficult,” filmmaker Jevons Au instructed The Guardian final 12 months. “The distinctiveness of Hong Kong is our freedom of speech, of creativity, of expression… [But] to make a co-production with China, it’s important to observe ever stricter guidelines.”

Nonetheless, Hong Kong horror carries on, usually with the assistance of worldwide movie studios and administrators. (The aforementioned Rigor Mortis was made with Japanese horror legend Takashi Shimizu hooked up as a producer and a British TV firm offering funding, so it didn’t need to depend on mainland field workplace.) Within the 2000s, two threads emerged: There are the auteur administrators like Fruit Chan (Dumplings, 2004), Ann Hui (Seen Secret, 2001), and the Pang brothers (The Eye, 2002), whose movies play at, and are mainly designed for, worldwide movie festivals and abroad markets. Then you’ve got low-budget, homegrown movies just like the Troublesome Night time collection—which stands at a formidable 19 entries—made for a fast hit of home-video money. Not a lot totally different than the dual poles of latest American horror, actually.

Introductory course

First issues first, if you happen to can observe down a DVD (it’s sadly arduous to search out, even on paid streaming), watch Danny and Oxide Chung Pang’s The Eye (2002), which was remade in English in 2008 with Jessica Alba. When you’ve digested that (pun meant), there’s additionally Fruit Chan’s fetus-chomping Dumplings and the extraordinarily bloody—suppose New French Extremity bloody—slasher flick Dream House (2010). All these movies adapt Hong Kong horror for a world viewers, making them extra acquainted to Western horror followers.


Alternate routes into the Hong Kong horror aesthetic are the horror-comedy and fantasy-horror subgenres, each of that are much less tailor-made to Western-style storytelling however which promise untold pleasures for followers of fantastical, escapist leisure. The foundational movies of the respective subgenres, Mr. Vampire and A Chinese language Ghost Story—see under—are good locations to begin. Relying on what strikes your fancy, the sequels to each movies are extra of the identical (aside from Mr. Vampire 2, which is extra family-oriented and fairly skippable), and Magic Cop (1990) and Bride With White Hair (1993) are strong “hopping vampire” and romantic interval martial arts fantasies, respectively.

Intermediate research

When you’ve eased into the “all the pieces however the kitchen sink” aesthetic of Hong Kong style cinema, the following order of enterprise is to delve into the catalog of ugly, over-the-top horror films produced by Shaw Brothers Studios within the late ’70s and early ’80s. Black Magic and Black Magic 2 (1976) are the originals, however The Boxer’s Omen—see under—has made probably the most inroads into Western cinephile lore. If you happen to dig that one, there’s additionally Hex (1980), Hex Vs. Witchcraft (1980), and Hex After Hex (1982), all from the identical director.


Dig into the again catalog, and also you’ll discover all types of horror types filtered by means of the Shaw’s more and more sleazy lens: Human Lanterns (1982) is a interval serial-killer film, whereas Corpse Mania (1981) is a giallo-influenced necrophilia gross-out. However the epitome of this insane model is 1983’s Seeding Of A Ghost, that includes a supernaturally impregnated demon corpse and climaxing with the gory beginning of a tentacled demon child straight out of The Factor that comes bursting out of its moms’ womb to terrorize a mahjong celebration. And if you happen to like that, we’ve obtained a Satan Fetus (1983) to promote you.

Superior course

As talked about above, the late ’80s and early ’90s noticed a flood of low cost direct-to-video horror titles (over)saturating the market, which implies there’s a variety of junk to wade by means of from this era. A few of them are low cost Chinese language Ghost Story and Mr. Vampire ripoffs—beware (or don’t, if that’s what you’re on the lookout for) the weird ’80s trash movies of Robo Vampire director Godfrey Ho—whereas others fall below the dreaded designation of Class III.


Of those, the notoriously sickening Males Behind The Solar, ostensibly a historic drama about struggle crimes dedicated by the Japanese throughout world Warfare II however actually a disgusting collection of graphic torture scenes and human experiments, is the toughest to sit down by means of. That one’s adopted intently by Silence Of The Lambs-inspired serial-killer film Dr. Lamb and the dual atrocities of The Untold Story (1993), a few cannibalistic BBQ bun baker, and Ebola Syndrome, a few sadistic rapist who spreads ebola all through Hong Kong. Not advisable for the faint of coronary heart, delicate of abdomen, or anybody hoping to take care of their perception in human decency and/or inventive integrity.

The necessities

1. The Boxer’s Omen

Calling The Boxer’s Omen the “most accessible” of the Shaw Brothers black-magic films is, after all, a relative time period. However whereas it does include some actually wild shit—flying armies of bats and crocodile skulls, a man throwing up a two-foot-long eel, one-eyed poodle demons with little pink mohawks and wormlike our bodies, a number of scenes of magical regurgitation, a inexperienced alien head that emerges from a slimy, pink brainlike mass—it additionally follows a comparatively easy kung-fu defeat/coaching/ultimate confrontation arc, making it doable to observe the plot whereas the consequences blow your thoughts.

2. Mr. Vampire

Settle for no imitations (and there are lots of). Mr. Vampire is floor zero for the geung si phenomenon, starring Ching-Ying Lam within the first of what could be many roles as a heavy-browed, kung-fu preventing grasp of the Taoist magical arts. Siu-hou Chin and Ricky Hui co-star as Lam’s bumbling assistants, one other trope usually repeated in Mr. Vampire’s many imitators. Shifting at a breakneck tempo, the movie is a madcap mix of bodily comedy, supernatural horror, and motion that’s just a little bit like The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) or Military Of Darkness (1992) with extra kung fu. If you happen to don’t catch all the main points of the plot upon first viewing, don’t sweat it. There’s rather a lot occurring.

three. A Chinese language Ghost Story

One other wildly influential crowd-pleaser from producer Tsui Hark, A Chinese language Ghost Story is gorgeous to take a look at, in addition to enjoyable to look at. Based mostly on a brief story by China’s personal Brothers Grimm, Pu Songling, A Chinese language Ghost Story stars Leslie Cheung as a debt collector who falls in love with a good looking feminine ghost (Joey Wong), then groups up with a Taoist priest (Wu Ma) to avoid wasting his beloved from the evil tree demon that controls her soul.

four. Dumplings

Fruit Chan’s Dumplings, a full-length model of a brief movie featured within the pan-Asian horror anthology Three… Extremes (2004), is not only some of the completed and authentic horror movies to return out of Hong Kong within the new millennium; it’s additionally some of the distinctive horror films of the brand new millennium, interval. Starring Bai Ling as a mysterious (and apparently ageless) dwelling chef with a secret recipe for vitality-restoring dumplings and Miriam Yeung as an getting older TV star determined to protect her youth, Dumplings has a tastefully performed, however nonetheless unforgettably stunning, twist.

5. Dream House

One of many better-received latest Hong Kong horror movies overseas, Dream House takes frequent anxieties on the tiny island—the excessive price of actual property and a scarcity of upward mobility typically—and interprets them right into a goopy, gory, explicitly stunning slasher flick. Josie Ho stars because the sadistic killer seeking a harbor view, an uncommon twist within the often male-dominated slasher subgenre.

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