Saturday, 8 October 2016

Halloween 31 For 31: Hex (1980)

Director: Chih-Hung Kuei
Screenplay: Chih-Hung Kuei and Chin-Hua Tan
Cast: Ni Tien (as Chan Sau Ying);  Yung Wang (as Yeung Chun Yu); Szu-Chia Chen (as Leung Kei Wah)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #33

[WARNING: Contains spoilers but they will be individually signposted to avoid.]
Hex, if anything, is unpredictable, the result of which leads to a twisted array of emotions as you react to everything that happens for the first viewing. Immediately, now that Blu-Ray exists and that their archive has been brilliantly preserved, it's clear just how good the in-house style was for Shaw Brothers studio. Predominantly known for martial arts movies, their extensions into other genres were just as distinct and stylised. The set-based locations and aesthetic of their films is impeccable, here a period piece like the martial arts films where a hateful husband Chun-yu (Jung Wang) is drowned by his incredibly ill wife Chan Sau-ying (Ni Tien) and the daughter of a former servant (Szu-Chia Chen). The style of the film, including its occasionally use distinct camera movements (crawling along the ground through corridors, aerials shots) has a class and immense grace to it, an elegance to the period trappings that wrong foots a viewer when the plot twists start to throw conventions on their heads and things start to get weird.

Hex is reminiscent of the martial art films in its tone, and not only an escape scene for a young monk which takes on the athleticism of the more well known films from the company, the pacey and melodramatic aspects here as well, where a cross eyed furniture mover acts with an exaggerated sense of mannerism closer to a choreographed style or how the acting has a generally heightened tone to it. The mix is curious as, founder and central figure Run Run Shaw used his influence on his own studio to create extravagantly made films with rich aesthetics, but let his directors and t3echnical teams make films with gladly stepped in broad and comedic moments alongside the serious scenes, such as the older Buddhist monk that appears who gets threatened by a severed hand. The tonal shifts are prevalent in Hong Kong cinema and Asian filmmaking in general, but here it's a very distinct style that even when it comes to their more serious minded films is common in Shaw Bros. movie in how heightened and ever changing in plotting they can be. Especially here where the first half is serious and dramatic, as the wife fears of being haunted by her dead husband, but is punctured by comedy and exceptionally silly frights, it has a ridiculous charm to it.

Then when Hex reaches its middle half it starts to get more gothic and morbid as it goes along. More atmosphere as those who've reaped the benefits of the major change in plotting get haunted themselves. The plot twists are so drastic I have to be exceptionally  careful and give a [Spoiler Warning] as it leads to a conspiracy to bump a person off for greed, only for the husband, still alive, and his lover to be haunted to the point of madness by their own ghost [Spoiler ends]. What started as an elegant, melodramatic horror tale becomes more lurid and inventively peculiar, where the amount of frights become more frequent and a gleeful revenge haunting starts with more comedy and more tension. This does mean unfortunately you see a live snake get chopped in half with a cleaver, of its time, but besides this you get more slapstick, more ghoulish frights and the in-house style becomes even more colourful and decorative for a hyper-stylised, kinetic ghost tale, one where the characters are constantly looking over their shoulder as they have no idea where the ghost will appear to scare them. If there's any flaw to this style on a first viewing, it's so quick in pacing at times that you can actually get lost at points.

Finally the film in its last quarter gets insane. The director Chih-Hung Kuei later made The Boxer's Omen (1983), the most infamous of the Shaw Brothers catalogue, and the suddenly jump in baroque style and lunacy starts to make sense when you realise this. The style becomes even more awashed in colour and the bold lighting style used is exceptional even next to what was done earlier in the film, while the unique mix of sorcery and magic he has in this film and The Boxer's is an idiosyncratic and fascinating one, its realism to exiting practices or lack of it not an issue when it gives him carte blanche to have mind-blowing and ridiculous details and moments as a result, such as the unexpected use of chickens blood here.

Hex after three quarters of its length as a solid horror story turns into something else involving a very eyebrow raising exorcism, an elaborate solo dance choreography involving a completely naked women painted in symbols writhing around as an elderly sorceress hits her with a shoe, so prolonged that I found myself dumbfounded by it, so much nudity onscreen that it could cause even the most desensitised of porn viewers to blush. Then there's [Spoiler Warning] a reinterpretation of the most famous story from Masaki Kobayashi's Kwaidan (1964) with much more female nudity, and a final plot twist so unexpected and un-signposted that it comes from the school of Teruo Ishii's Horrors of Malformed Men (1969), i.e. able to get away with being out of nowhere by how unexpected and baffling as a result it is.  As a result, even amongst some of the films that I've watched during the period of writing these current reviews, this felt like getting a couple of bricks to the head and surprisingly pleasant for that reason, emphasise that even someone like myself who's seen a lot of bizarre films can still be taken aback by a movie on the first viewing.


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