Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginner’s guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This installment: Hong Kong horror movies.
Japanese horror movies have had a profound impact on their Western counterparts, permanently changing the grammar of what global audiences find frightening. Hong Kong horror, meanwhile, has remained a relatively niche interest, even as Hong Kong action cinema has reshaped the way the world films violence. That’s at least partially because it took a while to take off: The genre does have its foundational texts—1937’s Song At Midnight, the first Chinese-language horror film, has been remade multiple times in multiple formats—but horror movies weren’t a prominent part of the by-then bustling Hong Kong film industry until the 1970s.
Before then, the majority of Chinese films dealing with the supernatural were influenced by the work of 17th-century scholar Pu Songling, whose Strange Stories From A Chinese Studio smuggled critiques of the feudal system into folktales about fox spirits and lovesick female ghosts. (This style of fantasy-horror would return to popularity in the ’80s, but we’ll get to that in a minute.) Then British horror studio Hammer came to the powerhouse Shaw Brothers, hoping to reinvigorate its flagging fortunes with a little bit of the kung-fu action that was trending worldwide in the early ’70s. The result 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 formula. While enjoyable enough, the film doesn’t represent Hong Kong horror reborn so much as an undead Hammer Studios. A truly unique, and often truly gross, new style of Hong Kong horror wasn’t born until a year later.
As it did all over the world, The Exorcist (1973) influenced this new boom in Hong Kong. Upon observing the rave reviews (and impressive box office receipts) for William Friedkin’s film, producer Runme Shaw decided to try to re-create the film’s success. The result was the box office smash Black Magic (1975), the tale of a supernaturally influenced love triangle that inspired not only a sequel but also a whole series of shockingly visceral, wildly inventive horror movies based on Southeast Asian folk magic both authentic and completely made up. As Pete Tombs writes in his 1998 book Mondo Macabro, the Southeast Asian angle in films like The Boxer’s Omen (1983) and Centipede Horror not only played to Hong Kong audiences’ exotic view of their neighbors to the south, but it also increased the films’ chances of success in countries like Thailand and Malaysia, where horror was already big business.
Over the next decade, horror movies would prove to be the same fertile ground for young directors in Hong Kong as it did in America, its low budgets and disreputable reputation giving budding masters the opportunity to develop their voices in relatively lawless conditions. Vietnam-born, Texas-educated director Tsui Hark in particular really ran with the opportunity with films like We’re Going To Eat You (1980), a combination of gross-out cannibal flick, wild slapstick, and pointed critique of the Communist government in mainland China. But it was an established industry player, director/producer/actor/extremely nimble fat guy Sammo Hung, who reinvented the genre again for the ’80s.
Hung diverted from the Western-style vampires featured in Legend Of The 7 Golden Vampires in his 1980 film Encounters Of The Spooky Kind, about an ordinary schmuck whose cheating wife hires a witch to kill him and who keeps accepting challenges to spend the night in creepy temples for whatever reason (pride, mostly). Blending horror, kung fu, and comedy, the film set the template for the so-called “hopping vampire” (jiangshi in Mandarin and geung si in Cantonese) genre. But it was Mr. Vampire (1985), produced by Hung and directed by newcomer Ricky Lau, that would turn the reanimated corpses of Qing Dynasty officials into one of Hong Kong horror’s favorite cinematic villains.
The thing about geung si is that they aren’t really vampires in the Western sense of the word; in many ways, they’re more like the Western zombie. Although they are attracted to, and feed off of, the life force of the living, geung si can’t talk, are animalistic rather than seductive, and aren’t necessarily evil, as D.D. Crowley wrote on iHorror earlier this year. (They do sleep in coffins and avoid sunlight, though.) As arts professor Aaron Han Joon Magnan-Park tells Time Out Hong Kong, “Hong Kong horror films can be more nuanced and grey, rather than extremities of black and white, since they draw on Chinese folklore, Buddhism, and Taoism,” as opposed to the dualistic good and evil of the Christian tradition.
They are made by Taoist priests, who magically resurrect the bodies of those who die abroad and herd them back to their hometowns for a proper burial, tying bells to their stiff ankles (they can’t move their arms or legs due to rigor mortis, thus the hopping) to announce that a pack of dead people is passing through. The problem comes when the spell affixed to a geung si’s forehead that keeps them docile is removed—usually either by a stiff wind or a bumbling assistant—allowing the creature to run wild. That’s when a geung si bite becomes a real possibility.
Spawning four sequels and a legion of imitators, Mr. Vampire was a cultural event throughout Asia (geung si became especially popular in Japan) on the level of Ghostbusters in the U.S. It even has its own equivalent to last year’s Ghostbusters remake: the 2013 horror-comedy Rigor Mortis, which brought back many of the cast members from the original Mr. Vampire while amping up the horror factor with CGI effects sequences that would have been impossible to pull off three decades earlier. And the undead continue to hop into theaters: Earlier this year, the horror-comedy Vampire Cleanup Department tweaked nostalgia receptors in Hong Kong and at international film festivals. Despite this, attempts to translate the “hopping vampire” to the West have never really taken off, with the obscure 1989 Canadian film The Jitters being the first, and basically the only, English-language film effort.
Hong Kong horror-comedies are extremely fun for those who love creature features, presenting a monster-movie vocabulary that’s both familiar and entirely fresh alongside universally translatable physical comedy delivered by skilled performers (who frequently double as martial artists). Similarly enchanting is A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), another genre-bending effort combining romance, horror, fantasy, comedy, and, of course, a little bit of martial arts. Produced by Tsui Hark and directed by famed fight choreographer Ching Siu-tung, the film reaches levels of visual invention and special-effects magic rarely equaled, both in its monsters—which include 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 Ghost Story in his book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, in which it’s described as “a combination of Sam Raimi, Jean Cocteau, Georges Méliès, and Tim Burton.” If nothing about that sounds appealing, you probably don’t like movies.
The international crossover success of A Chinese Ghost Story—which was well received in Europe as well as in Hong Kong—sparked a new wave of fantasy-action-romance-horror hybrids inspired by traditional Chinese folklore in the late ’80s and early ’90s. These glossy, effects-heavy productions stand in stark contrast to another subgenre, the so-called Category III films that took off in the late ’80s. The phenomenon was an unintended side effect of Hong Kong’s film ratings system, first introduced in 1988; the naughtiness of a film branded “Category III” (equivalent to an X or NC-17 rating) proved irresistible to audiences, prompting a flood of films with the rating to hit the market. Most of these were softcore pornography, but there was also a significant subset of deliberately ugly, ultraviolent horror titles as well. Men Behind The Sun (1988) and Dr. Lamb (1992) predate American “torture porn” by a decade or more, and director Herman Yau made a series of Category III films, most notably the irredeemable Ebola Syndrome (1996), in between more mainstream efforts. Not all Category III films are nihilistic slogs, however; some, like 1995’s Eternal Evil Of Asia, a.k.a. “the dickhead movie,” are loopy, sex-crazed fun.
Category III was a desperate effort to stop the financial hemorrhaging that movie studios all over Hong Kong were experiencing in the ’90s. But if flooding the market with shameless sleazefests on cheap VCDs nearly killed off Hong Kong horror, mainland Chinese censorship contributed as well. With their fortunes abroad suffering badly, Hong Kong studios began relying increasingly on mainland audiences and co-productions with mainland studios to survive. This put them into direct contact with communist censors, who forbade the depiction of anything that “promote[s] cults or superstition,” i.e., ghosts and wizards, in films. (They still do, when they feel like it: Crimson Peak and Ghostbusters were both banned in mainland China.) As Aowen Jin points out on the BBC, this was more of a political cudgel than anything, a lingering effect of the Cultural Revolution that sought to purge traditional Chinese culture and its metaphorical ghosts.
Technically, Hong Kong filmmakers could still make movies with any kind of content they wanted. Those movies just wouldn’t play in mainland China. And there are compromises: Providing rational explanations for seemingly supernatural events in the final scene of a film is one technique, as is having the main character wake up from a dream, Wizard Of Oz style. But as the power of the Chinese box office increased (and continues to increase to this day), it’s still had a chilling effect on the romantic spirits and Taoist vampire hunters who previously dominated Hong Kong horror—and, more specifically, their budgets. Want a big budget? Then you have to play ball with the Chinese censors, who can make exceptions for films based on Chinese mythology but still strictly forbid nudity, gay romance, and overt political commentary, as well as ghosts. “For us, it is complicated,” filmmaker Jevons Au told The Guardian last year. “The uniqueness of Hong Kong is our freedom of speech, of creativity, of expression… [But] to make a co-production with China, you have to follow ever stricter rules.”
Still, Hong Kong horror carries on, often with the help of international film studios and directors. (The aforementioned Rigor Mortis was made with Japanese horror legend Takashi Shimizu attached as a producer and a British TV company providing funding, so it didn’t have to rely on mainland box office.) In the 2000s, two threads emerged: There are the auteur directors like Fruit Chan (Dumplings, 2004), Ann Hui (Visible Secret, 2001), and the Pang brothers (The Eye, 2002), whose films play at, and are basically designed for, international film festivals and overseas markets. Then you have low-budget, homegrown films like the Troublesome Night series—which stands at an impressive 19 entries—made for a quick hit of home-video cash. Not much different than the twin poles of contemporary American horror, really.
First things first, if you can track down a DVD (it’s unfortunately hard to find, even on paid streaming), watch Danny and Oxide Chung Pang’s The Eye (2002), which was remade in English in 2008 with Jessica Alba. Once you’ve digested that (pun intended), there’s also Fruit Chan’s fetus-chomping Dumplings and the extremely bloody—think New French Extremity bloody—slasher flick Dream Home (2010). All these films adapt Hong Kong horror for an international audience, making them more familiar to Western horror fans.
Alternate routes into the Hong Kong horror aesthetic are the horror-comedy and fantasy-horror subgenres, both of which are less tailored to Western-style storytelling but which promise untold pleasures for fans of fantastical, escapist entertainment. The foundational films of the respective subgenres, Mr. Vampire and A Chinese Ghost Story—see below—are good places to start. Depending on what strikes your fancy, the sequels to both films are more of the same (except for Mr. Vampire 2, which is more family-oriented and pretty skippable), and Magic Cop (1990) and Bride With White Hair (1993) are solid “hopping vampire” and romantic period martial arts fantasies, respectively.
Once you’ve eased into the “everything but the kitchen sink” aesthetic of Hong Kong genre cinema, the next order of business is to delve into the catalog of gruesome, over-the-top horror movies produced by Shaw Brothers Studios in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Black Magic and Black Magic 2 (1976) are the originals, but The Boxer’s Omen—see below—has made the most inroads into Western cinephile lore. If you dig that one, there’s also Hex (1980), Hex Vs. Witchcraft (1980), and Hex After Hex (1982), all from the same director.
Dig into the back catalog, and you’ll find all sorts of horror styles filtered through the Shaw’s increasingly sleazy lens: Human Lanterns (1982) is a period serial-killer movie, while Corpse Mania (1981) is a giallo-influenced necrophilia gross-out. But the epitome of this insane style is 1983’s Seeding Of A Ghost, featuring a supernaturally impregnated demon corpse and climaxing with the gory birth of a tentacled demon baby straight out of The Thing that comes bursting out of its mothers’ womb to terrorize a mahjong party. And if you like that, we’ve got a Devil Fetus (1983) to sell you.
As mentioned above, the late ’80s and early ’90s saw a flood of cheap direct-to-video horror titles (over)saturating the market, which means there’s a lot of junk to wade through from this period. Some of them are cheap Chinese Ghost Story and Mr. Vampire ripoffs—beware (or don’t, if that’s what you’re looking for) the bizarre ’80s trash films of Robo Vampire director Godfrey Ho—while others fall under the dreaded designation of Category III.
Of these, the notoriously sickening Men Behind The Sun, ostensibly a historical drama about war crimes committed by the Japanese during world War II but really a disgusting series of graphic torture scenes and human experiments, is the hardest to sit through. That one’s followed closely by Silence Of The Lambs-inspired serial-killer movie Dr. Lamb and the twin atrocities of The Untold Story (1993), about a cannibalistic BBQ bun baker, and Ebola Syndrome, about a sadistic rapist who spreads ebola throughout Hong Kong. Not recommended for the faint of heart, delicate of stomach, or anyone hoping to maintain their belief in human decency and/or artistic integrity.
1. The Boxer’s Omen
Calling The Boxer’s Omen the “most accessible” of the Shaw Brothers black-magic movies is, of course, a relative term. But while it does contain some truly wild shit—flying armies of bats and crocodile skulls, a guy throwing up a two-foot-long eel, one-eyed poodle demons with little pink mohawks and wormlike bodies, multiple scenes of magical regurgitation, a green alien head that emerges from a slimy, pink brainlike mass—it also follows a relatively straightforward kung-fu defeat/training/final confrontation arc, making it possible to follow the plot while the effects blow your mind.
2. Mr. Vampire
Accept no imitations (and there are many). Mr. Vampire is ground zero for the geung si phenomenon, starring Ching-Ying Lam in the first of what would be many roles as a heavy-browed, kung-fu fighting master of the Taoist magical arts. Siu-hou Chin and Ricky Hui co-star as Lam’s bumbling assistants, another trope often repeated in Mr. Vampire’s many imitators. Moving at a breakneck pace, the film is a madcap blend of physical comedy, supernatural horror, and action that’s a little bit like The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) or Army Of Darkness (1992) with more kung fu. If you don’t catch all the details of the plot upon first viewing, don’t sweat it. There’s a lot going on.
3. A Chinese Ghost Story
Another wildly influential crowd-pleaser from producer Tsui Hark, A Chinese Ghost Story is beautiful to look at, as well as fun to watch. Based on a short story by China’s own Brothers Grimm, Pu Songling, A Chinese Ghost Story stars Leslie Cheung as a debt collector who falls in love with a beautiful female ghost (Joey Wong), then teams up with a Taoist priest (Wu Ma) to save his beloved from the evil tree demon that controls her soul.
Fruit Chan’s Dumplings, a full-length version of a short film featured in the pan-Asian horror anthology Three… Extremes (2004), is not just one of the most accomplished and original horror films to come out of Hong Kong in the new millennium; it’s also one of the most distinctive horror movies of the new millennium, period. Starring Bai Ling as a mysterious (and apparently ageless) home chef with a secret recipe for vitality-restoring dumplings and Miriam Yeung as an aging TV star desperate to preserve her youth, Dumplings has a tastefully played, but still unforgettably shocking, twist.
5. Dream Home
One of the better-received recent Hong Kong horror films abroad, Dream Home takes common anxieties on the tiny island—the high cost of real estate and a lack of upward mobility in general—and translates them into a goopy, gory, explicitly shocking slasher flick. Josie Ho stars as the sadistic killer in search of a harbor view, an unusual twist in the usually male-dominated slasher subgenre.