Friday, January 05, 2007

Movie Review: SEVENTH CURSE



aka YUAN ZHEN-XIA YU WEI SI-LI
Directed by Ngai Kai Lam
Hong Kong; 1986

Hong Kong
horror and fantasy cinema of the early to mid-80s really excels in delivering a kind of pure enjoyment and excitement. It may not have entirely original plots, scores, or ideas, but there's often something surprising to be found even in the midst of a routine exercise in genre; something that could not be said about Hollywood films of the same era. SEVENTH CURSE, based on a series of popular Chinese adventure stories, may take several cues from the first two INDIANA JONES movies, but I guarantee that there are at least a few things that you've never seen before in this film.

It begins, in perhaps a conscious nod to BRIDE OF FRANKENSTIEN, with a group of high society types sitting and enjoying alcoholic beverages in their evening wear. An old man, presumably the writer of the story we are about to see, is discussing the merits of wine-drinking and story crafting to a bunch of women who are far too young and attractive for one to believe that he could be fucking them, no matter how drunk he gets them. For a second I thought I was watching a Chinese cognac commercial, but then the plot reveals itself as aforementioned old man admits that some of his best stories are based on the real-life adventures of his two friends: Yuan and Wesley (also known as Wisely and Wei). Enter the two tuxedoed men (the latter played by Chow Yun Fat), who with a wink and a nudge take us into a flashback…

Cut to a tense hostage situation, in which Yuan is sent into a building (the reason seemingly to show us his martial arts skills) while a SWAT team prepares to bombard. Another ostensible reason for the scene is to introduce us to Maggie Cheung's character, Tsai-Hung, whose main purpose in the story is to pop up in a place where she shouldn't be, much to the consternation of Yuan. Later at a party, Tsai-Hung tells Yuan she is following him, the great adventurer, in hopes of getting an interview and some naked pictures for a story.

Real trouble begins when Yuan returns home from the party and is attacked by a stranger. After smashing the stranger into just about every piece of glass furniture to his name, Yuan finally relents, and it turns out the stranger is not an assassin, but a messenger. His name is Huh Lung, and he comes from Thailand with a warning for Yuan: the blood curse, which Yuan apparently received on one of his previous adventures, will kill him shortly. Furthermore, he should avoid lovemaking, because it will exacerbate the problem. He urges him to return to Thailand. Yuan pooh-poohs the advice and proceeds to sex-up his lady friend. Turns out, Huh Lung wasn't joking: Yuan's veins begin to throb, and eventually a bubble forms on his thigh and pops, spraying blood all over.

Obviously concerned over having popping veins, Yuan consults his good friend Dr.Wei, who identifies the malady as some form of Thai black magic. Dr.Wei asks Yuan, "Have you been to Thailand recently?" Here the movie makes the audacious move of entering into another extended flashback (remember we're already in one from the beginning, so that means that Yuan & Wei are now telling the old man and sexy ladies about this flashback).

On an expedition in Thailand, Yuan oversees a beautifully woman named Betsy, wearing what appears to be nothing but a long white t-shirt, bathing in a pond. So overcome by this private wet t-shirt contest, Yuan drops his binoculars and becomes completely enamored with the woman. Later Yuan's friend warns him to stay away from her and her village, but curiosity drives him and a group of friends towards the village where they arrive just in time to witness a crude ceremony. High priest Aquala, Hong Kong's answer to Mola Ram, is selecting victims for a blood sacrifice to "Old Ancestor", and you can guess who is on the chopping block.

Yuan's attempt to save the woman from sacrifice leads to an awesome kung-fu fight with a skeleton (the aforementioned "Old Ancestor"). The skeleton, for some reason, can also morph into a creature that looks like an H.R.Geiger alien (as in from the movie ALIEN) with wings. Betsy makes it to safety, but unfortunately Yuan and his friend are captured and tied to posts. Aquala spreads magic goo on Yuan's friend which causes his skin to swell and burst with maggots! Aquala then begins to give Yuan his blood curse, each popping vein accompanied by a sound effect that may actually be the sound of a cork popping out of a champagne bottle. Luckily, Yuan is able to escape by focusing light onto the ropes that bind him, burning through them. When he meets up with her again, Betsy thanks Yuan for saving her by taking a knife and cutting a magic item from inside her left breast. She tells him it will cure his blood curse, so he gobbles it up and thus ends the flashback.

As it turns out, the cure only lasted a year, and if he doesn't return to Thailand for a more permanent cure, Yuan will suffer several more vein bursts over the next 48 hours until he dies. This revelation moves our heroes to Thailand where, accompanied by the relentless Tsai-Hung, they attempt to locate a cure for the blood curse, rescue Betsy (again), and stop Aquala and "Old Ancestor" once and for all. I'll intentionally leave a lot of details out here to give you some incentive to track this movie down, but let's just say that there is a "Little Ghost" who is brought about by a potion made from the blood of 100 children, a booby trapped jungle, a race up a giant statue of Buddha, fighting monks, possession, cow placentas, a rocket launcher, and a climatic battle for the ages. Additional elements borrowed from Indiana Jones include a village where all of the children have gone missing (given a nearby context clue, can you guess where they are?!*) and a boulder chase with a clever substitution for an actual boulder. At 77 minutes long, the movie speeds along from set-up to set-up with a strange mixture of adventure, martial-arts, and horror.

I realize that this is more of a description than a review, but it really is difficult to translate an experience that is as immediate and visceral as SEVENTH CURSE into words that people would want to read on the internets. As I said before, there is something pure to the mayhem and adventure that is contained within this movie and others like it. It lacks the psychedelic excess of BOXER'S OMEN and the sleaziness of SEEDING OF A GHOST, so I can't recommend it as highly as those, but I still think it's something special. Untainted by Spielbergian aspirations of commercial appeal and critical acceptance as well as freed from the constraints of decency and taste by the Hong Kong Category III rating, films like this relish in the simple joy that is watching characters transverse fantastic sets, fight monsters, and commit superhuman feats of strength and endurance. Narrative logic is traded for excuses to show gore and tits, and this is a good thing. If the movie took itself any more serious it would be a drag, and at the same time, if it was too aggressively stupid it would be as tedious as a Troma movie, or worse, something smug and self-knowing like SLITHER (apologies to fans, I don't think it's a bad movie. I just didn't like it.). Not everything in the movie is played for laughs, and though it will make most people laugh, I hope that others can find the same wide-eyed admiration I find for movies that aren't afraid to be exactly what they are and should be.

*Answer: The children are being lowered into a giant stone vice where they are crushed for their blood. It is a scene that would be horrifying were it not so absurd.


Review by the newest member of Team Worldweird Laird Jimenez!


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