I realize my mind can be shaky at times. There’s a history of Alzheimer’s in my family (and baldness) which, I’m sure, will one day come a-knockin’ for me (the baldness already paid me a visit far too early, but I suppose that neither of the two are things you want to encounter either early or late in life). My point is, the first Chinese film I can remember ever having seen (if my memory can be trusted) was Chang Cheh’s seminal Wire Fu Melodrama Five Deadly Venoms. Television station WNEW out of New York would broadcast various Horror and Martial Arts movies every Saturday afternoon under the Drive-In Movie banner. More than the movies, though, they had great (okay, they were cheap), custom introductions and bumpers (you can find them on Youtube, if you care to check them out, and, to be frank, I feel the halting of their production and inclusion on all stations was a mistake, as they were a personalized introduction for the viewer and an indication that the people showing you the movie were actually aware of what they were putting on the air [sure, there were errors made, but come on]), and just hearing them was enough (then and now) to instill an excitement that today most kids get from…whatever it is that excites kids these days. At any rate, the sight of the perennially crag-faced Lo Meng as a Taoist priest in Chin Man-Kei’s The Eternal Evil Of Asia (aka Nan Yang Shi Da Xei Shu aka Erotic Black Magic) instantly transported me back to those days of my youth. Funny enough, it’s a feeling which is rarely duplicated by watching the pristine DVD I have of that earlier film (part of the reason being that the method of exhibition of certain films in certain settings will create as different an experience as the variety of films being shown).
Eternal Evil… opens with a quick bit of exposition explaining that in certain parts of Asia (Thailand, Malaysia, etcetera; the implication is they are the less “sophisticated” areas), the idea of magic and enchantments (an evil form of Buddhism, we are told) is believed in as a matter of daily existence. The story next jumps over to Hong Kong, where Nam (Bobbie Au-Yeung) has recently buried his parents. Whilst arguing with his wife and junk food junkie son, a malevolent figure stands outside Nam’s apartment building, straw doll in hand. The wizard Laimi (Ben Ng) manipulates the doll, and suddenly Nam sees the corpses of his parents, begging to come home. Nam flips out, grabs a knife and stabs at his undead ancestors. It should go without saying that things go downhill from there for poor Nam. Meanwhile, lovely cosmetologist May (Ellen Chan) begins to suspect her fiancée Bon’s (Chan Kwok-Pong) recent out-of-country activities with regards to the supernatural goings-on and their escalation in her life.
The Eternal Evil Of Asia is a Category III (more familiarly Cat III) film from Hong Kong, and I believe this is the first Cat III film I’ve ever reviewed (see my notes on memory above). Briefly (and this is in no way intended as a comprehensive overview, explanation, or dissection of this type of film, so on the better-than-average odds you know more about these films than I do, please chime in), this rating designation is the Chinese equivalent of the American X or NC-17. Even in a film industry where bullet squibs and disembowelings are fairly commonplace, Cat III films go a step or two further in either blood or sex (or both and possibly even at the same time), though I don’t believe they have ever actually depicted sex in a hardcore pornographic fashion (again, I could be wrong). Thus endeth the quasi-lesson.
Regardless, sex and blood are the order of the day here, and it’s intriguing what this film says about sex. Essentially, sex is all things in the world created by the filmmakers. Sex is a motivator for men and women alike. Sex is an industry. Sex is the ultimate expression of both love and hate. Sex is liberating and imprisoning. Perhaps more than these, sex is a weapon, and a powerful one at that. Much of the magic shown in the film is brought about through the physical act of sex. Nowhere is this more on show than in the duel between Laimi and married magicians Barran and Chusie (Julie Lee) in Thailand. The couple literally copulates in midair in order to cast spells, including one which traps Laimi inside a giant placenta. Later, Laimi casts an enchantment so that Bon will fall in love with and have sex with his sister Shui Mei-mei (Gwan Chin). Laimi also casts a spell on Bon preventing him from achieving an erection while May undresses for him and then making it return later when it’s no longer of use (at least for certain things). The climax of the film involves sex being used by both the protagonists and the antagonist.
Further, the female characters in the film are all fairly modern and liberated in regards to their approach to sex. An older lady at May’s salon goes into lavish detail (replete with visual demonstration) about ways to fellate a man and work the wrinkles out of his scrotum (yes, really). But sex in the film does have consequences at all times. I cannot recall a single instance during the runtime where sex does not affect the well-being (or fate) of one or more of the characters involved in the act. Sex is not meaningless here. It is not engaged in lightly. For a film selling itself as primarily prurient fare, that the filmmakers would treat coitus with a certain air of responsibility is somewhat refreshing.
In the Western countries of the world, if you were to ask someone on the street what they’re concept of magic is, you would most likely hear one of three names: Gandalf, Merlin, or Harry Potter. These are fairly altruistic characters (fairly, I said), and there is an air of formal theatricality in their practices. Magicians or wizards on this side of the pond are thought of as kindly, elderly, and wise. In the East, magic is more visceral and more spiritual, being tied to religion as it is. Even the Lord of the Nazgûl could never be envisioned bathing himself in the blood of innocents in order to acquire the power needed to rape his enemy’s girlfriend via astral projection. Western magic is thought of as long flowing robes and beards, pointed hats, and magic wands/staffs. Eastern magic is viewed as crude effigies, bodily fluids, and strong emotional motivators. It naturally lends itself to a more horrific cinematic portrayal, filled with wriggling animals expelled from human bodies, ghosts bursting forth a la Alien (but chunkier), and even compulsions to auto-cannibalism.
Director Man-Kei uses the camera to describe a magical world. Even for Hong Kong cinema, the camerawork in The Eternal Evil Of Asia is manic, to say the least. I don’t think there is a single shot in the film composed from atop a tripod, and almost every one of them twists and whirls around any given subject. Normally, this sort of frenzied camerawork is a massive put-off for me, but I must say, it was largely successful in its dynamism and in conveying to the audience that none of what we are seeing is taking place in the real world. But while I enjoy both versions of filmic sorcery, I must say that, given a choice, I think I’d prefer to have drinks with Sabrina any day of the week.
MVT: I really took a shine to the core idea of the film; this concept that sex can be an element of control, and it can be both beneficial and destructive. Even with this sense of accountability with regards to sex, though, Man-Kei’s film also succeeds wildly at being sexy (with a goodly dose of sleaze thrown in, to be sure).
Make Or Break: Nam’s opening demise Makes the film. It is the most atmospheric and genuinely creepy of the mystical attacks in the film, and it locked in my interest for the rest of the film’s ride.