Dir. Chih-Hung Kuei
Film #19, of Friday 19th October, for Halloween 31 For 31
[Selected by the Gentlemen’s Guide To Midnight Cinema Facebook forum. Check out the main podcast website here - http://ggtmc.com/]
There is a danger when a Western viewer comments on an East Asian work of exoticising it and making it something completed abstract from one’s worldview when it is in fact made by fellow man and women who live in a different country, and have different cultural concepts to ours as well as similar or exact ones. The more unconventional cinema from countries like China and Japan are obvious examples of this. Despite my dumbfounded surprise at The Boxer’s Omen when I watched it the first time in January of this year, on the rewatch this is not as strange and weird as it first was which I will go into. However it is clear that in most Asian culture – West, Middle, East, South – creators of film, literature, videogames, art, comics and books, the few I have managed to get to, can inherently tap into their imagination far more honestly and vividly with less difficulty than Western creators can. Able to shift in tones, combine seemingly inappropriate fragments together, or take the most seemingly inane material into tangents and layers that adds a depth to the material, there is less inhibition and compromise more apparent in Asian cinema even in their ‘mainstream’ work that is audience tested, from Bollywood films that are usually three hours long and blend genres, to Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul who creates very abstract art films yet delves into mythology and pop culture (including sci-fi and melodramatic period films of his youth) into his work. The most lyrical creations are pushed into pure, tranquil and quiet beauty, from Japanese haiku to Yasujirō Ozu, and the experimental and transgressive is pushed to truly avant garde and provocative pushes at you morality, view on what should be in cinema and even as far as sexuality and view on gender. The best examples of this cinema, especially the seemingly innocuous genre films, are made with dedication and a willingness to mould the material into unique tangents even it its content is splatter, gratuitous (real or hand drawn) nudity or slapstick pratfalls. There are many potential reasons behind how these films are made as they are – cultural differences, the willingness of mainstream audiences to accept more brave work if it still caters to their entertainment, the complex histories of countries like Japan – and The Boxer’s Omen by itself shows another potential factor that is very prevalent.
Starting off desiring revenge against a Thai kickboxer who cripples his brother in a match, the protagonist is pulled into a conflict between a Buddhist abbot, who was killed and yet stays preserved in a non-decaying body, and the practitioners of black magic who are behind the murder. What amazes me about The Boxer’s Omen is not its content, its 1980s sheen, the abrupt appearance of moving crocodile skulls that appeared to have wandered out of Jan Svankmajer’s workshop, the obsession with bodily liquids, but that for its stop motion effects, kickboxing violence and nudity, it’s a reverent ode to Buddhism in an exploitation film at the end of the day. It is not just another genre film that bolts on a moral ending afterwards, but is deeply respectful of Buddhism even if it’s a good versus evil story with bizarre special effects. Another potential factor, which is obvious in just watching films, is how Asian cinema can be more creative because religion and mythology is still a significant part of people’s ordinary lives even as simple traditions, far different from the West and our fragmented view of Christianity especially after religious and folklore beliefs were undermined by industrialisation and attitudes from the 19th century onwards. Unless it is directly about religion and myths, or anti-religious or subverting the concepts, not of lot of Western cinema is threaded with religious and mythological symbolism and ideas. Even in fantasy cinema where mythologies such as Greek and medieval tales and beliefs are prominent, a lot of the films I’ve seen is usually sanitised and without the depth, coarseness and pre-phantasmagoria of the real tales and hearsay. In Asian cinema, not just in East Asia, even if religion is not directly invoked, it partakes in the cultural background influences for many films, even as a result of what is captured on screen by coincidence, and is almost always evoked in horror and genre films. Japan has even went as far as melding their modern world, of mobile phones and technology, perfectly with old legends to exorcise their fears and subconscious feelings, and in their anime, for the good or bad, draw on Western religious imagery and ideas that, especially if the person only brought them in for surface level effect as usually the case is, ends up manipulating them into new results.
Made for the Shaw Brothers, the film is deceptively simple, but its melding of spirituality with scenes of corporeal and viscous effects creates a light Alejandro Jodorowsky vibe combined with the more mystical films around this era (or later) in Hong Kong cinema. The apparent weirdness of The Boxer’s Omen is undercut for me by the fact that the ritualistic nature of what you see in the film and the combination of the fantastical –bats, alien heads, and later a female being of evil magic revived by being placed within a crocodile’s skin making up the many opponents of the protagonist – having an innate logic that feels as if it has been drawn from legends and real concepts of the supernatural and magic. In my heart, I want to believe everything in the film is based on real mythology and ideas in Chinese or Asian culture. If it is not, then there is still the sense of it being thoughtfully being considered based on real myths and stories the writer and the director may have known and read up upon. What is more the effect that startles and baffles the Western viewer is both the earthly nature of the content – chewed up food, slime, blood, rubber prosthetics – and the oversaturated use of stop motion creations, costumes, animation and practical effects, the inherent ‘fakeness’ of many of them having an effect on the viewer, but granting a tangibility and weight paradoxically to what is seen. As is the case with Japanese cinema especially, and brought up before on the blog, the need for realism in practical effects is abandoned in a lot of East Asian cinema in favour of conveying the images and meanings to their fullest. There feels to be a conscious realisation, to which Western cinema is in danger of deluding itself away from, that the audiences of these countries know the images they see outside of documentary is fictitious and pure fantasy, even to the point the documentary information itself can be broken to pieces to question the validity of what reality is. Combined with usually lower budgets than Hollywood films, and there is an intentional push to the unreal which allows anything for rubber suits and obvious CGI to be more tolerable and potentially vital qualities to a particular movie’s artistry. The Boxer’s Omen had its ghoulish array of bones, animal pieces, and in one moment where a man detaches his head like the southern Asian legend of the Penanggalan, tentacle-like offal and entrails, but its placement against Buddhist ritual, to the point the abstinence from sex can have a consequence on your ability to protect yourself from evil forces, becomes a balance between the lurid and the holy. The film gleefully reveals in the old phrase ‘having its cake and eating it’ fully, another factor that seems to become more apparent especially in Chinese culture, as I can attest to existing at least as far back as 1657 with the moralistic yet pornographic novel The Carnal Prayer Mat, made into one utterly bizarre film called Sex and Zen (1991), and another in 2011 I’ve yet to see called 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy that brings in three dimension titillation. The Boxer’s Omen can have violent kickboxing matches, full frontal nudity including graphic close-ups of a woman’s breasts pressed up against a glass window, and slimy imagers such as the main character puking up an eel in a hotel sink, but it is Buddhist monks who do not drink alcohol, do not have sex or gamble, and who strive for immortality and goodness, that we follow as the heroes. That religion and spirituality is still part of most ordinary life in East Asian countries has created this contradiction to exist that feels more refreshing than standard black-and-white mentalities.
The Boxer’s Omen is a gross and odd film. Maggots and rotting flesh go hand-in-hand with the fake blood and skin effects. It’s also not recommended for people unsettled by real animal violence; the crocodile that is cut open is a fake, but the chickens, including one which has its buttocks/testicles (??) cut-off and chewed on, are another thing entirely. I put this warning out of respect of people who will not watch films because of stuff like this, but I put in the caveat that one must accept cultural differences in other nations, even if one finds them aborrant or are actively against such practices, especially in a medium such as film where the final product cannot be altered in the creative process afterwards. Bar this, I would argue The Boxer’s Omen is the kind of fantasia that is stimulating and enriching, its lyrical and potential weirdness less the images on screen, as should be the case when you view something like this, but in how they are composed and made. This sort of creativity with sincere presentation and personal idiosyncrasies is of far more worth to strive for than hollow realism or conveyor belt designs in a lot of genre and dramatic cinema, and prevalent in best of Asian cinema. The potential aspects that could be churned out and cobbled together in the West are treated with a seriousness even if its exploitative, meaning you have to take them with more artistic thought regardless of the potential vileness or tackiness of the content you may see. The Boxer’s Omen despite its simplicity should be viewed less as ‘weird shit’ than a cultural item that entertains and baffles, a film made with great detail that should be pulled apart to see its qualities and to explain the baffled look on your face after viewing it. Almost representing the ids of their country of origins, this sort of material has a lot to take away from if one wants to go beyond the tourist’s view of another country just through cinema, and the consideration of mythology and the supernatural, in its inherent oddness, is something Western filmmakers should probably learn from to tackle their own weird folklores.