Ghoul Sex Squad (1991) -**
The main reason why I’ve covered so few Hong Kong movies, even in genres that interest me more than crime and martial arts, is that I know almost nothing about them. Their history, their conventions, the workings of the industry that produces them— it’s all one gigantic blank for the most part, and because I like to inform as well as entertain if at all possible, I feel like I ought to fill in some of that blank before trying to write about the films that spring from it. I have few compunctions about looking like an ill-informed idiot where Ghoul Sex Squad is concerned, however. So far as I can tell, nobody knows much of anything about this movie, so in flaunting my ignorance, I’m doing no worse than any of those few who have made some attempt to discuss it before me.
One of the few things I have learned about Hong Kong cinema is that the Television and Entertainment Licensing Authority (roughly analogous to the British Board of Film Classification, except that it obviously has jurisdiction over TV in addition to movies and home video) classifies films into “categories” based upon their content, and that the most restrictive of these groupings has the force of law. Category I is more or less equivalent to the Motion Picture Association of America’s G-rating, although it’s unclear to me whether that equivalency comes closer to the relatively permissive G of the 60’s and 70’s, or to today’s more rigid interpretation. Categories II and IIb are for films that the TELA deems unsuitable for children and “young people” respectively. They seem to approximate PG-13 and R in American usage, though again the details of what passes muster under each fall outside my limited knowledge. Category III is the adults-only rating, and the one that has attracted the most attention in the English-speaking world— not least, perhaps, because of all the ways in which it’s almost like our various X, R, 18, and NC-17 certifications, but not quite. In the frequency with which the TELA employs it, the best analogy is probably to the old British X-certificate, and that similarity is further underscored by the apparent use of Cat-III classification to flag movies as belonging to certain genres. The TELA’s standing as an official government agency also places Category III’s significance closer to that of a British X or 18 (or an Australian R) than to an American X or NC-17. However, adults-only movies in Hong Kong don’t have the same stigma attached to them as they do in Britain or the United States, and in that sense, Category III functions like what the MPAA originally envisioned for its X and NC-17. Films bearing the restrictive rating do not face the kinds of distribution and advertising penalties that have nearly always dogged their British and American equivalents, and consignment to Category III by itself is no obstacle to mainstream success. Nor have the creators or stars of Cat-III movies generally found it difficult to move beyond that milieu, at least no more so than can be attributed to plain old type-casting. The clearest indication of Category III’s social acceptability is that of raw numbers— approximately half of the movies released in Hong Kong during the early 90’s carried the rating. That lack of condemnation is especially interesting from a Western perspective, for the content of Hong Kong’s adults-only films frequently is not socially acceptable at all by our cultural standards. Category III is where you’ll find the Skinemaxy softcore sex flicks (The Fruit Is Swelling, Sex and Zen), the lurid “true” crime extrapolations (Human Pork Buns: The Untold Story, There’s a Secret in My Soup), the noxiously misogynistic rape-and-torture pictures that even grindhouse diehards often find indefensible (Love to Kill, Chinese Torture Chamber Story). And as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, it’s also where you’ll find Mah Wu Tu’s hardcore porno period-piece horror-comedy, Ghoul Sex Squad, a film which the phrase “fucking bizarre” describes with all-too-literal accuracy.
Out in the woods somewhere, a Taoist priest calls out, “Assemble!” summoning his quintet of vampires… and I’m going to have to go off on a second long explanatory tangent already, aren’t I? Okay— Chinese vampires are a little different from the ones you’ll find haunting Transylvanian castles or, more recently, hanging out in dank nightclubs dressed like gay pirates and listening to really shitty industrial music. In some respects, they’re actually more like zombies— susceptible to control by priests and magicians, nearly mindless on their own, and poorly coordinated due to the decay of their bodies. Their skins are greenish and fuzzy with mold, and they are so ravaged by rigor mortis that they can’t even walk normally, hopping stiffly about instead. In fact, the Chinese term for them (jiang shi in Mandarin, geung si in Cantonese) literally means “stiff corpse.” They’re also usually blind, and must track their prey by the smell of its breath. And interestingly enough, there’s some indication that blood-drinking did not become the jiang shi’s normal method of draining the lifeforce from its victims until the 19th century, when the Chinese got a chance to compare notes on the mechanics of vampirism with the European colonists who were such pains in their asses in those days. As for how one becomes a jiang shi, it’s most commonly the result of a ritually incorrect burial. If I understand correctly, Chinese folk belief has it that the soul splits into its yin and yang energies upon death, with the intellectual yang soul proceeding into the underworld while the sensitive yin remains tied to the body. With no yang around to balance things, the yin spirit has all the emotional control of a hyperactive three-year-old, and it tends to get pissed off about things like being buried on an unpropitious date or having the feng shui of its gravesite fall out of whack. When that happens, the resentful spirit climbs back into the body and hops off to vent its ire upon anyone unlucky enough to be handy. A variety of Taoist rituals can contain, control, or destroy the vampire, but you’re going to need a priest if you want them done right.
Anyway, we have a priest with a pack of vampires under his command, and he’s marching them across the countryside for who knows what reason. Eventually, he gets tired of smelling his undead minions, and orders them into the river they’ve been following to wash the crud of decay from their bodies. One of the vampires— Number Three— sneaks disobediently away, however, and when the priest goes to see what’s what, he discovers something that he’d missed before. Number Three is a girl, and apparently shyness about nudity counts as one of the emotions that a vampire is unable to restrain. One rather wonders how the priest failed to notice the difference until now, because Number Three is not only very obviously female, but also extremely cute if you don’t mind a little skin-rot. Evidently the priest doesn’t mind skin-rot at all, because the very next thing he does is to peel off the vampire’s robes and fuck her. Fortunately for all of us, the makeup guys on the Ghoul Sex Squad set were just as lazy as the ones who worked on Zombie Lake, and Number Three isn’t decayed at all from the neck down.
Meanwhile, in a tavern not far away, an old man with a ludicrous, hooting voice is telling ghost stories to the other customers, but one man has no patience for such entertainment. He loudly proclaims that there are no such things as ghosts or demons or vampires, but the storyteller counters that he’ll start believing once he sees for himself. Naturally, that means the scoffer is about to have a run-in with the priest and his geung si. It starts when the man from the tavern catches sight of the vampires hopping in single file through the woods, and curiosity gets the better of him. He follows the pack to the priest’s hideout, just in time to arrive on the scene after the priest himself has set out in search of a refill for his wine jug. All the vampires have been immobilized with spell-scrolls fastened to their foreheads when Mr. I-Ain’t-Afraid-of-No-Ghosts sneaks into the lair, but that’s no fun, is it? Beside, how’s a guy to know whether a vampire’s really real if all it’s doing is standing around motionless? Our fearless skeptic promptly earns himself a Darwin Award by removing the charms from the heads of all the vampires and clamorously ringing the bell that awakens them.
As for the priest, he goes not to the tavern for his wine, but to the first house he sees with a light on inside. On the way there, he passes by a young woman leading a young man off for a tryst at the local temple, but that’s a different subplot. It does, however, happen that she lives at the very house where the priest hopes to procure his wine, apparently as the daughter-in-law of the old woman who owns the place. The latter holds a very low opinion of her son’s wife, but again, that’s a different subplot. There’s also a just-plain-daughter in the house, although “plain” is hardly an appropriate adjective to apply to her. This younger girl is understandably taken aback when a strange priest breezes into the house, asking for wine and claiming that the door was open, and her mom catches on very quickly that the visitor is the vampire-master whom people have apparently been talking about lately. The remarkably lousy English subtitles on the print I saw have Mom telling her daughter to “ask him out;” presumably the intended sense here is “give him his wine and make him leave,” but what the girl actually does is, well, to ask him out. Or in, rather. As soon as her mother is out of earshot, she takes the priest to bed, and we all start pondering what kind of hellish VD you can get from having unprotected sex with a guy who fucks the living dead.
By this time, the skeptic from the inn has fully reaped the rewards of his foolishness— the vampires have awakened, attacked him, and made him one of their own. They get restless after a while with no instructions from the priest to follow, and eventually fan out into the countryside to cause trouble. Some of them head for the temple, where they waylay the sister-in-law’s under-the-table boyfriend while he takes a post-coital leak in the surrounding woods (shades of Andreas Schnaas!). Number Five goes to the house, conveniently arriving after his master has departed, and spies on the daughter while she takes a bath. (I guess some geung si aren’t blind after all…) The most fearsome-looking of the bunch (Number Two, maybe? Except for Three and Five, they’re a little hard to tell apart) enters the temple itself, and has his way with the adulteress. (How to tell good girls from bad, the Cat-III way: when the old lady’s daughter discovers her undead peeping tom, she throws a hissy fit that scares the vampire away; her sister-in-law, on the other hand, decides to just roll with it when she wakes up with a dead man’s cock in her mouth.) The rest make their way to the tavern, where they cause a panic worthy of a Three Stooges short. It’s up to the priest (once he realizes what happened while he was out) to round up all the geung si again before they can do too much damage, a process that will depend about equally on Taoist magic and kung fu.
If I had to pass judgement on Ghoul Sex Squad in one sentence, I’d say that it’s agonizingly dull, except when it’s bugshit loony and awesome. Unfortunately, agonizingly dull has a decisive upper hand. There’s a certain novelty in seeing hardcore smut combined with so many other, seemingly incompatible things, but Mah Wu Tu’s technique here owes more to American models than European, and my regular readers will know by now how dismal I find most US porn. The sex scenes would serve their purpose just as well if they were trimmed to half their present length, while the vampires’ rampage could really use another ten or fifteen minutes devoted to it. On the other hand, it isn’t as though Mah shows much more sense of pace when he’s pointing the camera at something other than a rutting couple. Witness the opening march of the vampires, which goes on and on with a temporal incontinence that I usually associate more with climactic fight scenes. In the end, Ghoul Sex Squad is one of those films that are far more interesting in concept than they are in practice, but paradoxically, it owes most of that conceptual interest to the very thing that makes it so close to worthless when you’re actually watching. After all, how often do you see non-simulated sex in Cantonese cinema? The sole other hardcore sex film I’ve ever heard of from Hong Kong was made by the same director as Ghoul Sex Squad— it’s called Mind Fuck, and by all accounts, it earns its title and then some while being just as disappointingly boring as this movie. As I said before, I’m hardly an expert on the subject, but I’ve talked to people who are much better informed than I am, and they all expressed astonishment at Ghoul Sex Squad’s existence, too. I note that not one of them said anything about wanting to see it, though.