The Seventh Curse (1986) The Seventh Curse / Dr. Yuen and Wisely / Yuen Chun Hap yu Wai See Lee (1986) ***

     Along with peplum and oddball TV flicks, another hitherto-neglected corner of the cinematic cosmos where Iíd like to spend more of my time going forward is the realm of Asianó and especially Hong Kongó fantasy and horror films. I donít mean martial arts movies here, although Iím sure thereíll end up being plenty of overlap. Rather, Iím looking to explore the world of hopping vampires, Chinese witchcraft, Malay and Indochinese cryptids, yokai, and that sort of thing. For a Westerner, this remains even now a cinema of steep learning curves, regarding which reliable information can be difficult to come by. That, more than anything, is whatís kept me merely nibbling around the edges of Asian fantasy and horror all these years, but now Iím sorely in need of a challenge to rekindle my enthusiasm for this website. Forcing myself to become a clueless neophyte again by charging headlong into unfamiliar territory seems like just the thing. The Seventh Curse, meanwhile, seems like a good place to start, since its horrors are purely the products of modern Chinese imaginations, neither requiring nor particularly rewarding hours of preliminary research into traditional Asiatic bogeymen or ideas about the supernatural. The film nevertheless features plenty of wild shit of a kind that youíre simply not going to find in any comparable production from Europe or the Americas.

     There is one thing, however, that itís useful for a gwailo to know going into The Seventh Curse: the filmís heroes are the brainchildren of hugely prolific, Shanghai-born and Hong Kong-based pulp novelist Ni Kuang. The principal protagonist, Dr. Yuen Chan Hsieh, figures in 32 of Niís books, while the savant whom Yuen calls in for backupó whose name is variously transliterated as Wesley or Wiselyó figures in an incredible 145 (plus several more books by other authors writing with Niís blessing, but without his direct participation). Iíve not read a word of any of themó indeed, I can find no indication that any are even available in English translationó but from what little Iíve been able to piece together, the Yuen stories are mostly adventure yarns in which the doctor gets himself into various sorts of trouble with isolated cultures and forgotten holdovers of ancient civilizations, while the Wisely stories tend to be paranormal mysteries in something like the tradition of Arthur Conan Doyleís Professor Challenger and Seabury Quinnís Jules de Grandin. I wish I could tell you whether or not Ni was actually influenced by those characters (or others like them), but like I said, this is a field in which reliable information is hard to find if you canít read Chinese. Nor have I been able to ascertain whether The Seventh Curse was adapted from some specific, previously published Ni Kuang story, or whether screenwriters Wong Jing and Yuen Kai Chi merely threw together ideas plucked willy-nilly from Niís back catalog. Either way, Ni was directly involved in the production at least to the extent of playing a fictionalized version of himself in a framing sequence that presents the two heroes as real-life friends of his.

     If we disregard the frame, then The Seventh Curse begins on an unexpected note, with a SWAT team (or whatever the Hong Kong police call their local equivalent) under the command of Captain Ho (Yasuaki Kurata, from Call Me Dragon and Unicorn Fist) responding to a hostage situation. After an exchange of gunfire, one of the criminals announces that the cops have managed to wound a hostage, sending him into a heart attack or a seizure or some such thing. Ho gets the bad guysí permission to send in a doctor, and then summons Yuen Chan Hsieh (Chin Siu Ho, of Mr. Vampire and Demon of the Lute), a physician whom the captain rather bizarrely identifies as being renowned for his courage. Ho has an ulterior motive in securing medical attention for the injured hostage. He intends for his subordinate, Inspector Chiang (Kara Hui Ying Hung, from The Brave Archer and The Peacock King), to accompany Yuen disguised as a nurse, and bearing a first-aid kit stuffed with flash-bang grenades. When the grenades go off, Hoís men will exploit the ensuing confusion by storming the building. Unfortunately, Ho hasnít figured on dimwit heiress photojournalist Tsui Hung (Maggie Cheung Man Yuk, of Hero and Flying Dagger). Rebuffed by the officers maintaining Hoís perimeter, she sneaks in, waylays Chiang while the latter is changing into her nurseís uniform, and takes the inspectorís place. Unsurprisingly, her substitution throws a huge spanner into the works, and while itís difficult to blame Tsui Hung specifically for the needlessly massive body count in the forthcoming raid, we canít really say she has nothing to do with it, either.

     Over the next several days, Tsui Hung makes an enormous nuisance of herself for Dr. Yuen. Thatís because her interaction with him at the scene of the hostage crisis convinced her that he was a big news story just waiting to happen, and she figures a beefcake pictorial in the society pages of one of the papers for which she freelances would be the perfect way to introduce him to the media-consuming public. (Iíve often wondered, by the way, if journalism in the Sinosphere is really anywhere near as screwy as movies from that region make it out to be.) The reporter may actually be the least troublesome pest following Yuen around right now, though. One night, just as heís settling into a romantic evening in with his English-speaking gwailo girlfriend (Fairlie Ruth Kodrick), a Thai bruiser (Dick Wei, from The Kid with the Golden Arm and Zu: The Warriors from Magic Mountain) who calls himself Hak Lungó ďBlack DragonĒó breaks into Yuenís luxurious flat. Yuen punches first and asks questions later (for a doctor, his kung fu isnít half bad), but heís ultimately no match for Hak Lung. Instead of delivering the expected finishing blow once Yuen is down, however, Hak Lung merely immobilizes the doctor and tells him that his blood curse is now a year old. No, Yuen doesnít understand what that means, either. Hak Lung also tells Yuen that somebody named Bachu (hilariously transliterated as ďBetsyĒ in the English-language subtitles) has been placed under a ghost spell, and badly needs his help. Yuen must come to Thailand for the sake of both her life and his. Finally, Hak Lung warns Yuen to abstain from sex until this whole business is sorted out; arousal will only exacerbate the relapse of his curse. Naturally, the doctor doesnít listen to any of that. He just climbs right into bed with his girlfriend as soon as Hak Lung leaves, and no sooner is the deed done than Yuen suffers an explosive hemorrhage in his left thigh. Blood curse, you say?

     The following evening, Yuen goes to see not Hak Lung, but an old mentor of his who is well versed in the mysteries of the occult and the paranormal. Yeah, that would be Wisely (Chow Yun Fat, from Bed for Day, Bed for Night, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). Naturally, Wisely will need the full background if heís to be able to help his younger friend, and the telling of Yuenís tale triggers a flashback that consumes roughly a quarter of the film. It seems that exactly one year ago, Yuen was in Thailand as part of an expedition led by a Western botanist (Ken Boyle, of Twisted Love and The Ghost Snatchers). They were seeking a cure for AIDS within the cornucopia of the Southeast Asian jungle, but what they found was an isolated people known as the Worm Tribe. Yuen met and fell in lust with a girl of the Worm Tribeó the aforementioned Bachu/Betsy (Return of the Demonís Chui Sau Lai)ó and thereby became embroiled in a tribal power struggle when the shaman Aquala (Elvis Tsui Kam Kong, from Sex and Zen and Holy Flame of the Martial World) chose her for sacrifice to a malevolent undead being called Old Ancestor. Yuen tried to rescue Bachu, and succeeded exactly as far as enabling the girl to escape from both Old Ancestor and Aquala. Unfortunately, he also got every other member of the expedition killed, and himself put under a magical curse that ought to have slain him, too, in seven days. The only reason why Yuen is alive to tell his story now is because Bachu caught up with him on the sixth day, and transferred to his body her specimen of the supernatural parasite that gives her people their name. As we now know, however, the power of Bachuís magic tapeworm sufficed only to drive Aqualaís blood curse into remission for a single year. Now that itís active again, Yuen will surely die unless he can find recourse to stronger magic. Wisely informs him that thereís nothing he can do there in Hong Kong. He will have to accompany Yuen and Hak Lung to the Thai jungle to see what counter-spells might be available from the Worm Tribeís hostile neighbors. Ohó and Tsui Hung will be coming, too, on account of sheís Wiselyís cousin. You wonít like that any more than Yuen does, I promise you.

     No one should be terribly surprised to discover that The Seventh Curse is bugshit bonkers, at least not if theyíve ever seen more than two or three other genre movies of Chinese origin from approximately the 1970ís through the early 1990ís. What might be a tad surprising, though, is how well made this movie is at the same time. If I had to identify a single scene from The Seventh Curse as indicative of its essence, Iíd point to the first clash between Yuen and Old Ancestor, before the latter transforms into a cross between Gyaos and a Giger alien. What we have there is a kung fu fight between a man and a full-sized marionette mummy, which isnít the least bit shy about looking exactly like what it is, and yet the scene works anyway. Thatís partly because Old Ancestor is just a really terrific puppet, comparable in both design and build quality to the ones that sometimes represent the Knights Templar zombies in Tombs of the Blind Dead and its sequels, but with the looser articulation needed to punch, kick, and leap with sufficient speed and agility to pose a credible-seeming threat to Chin Siu Ho. But itís also a matter of cunning editing, judicious lighting design, and inventive choreography. Iím not sure how Hong Kong movies handle the division of labor between directors and action directors, so Iím also not sure how to divvy up the credit between Lam Nai Choi and Yuen Bun (who held the two positions respectively on The Seventh Curse), or between the staffs of artists and technicians working under each of them. What I am sure of is that their work amply compensates for whatever limitations Old Ancestor possessed, and gave that wired-together bundle of fake bones an illusion of life and personality fit to rival many of the far more sophisticated puppet characters in contemporary Hollywood productions.

     More generally, but on a related note, Iím very impressed with The Seventh Curseís illusory visual sumptuousness. True, Golden Harvest was a major studio by Hong Kong standards, but Iím nevertheless used to their movies from this era (at least the ones made without overseas financing) looking cheap and shoddy. The Seventh Curse rarely does. Whether itís flaunting Yuen and Wiselyís jet-set lifestyle or trying to spook us with a haunted tomb, this movie displays a level of craftsmanship and even taste that is wildly disproportionate to its actual production cost. Itís a almost Bava-esque feat of budget-stretching. There may be some substance to that comparison, too, because Lam Nai Choi turns out to have something important in common with Mario Bava: they were both cinematographers before they took up directing, and they both remained cinematographers even after they graduated to the folding canvas chair. Iíve often noticed that directors who got their start as cameramen tend to have a knack for squeezing the maximum possible visual flair out of whatever pittance their producers saw fit to grant them. On the other hand, itís also worth pointing out that Lam had some help during the envy-porn segments of the film, insofar as The Seventh Curse enjoyed an impressive assemblage of high-end product placement. Iíve never seen a movie with so many brand logos in its closing credits! At the very least, all those endorsements must have spared the production considerable expense when outfitting the various rich-dude apartment sets, freeing up commensurate amounts of cash for monster suits, ambulatory crypts, and gore effects.

     Speaking of which, the last thing I want to mention about The Seventh Curse is its exuberance in the field of blood and guts. It isnít just the amount, the explicitness, or the effectiveness of the carnage in this movie that stands out, but the cracked imagination that went into devising new ways to sicken the audience. Dr. Yuenís daily explosive hemorrhages are just the beginning, too. Old Ancestor turns out to eat the spinal cords of the people offered to him in sacrifice. Aquala keeps a sort of supernatural attack dog called the Little Ghost, which somewhat resembles a large, deformed fetus, and which kills by chewing its way into, out of, and through its victimsí bodies. And the creation of the Little Ghost requires the blood of 100 children, which Aquala and his lackeys harvest by tossing kids into a granite squishing machine! Of course, Lamís final film was the infamous The Story of Ricky, so arguably that sort of thing is only to be expected from him. Still, the kid-squisher is a hell of a thing to have sprung on you without warning. I approve wholeheartedly.

 

 

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