Thursday, January 30, 2020

Zheng Jinyi de gui gu shi (1990)

... aka: 鄭進一的鬼故事
... aka: Cheng Chin-I's Ghost Story
... aka: De gui gu shi
... aka: Ghost Story
... aka: Zheng Jinyi's Ghost Story

Directed by:
Cheng Chin-I (Chun-Yat Cheng)

Broke college junior Tze Shen Li (Yu-Nan Chang), who's studying fine art at a university in Taipei, arrives in a remote mountain town via train. Instead of resting on his winter break, he's decided to pay a visit to a reclusive sculptor / doll maker Master Au Lung (played by the director) in hopes he'll allow him to be his student and teach him everything he knows. After hearing his credentials (he's the top student in his class) and learning he's traveled very far to meet him, Au Lung puts him up in a spare bedroom. Also staying there is spastic, retarded servant Au Tu (Hsiao-shun Hsu), who is constantly either laughing or crying, bounces up and down, picks his nose, throws Tze Shen's clothes on the floor and sometimes keeps a monkey on a chain that usually lies on top of his head. Master Lung forgets to even mention he also has a daughter named Hsien Chi (Hsing-Chi Wang), who surprises the new guest late his first night bringing him some tea. The next morning, Au Tu finds his beloved monkey dead and, curiously, the Master orders it to be drained of all its blood before it's buried. He claims that will "keep it from harming humans" as a ghost.

While the master and servant are away, Tze Shen uses the opportunity to try to romance Hsien Chi. He follows her through the woods and is led to a boiling pot of blood. After the dead monkey's head leaps out at him, he runs off and has a late night stroll with Hsien Chi, who seems to appear and disappear at will. Ghost or no, the two become lovers. But Tze Shen soon finds out the man whose work he's idolized all this time isn't such a great man after all. He doesn't offer up much in the way of instruction, refuses to discuss or even acknowledge his daughter, worships a mysterious God and slaps the annoying but otherwise harmless Au Tu in the face. When Au Tu turns up dead, he refuses to even honor him at his funeral. Turns out, there's a good reason for that.

Late one night, Tze Shen stumbles across Master Lung out in the wood practicing some kind of black magic ritual using Au Tu's corpse. His hands catch fire and then he shoots some blue lasers at the body; reviving it long enough for a bunch of blood to start gushing out of the neck. But if you think you have a handle on where this movie's going with the generic title, the ghost, the black magic, the over-the-top retarded character... think again. This isn't another Hong Kong ghost comedy. It's mostly serious in tone and the ghost isn't even the primary focus. Plus there's one other plot detail I've not yet mentioned... Killer dolls!

Yes, the Master's creations have a life of their own. He achieves this through something he calls "blood injected soul power:" Killing someone, sculpting a doll in their image, giving them a bath in fresh blood and then transferring their souls into dolls using black magic. POV camerawork follows the dolls from under sheets and shuffling around the house, they're seen feasting on a corpse in a nightmare and there's even some lovably crude stop motion animation to bring them to life. The score (also by the director), photography and camerawork are all surprisingly good. My next pleasant surprise was that this "ghost story" (called "Master Au Ruen's Folk Art Doll" in the credits) turned out to be just the first half of a two story anthology.

Next up is something the subs call "Don't Fing the Ghost" which I'm pretty sure was meant to be "Don't RING the Ghost." We start with a short vignette as three couples sit around telling scary stories. Deng (Vent Teng) recalls a European urban legend he once heard. Supposedly, if you dial "0" thirteen times on your phone at the stroke of midnight you get direct access to hell and can even talk to deceased friends and relatives. The three men do it, pass the phone around and one of them ends up possessed.

Widowed businesswoman Hsiu Chuen (Chung-Mei Liu) is the take-no-shit general manager of a company and a single mother to a little girl named Tin Tin (Tang Tang). A drug addicted, disgruntled former employee (Mi Ah) whom she had fired for sexual harassment decides to terrorize her with heavy-breathing obscene phone calls. If that's not bad enough, immature employee Lan Yiu (Lan Tsao) keeps trying to fix her up with her brother (Jun-Rong Yang) and her sleazy ex-boyfriend, Chia Fen (Yu-Hou Chou), keeps hitting her up for money, even going so far as to break into her car and then crashing her daughter's birthday party just to humiliate her for not caving in to his monetary demands. At the party, one of the guests (Yung-Cheng Chang) brings up the dial-0-13-times-for-hell "rumor" he heard, which plants an idea in Tin Tin's little head. Why not call so she can speak to her dead father?

I didn't expect this to be up to the standard of the first half but it's also good in its own way. The story mixes up a number of horror subgenres: telephone terror, stalker / sex maniac, evil kid, slasher, ghost / possession and more into a fun and unpredictable way. Scenes of the put upon heroine dealing with one extreme annoyance after another are depicted in a genuinely amusing and blackly comic way and the horror elements all come together nicely during the finale.

For some reason, there's no IMDb page for this title and it's missing from most other horror databases. I don't think it was ever officially released here in America but the VCD and DVD versions distributed in Asia have burnt-in English subtitles. Even better, the English version has been hiding out on Youtube for years now just waiting to be watched. Added bonus: the quality of the upload isn't terrible. Check it out!

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Hwanyeo (1971)

... aka: 화녀
... aka: 火女
... aka: Fire Woman
... aka: Hi on'na
... aka: Hwa-nyeo
... aka: La fille de satan (Satan's Daughter)
... aka: Woman of Fire

Directed by:
Kim Ki-yeong (Ki-young Kim)

The camera prowls around a bloody crime scene where a home owner and a housekeeper have both been murdered. Police have an underage young man, who has taken credit for the slayings, and two female witnesses in custody. At a back-and-forth between a reporter and the lead detective (Moo-ryong Choi), the former blames the increase in teenage crime to war, while the latter is quick to blame the media themselves for their sensationalism and negativity. When the cop returns to his office, the burglar confesses yet again and it's taken into record, he can barely get a word out of the older female witness and the younger female, who claims to work in a bar and came from a small village to work in the big city so she can send money back home, gets chastised for her "lewd" line of work. We then go into flashback mode to reveal just what happened.

After suffering rape at the hands of a pair of blacksmiths (one of whom ends up being smashed in the face with a rock), country girls Kyung-hui and Myeong-ja (Yuh-Jung Youn) head to Seoul to start a new life. Kyung-hui dreams of becoming a singer and hopes for a job where she can make money off of men. Myeong-ja decides she'd like to work as a housekeeper for a rich family because she thinks she'd be able to learn a lot observing how the wealthy live. The girls are quickly separated at an employment agency where Kyung-hui jumps at the chance to be a dancer / waitress at a men's club. Myeong-ja has to settle for a job as a housekeeper for Jeong-suk (Gye-hyeon Jeon), who's thrifty, blue collar, hard-working and not quite the obscenely wealthy boss she was hoping to work for. Instead, Jeong-suk mostly operates a large chicken farm while her husband Dong-sik (Namkoong Won) mostly writes songs and plays piano for wannabe singers at an all-girl's school. In lieu of payment, Myeong-ja requests only room, board and for Jeong-suk's assistance in helping her find a husband.

Clumsy, sheepish and more than a little bit odd, Myeong-ja starts her position dropping fish and dishes, and shows a hidden dark side by catching a rat with her bare hands and then stomping on it. Jeong-suk and Dong-sik's two bratty children write her off as a dumb "country bumpkin," fight all of the time and tell their hard-working and always-stressed mother that owning a chicken farm is "embarrassing." However, she's sunk all of her money into building their impressive home and, as a result, has to work extra hard to keep up appearances. Jeong-suk is also paranoid her husband is going to cheat with one of his "feisty" female students. When she has to go out of town, she instructs Myeong-ja to do anything in her power to stop a potential affair... even if that means killing someone!

With the wife away, Dong-sik gets drunk on homemade rice wine just as one of his students, Hye-ok (Yeong-a Oh), shows up to attempt to seduce him. Feeling unfulfilled in life, he decides to take the bait but the housemaid manages to throw Hye-ok out of the home, leading Dong-sik to rape her instead. The attack brings back instant memories of the rape she suffered back in her village. Having now snapped, Myeong-ja finds herself hopelessly in love with Dong-sik. The two squeeze in one more night of sex, this time consensual, before the wife and kids return home from their trip. However, their presence only seems to strengthen Myeong-ja's obsession with her married employer. She keeps slipping him notes, asks if he'll continue to have sex with her from time to time and confesses she's pregnant with his child. Dong-sik is forced to come clean to his wife. She takes Myeong-ja to have an abortion, which is so traumatic for her that she spends countless months locked away in her bedroom. In the interim, Jeong-suk has a baby of her own.

Having now had plenty of time to go completely insane, Myeong-ja decides she's going to take over the families life, starting by killing their new baby by throwing it down the stairs! Because if word gets out about the affair and abortion they'll be ruined, the couple send their children away to live with their grandparents and are then forced to cater to Myeong-ja's every whim, starting with her taking possession of Dong-sik with hopes that he'll impregnate her. After a man from her employment agency attempts to blackmail her with details about her past, Myeong-ja kills him by shattering a vase over his head, which only further implicates the entire family in criminal activity when she pins the crime on Dong-sik (who had passed out the night of the murder) and then the wife claims to have disposed of the body in the chicken meat grinder to cover for him.

This is Kim's "variation" on his 1960 hit THE HOUSEMAID. While it sticks fairly closely to the original's central plot and many of its details, there are some major differences here. For starters, this one's in color and makes sure we damn well know it with lots of vibrant lighting choices. Second, to bring it up to date with the art house-crazed 70s, the director has spliced in a number of still photo / artwork collages during some of the more tense moments. Third, the psycho is given more of a psychological profile / backstory and thus more motivation. Fourth, the entire film is told via flashback. Finally, several new subplots have been added, including the police investigation of the blackmailer's murder and a few scenes keeping us up to date with Myeong-ja's friend, who has been forced into prostitution. While some of these alterations aren't really for the better, this is still a tense, harrowing, visually arresting and well-acted psycho-horror / drama.

Though this went unreleased in most countries, it was one of the most acclaimed films of its year in South Korea and won all kinds of film awards there upon release. At the Blue Dragon Film Awards, considered the most prestigious film award given out in the country, it won for Best Director, Best Leading Actress (Youn), Best Supporting Actress (Jeon) and Best Art Direction (Seok-in Park). It also won several awards at the Daejong (Grand Bell) Film Awards and netted Youn yet another Best Actress trophy at the Sitges - Catalonian International Film Festival.

Kim even decided to film this tale a THIRD time a decade later with Hwanyeo '82 (Woman of Fire '82). And, in 2010, Hanyo / The Housemaid was remade yet again, this time by Sang-soo Im. That film was critically acclaimed as well and Youn, who'd transitioned over to playing the wife role in this later version, ended up winning most of her home countries Supporting Actress awards.

I'm not sure of any official U.S. release for this title though I do know there was a VHS release in Japan as well as a French release under the title La fille de satan.

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