Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Hua jie (1982)

... aka: 花劫
... aka: 當心色狼
... aka: Dang xin se lang (Beware of Perverts)
... aka: Expensive Tastes
... aka: Fa gip
... aka: Flower Tribulation

Directed by:
Fan Ho

The opening fifteen minutes or so of this are pretty great. Things start with an impressive unbroken opening shot moving from a darkroom through hallways into a photography studio and up to a separate room filled with all different varieties of cacti. A man then gently caresses one of the phallic plants before suddenly flipping and jabbing his finger with one of the needles until it bleeds. The man in question, Shu Ching (Henry Yu Yang), is a psycho sex predator and is next seen driving his convertible sports car along the highway late at night. He stumbles upon a beautiful, stranded woman named Elene Lam (Mabel Kwong - POSSESSED II) and offers her a lift. During the drive, Ching stares at her legs and cleavage and then begins asking invasive and offensive questions about her sex life. Sensing she's in trouble, Elene asks him to drop her off somewhere but the man keeps going and refuses to stop. After she calls him a "bastard," a word that seems to especially offend him, he slams on his brakes and starts attacking her. A chase through the woods follows.

Though she fights him off the best she can, biting him and kneeing him in the crotch, he eventually manages to overpower her, gives her some lashes with a cactus and then rapes her. Immediately after he finishes, police officers stumble onto the scene and arrest him. It's hard to imagine just what he would have done to Elene otherwise. Well, actually, it's not too hard to imagine since he's later given the opportunity to show us just that after he's released back onto the streets!

As is unfortunately still the case now, the justice system (apparently no matter what country one lives in) exists almost exclusively to punish the poor and middle class, not those who are wealthy, connected and powerful. Ching happens to be son of obscenely wealthy shipping tycoon Shu On (Yip-Kwong Ng) so the officers soon start kissing his ass as soon as he's in custody. They also allow his daddy and the family lawyer, William Lau (Dan Lau), to retrieve him before any thorough questioning is even done. Soon after, Ching blankly admits to his father that he's guilty of the charges, but his old man is in such denial he refuses to believe him ("Nonsense. You come from a wealthy family, you wouldn't do it!")

Elene is taken to the hospital to recuperate and the place is soon swarming with the press. Her cousin, June (Flora Cheung - LIFE AFTER LIFE), soon shows up to help. June is an investigative reporter and chief editor for "Urban Weekly" magazine and has recently been having problems of her own at work with her boss (Hak-Shun Leung) rejecting any of her stories that show the rich and famous in an unflattering light, highlighting yet another baked-in way the institution always protects the wealthy. Though Elene is scared of backlash, June convinces her to take legal action against her attacker and the case is soon in court.

Before an almost comically inept (and probably paid off) judge, the defense rake Elene over the coals in a ludicrous manner meant to both humiliate her and insinuate she's promiscuous. She has everything from her job in public relations to how she spends her free time to her friends to her sex life to her sex fantasies all dredged up. The judge forces her to tell the courtroom whether she's a virgin or not and count how many men she'd had sex with prior to the attack (!) while the spectators in the gallery laugh at her (!!) Elene eventually loses it, has a nervous breakdown right on the stand and has to be removed from the courtroom. Ching later testifies that she seduced him, offered him sex for money and then tried to use rape allegations to extort more money from his wealthy family. The jury finds him innocent and Elene is driven out of the city.

In retaliation, June goes on a television program to discuss how the establishment protects wealthy criminals and then, going against her boss' wishes, sneaks her article about Ching into the magazine right before it goes to press. Having already seen her on TV, and now finding out about the article, Ching starts stalking June everywhere she goes. He takes photos of her in public and even at her home, using his telephoto lens to get shots inside her bedroom through the window. Conversely, June begins looking into Ching's past. She tracks down one of his previous victims - Mei Bo (Lai-Fan Hon) - and discovers she's been so traumatized by the incident she's now a drug-addicted prostitute.

Model Lily (Lily Chan), who's the wife of Shu family lawyer William, hires Ching for a photo session that turns disastrous when he has her doing photos with a noose and, of course, his beloved prickly cacti. He later breaks into her home, beats her and rapes her in the bathtub. When Lily's husband finds out about it, instead of being enraged he simply asks for a stake in the family's shipping company as compensation (!!) Elene's incompetent attorney, Tung Pui (Kin-Chuen Lee), befriends June but it all turns out be a façade. Like most of the other men in this film, he's a scumbag who's in cahoots with both William and Ching and more than happy to help his buddies silence her for good. Using the pretext of a birthday party, she's lured to Ching's photography studio and thus right into his clutches. What follows includes, but it not limited to, morbid abstract art, a life-sized mannequin cake, a giant red net, water hose torture, an acid facial and a white-masked, razor-slashing killer.

Ludicrous plot points aside, and there are quite a few if I'm to be honest, this psycho-thriller is fast-paced, stylish and entertaining enough to keep you watching, with a few genuine surprises along the way and several well-done suspense scenes. There are lots of obvious borrowings from De Palma's Dressed to Kill (1980) here, including frequent glossy-looking soft focus shots, a bit of split screen usage, shimmering razor blades and numerous plot points like stalking, voyeurism, bizarre sexual hang-ups (flashbacks to Ching's childhood show him getting beaten after walking in on his mommy having sex), the psycho donning drag (granny drag, no less!), a long suspense scene / attempted slashing around an elevator and several steamy bathing scenes, both featuring Chan. This also has a memorable scene set in an art gallery, only in this time it's part of the psycho's studio.

Ho (who is much better known for his photography than his film work) started out as a Shaw Brothers actor before transitioning over to directing in 1969. Most of his credits were in the Cat III erotica genre and he made a number of box office hits before retiring and moving to California, where he passed away in 2016. This was not made for any of the HK major players of the day (the production company in the credits is Fotocine Film Production Ltd.) and was only released to home video (and only in HK to my knowledge) a couple of times. The source print currently circulating around is the widescreen, English-subtitled laserdisc from Mei Ah that was released in 1988.

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