Saturday, October 7, 2023

Yu huo fen qin (1979)

... aka: 慾火焚琴
... aka: House of the Lute
... aka: Yuk feng fai kam

Directed by:
Shing-Hon Lau

It's always strange whenever a film is a critic's darling one day and then seemingly vanishes the next, as if it never even existed. Someone thought highly enough of this at one point to get it into competition at the Chicago International Film Festival, the Toronto International Film Festival and numerous other festivals in 1979 and 1980, but then... nothing. Despite its limited North American theatrical run, there was no video or DVD here. Actually, I could only find evidence of a single official home video release: an old Pearl City VCD released in Hong Kong. There also had to have been a VHS release there as well since the version I viewed had plenty of tracking issues and picture rolls on it, though I was unable to locate an actual VHS box scan. As of this writing, this VHS quality print, which at least has English subs and is available online, is about the only way you're ever going to see this unless you happen to catch it at a revival. The Hong King Film Archive, for instance, had dusted it off for a special screening in 2017, but most of us aren't going to be able to attend something like that.

I have no clue why this was allowed to fall into obscurity, or why there's no restored DVD or Blu-ray release yet. Is the movie overrated? Hard to pigeonhole? Limited appeal? Too "dated"? Too "arty"? Caught up in copyright limbo? Or is this just an unfortunate case of a good or even great film lost to the sands of time for no good reason? The fact it was an independent production, and not a major studio film, likely has something to do with it, but doesn't tell the whole story here.

With his fisherman father falling ill and no longer able to support the family, naïve, uneducated and immature 19-year-old Ah Shek Cheung ("Yum Dah Wah" / Simon Yam), who's never held down a job aside from helping his father nor been away from home, has been upgraded to the family breadwinner. As luck would have it, his dad had previously done some business with the extremely wealthy Mr. Lui (Hoi-San Kwan), who now happens to be hiring a second servant at his sprawling, secluded mansion. The job seems easy enough, pays well (I'm assuming 500 bucks a month was good back then!) and comes with free room and board. Shek is to do some gardening, help the crippled Mr. Liu get around, give their elderly Amah / maid ("Chan Lup Pun" / Lap-Ban Chan) a hand and assist his much-younger trophy wife, Kit-Mun (Becky Lok), with shopping and errands.

As with most things that appear too good to be true, so is this situation. Mr. Lui, who spends most of his time writing pretentious "Zen poetry," playing games and strumming a lute, is a man of complete leisure and laze, but can also be something of a tyrant. He won't let anyone have a TV set because he hates noise, demands already-spotless rooms be cleaned again, drinks too much and expects everything to be done when and how he wants it, right down to hand cleaning his dentures every single night. In other words, he's the master of his domain and damn well knows it, while everyone else is essentially a slave. People aren't human beings with desires and feelings, but tools to be used to enable him to do as he pleases. He's even assigned his wife the task of taking care of the business; collecting monthly rent from farmers and fishermen who are utilizing their land and ponds.

It comes as no surprise then that Mr. Lui has zero sympathy for the poor villagers renting his land. When bad weather keeps them from earning much and they ask for a deferral on their rent payments, he refuses, tries to have Shek throw them off of his property and then has them arrested for fighting.

The Lui marriage is a sexless one with zero signs of affection, as well as separate beds, and Mr. Lui just smirks, shrugs and flips over at the sight of his beautiful nude wife. But she has her needs, too, and decides to liven up her dreary life by subtly flirting with Shek. That leads to more overt seduction attempts, like opening her robe and exposing herself to him. Before long the two are sneaking off to have sex, get to know each other better and fall in love. Not that Kit-Mun ever actually loved her husband in the first place. She was working as a prostitute prior to meeting him and allowed herself to be entirely purchased as an easy segue into a more "respectable" life, which she's since realized was a huge mistake.

Things take a darker turn after Mr. Lui finds out about the affair and attempts to fire Shek, but he has his claws too firmly embedded in the home to willingly go away.  Shek refuses, and he has Kit-Mun's full support. She knows her husband can't function without her and uses that, and her husband's disability, to her advantage. The two young lovers start being very open and casual about their relationship in front of both the impotent husband and the maid. However, jealousy, madness, violence and death soon rock the house. Shek, who's shown signs of not being entirely right in the head prior and the insanely jealous type, gets angry and carves his name into his lover's arm, while Kit-Mun keeps having visions of bloody dentures all over the house after her husband is presumed dead and buried. Has her spouse somehow managed to survive? Is he now a vengeance-seeking ghost? Have the young couple both gone mad? Or is something else afoot?

While I can't say this is some lost cinematic masterpiece, it IS good enough to merit a second chance at life. It really stands out from the pack when compared to other 80s HK genre films, which became less and less serious as the decade progressed. While there's some comedy, it's slier and more satirical in nature, and overall this is a sober, serious effort. It's recommended mostly to patient viewers who appreciate well-drawn characters, intelligent writing with lots of subtext (mostly critiquing elitism) and an hour of build before it reveals its more disturbing and horrific content. To the director's credit, he's able to generate some genuine intensity at the climax and the film is consistently interesting and well made, with nice camerawork, a unique score punctuated by atonal plucking of the titular instrument and a perfect (and very amusing) twist at the end.

Despite amassing nearly 500 acting credits from 1949 to 1990, unheralded veteran character actress Lap-Ban Chan was the go-to old lady to play grannies, servants and various spiritualists and psychic mediums in 80s Hong Kong genre films. Usually, she'll pop in for a scene of two to brighten things up with her amusingly grumpy on-screen persona, so it's nice to see her here in a much larger role than usual. Her character is all business in front of the boss, but behind closed doors she loves Bruce Lee, rock music and gossip magazines, and adds a new 22-inch color TV to her nightly prayer list. Likewise, veteran actor Hoi-San Kwan does a fine job essaying the incredibly self-centered husband and is somehow able to keep from turning this character into a one-dimensional monster by tapping into his more pitiable qualities. Despite a long and proven career, Kwan would be reduced to appearing in sleazy, lower grade genre offerings toward the end of the 80s.

Of course, Yam would be the big success story here. After having already made a name for himself on television, he then branched out into film and this was one of his first starring roles before becoming one of his countries biggest stars, also having some crossover success here in America. He can also be seen in a number of other genre films, including HE LIVES BY NIGHT (1982), The Devil's Box (1984), the TV movie Female Butcher (1991) and Dr. Lamb (1992), among others. The acting weak link here is Lok in her film debut. She was probably some kind of model or something prior to landing this gig. While she looks great and spends much of her screen time sans clothing, her inexperience shows in the more dramatically demanding moments. To my knowledge, she never appeared in another film.

The director also made the action films The Head Hunter (1982), starring Chow Yun-Fat, and Heroes Three (1983). Apparently, none of his movies were all that successful as he wouldn't direct again until 1999, and only made two more films then.

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