Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Black Magic

1975, Hong Kong, Directed by Meng Hua Ho
Colour, Running Time: 96 minutes
Review Source: Download; Video: 2.35:1, Audio: Mono

A jaded woman visits a daemonic practitioner of the dark arts in the hope that he can despatch her cheating husband along with his lover (bit extreme - she could have just divorced him, but I guess at least this method avoids lining the pockets of rich lawyers...). Making payment in gold, the two lovers are put to death in the midst of their pleasure, as the magician uses a series of voodoo techniques to end their hedonistic existence. Elsewhere building site worker Xu Nuo is perpetually chased by a horny little nymph by the name of Luo - his boss, no less - despite the fact that he's clearly happily associated with a more conventional partner, Wang. Spurning her advances he's unaware that the selfish woman has deliberately left 'evidence' in his car, specifically for his real girlfriend to discover. Meanwhile the angry Luo smashes an admirer's car when she returns home to find the unwelcome guest. Liang drives off in his battered car to meet a friend where the shady fellow convinces him that he can have Luo by use of black magic, courtesy of ancient sorcerer Sha Jianmai, who lives in a forest outside the city. Heading off on a journey through the forest (more like a jungle actually) our man eventually locates Sha Jianmai in a hut where he is accumulating substances for his work, including milking (quite literally!) a naked woman. The magician demands payment in gold the size of a skull, which the penniless Liang promises in the hope of acquiring it from the very woman he wishes to love - once they are an item and he has his share of her bank balance. The magician needs two things for the spell - a lock of hair for the woman, and footprints in the mud, which Liang dutifully obtains. He then has to dangle a clay model of himself in Luo's house, plus pour the newly devised potion into her drink. Once consumed she's all over him - his plan comes together! At least until the clay model breaks the next morning, this also ending the hold over Luo. She threatens him with her dog 'Terry', demanding to know how he got her into bed. Confessing everything results in Luo coming up with her own plan to ensare her love interest, Xu Nuo. The magician meets Luo and promises she can have Xu Nuo for a whole year if she can supply hair from his head, drops of his blood, and her breast milk, whilst placing some rotting body parts under his bed (hell, she could just try being nice!). During another botched attempt to seduce Xu Nuo at his apartment, she manages to fulfill the requirements of the spell and, after a bizarre graveyard ritual, Liang is dead (for not paying his bill) and Xu Nuo is later bewitched - much to the annoyance of his real partner, Wang, who he has just married! The newly-wed wife won't leave it alone though, so Luo employs the magician to put a death spell on her! However, this ever spiralling situation of complexity is not quite as straightforward as Luo would like it to be, as it seems Sha Jianmai has fallen for her... Wang's friends, concerned that she is descending towards doom as the death spell takes hold, carry her to another magician by the name of Furong, who is then employed to attempt to restore right with the magic-twisted world, resulting in the two sorcerers enagaging in necromantical battle.
Shaw Brothers were known for their quality output of epic action and martial arts films, but occasionally produced something more horror-orientated, such as this film, Jiang tou as it's known in its native land. Strikingly shot from the outset, Black Magic is a love polygon ruled by magic, or the inability of the various characters to obtain the object of their desires via conventional means. Having said that, black magic itself seems to be widely accepted without question by the populating people of this world and the use of it does not seem to be a grave consideration (until it all goes wrong). Ploddingly paced there is still plenty of amusement to be had as one character after another either falls victim to the magician's handy work or actively utilises his services to influence the natural order of things. As is often the case with Hong Kong cinema, there is humour spattered frequently, as well as an offbeat way of telling the story at hand. Performances are often very good, in particular Ni Tien, who plays Luo with style and is foxy throughout (though obviously being doubled for the nude shots of the character's torso...), making an appealing lady of vague morals - indeed, it's difficult to understand why Xu Nuo is more interested in the comparatively mundane Wang than he could easily have the more energetic and sexy Luo, but there's no accounting for taste I guess... The film's horror elements are somewhat overshadowed by the convoluted love tangle, but I would suggest this stems from the Hong Kong tendency of freeform interweaving of genres as they seem less restrained than western counterparts. Nevertheless, there are some effective sequences, notably the short nightmare that Wang has of oddly bouncing ghosts, a lovely head decomposition sequence, and the routinely morbid nature of Sha Jianmai's spell-casting. Not a bad piece of work all round, this can be bought cheaply in the US as a DVD from Image Entertainment, featuring a fully scoped transfer, a surround Mandarin track, plus mono Mandarin and English tracks (I would suggest avoiding the latter but there are some viewers that don't like reading subtitles, so its presence is valid). There was also a region 3 disc released in 2004 by Celestial, fronted by an ugly cover it actually featured a superior transfer, albeit accompanied by just the mono Mandarin track (English subtitles were present on both discs).

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