Nine Demons (Chang Cheh, 1984)

Probably the best known and least liked of Chang Cheh’s post-Shaw Brothers films, Nine Demons looks worse from having Chang’s name on it. Chang revolutionized the face of Hong Kong cinema and classic kung fu more than once; first with his films of masculine bonding and violence, like the iconic One Armed Swordsman, and again with his troubled youth films, probably best exemplified by Dead End. In the late seventies and early eighties he was nowhere even close to being a mega-hit director, though. American fans by and large love those films best, but Chang never performed to the same standard he did in his early career.

In spite of the incredible on camera talent in films like Crippled Avengers, Chang never really topped his older films in terms of thematic or visual weight. Crippled Avengers is an awesome kung fu movie, but it doesn’t compare to Golden Swallow. Golden Swallow is an awesome kung fu movie, but it’s also an awesome movie too. Same for The Assassin. By the time that he was finishing his tenure at Shaw Brothers, Chang had completely gone off the deep end and made The Weird Man, a film so strange that the only other comparable film he made at Shaw Brothers is Fantastic Magic Baby.

That’s not to say that I dislike those movies starring the Venom crew. I love them all, but strictly as cinema, they don’t compare well with Chang’s older films.

All that is to point out that Chang’s descent into relative irrelevancy in his home country was long and slow. And then there’s this: his worst film. Nine Demons isn’t helped by its English dub, which makes it impossible to take seriously. The story itself isn’t unpromising. The son of a wealthy person’s butler is killed when disgruntled servants decide to usurp their employer’s wealth, and makes a deal with the devil in order to save the life of the wealthy man’s son, with whom he’s friends. But the powers the devil grants him cause him to commit crimes as heinous as those of the people who tried to kill his friend, and the interlopers who justify their meddling as justice are true counterparts. One justifies his alliance with evil by his good intent; the others seek justice only for their own benefit. Both sides are playing a game of justification that is inherently dishonest.

The end of the film sees the protagonist give up his evil powers after a bloody battle with his enemies, allowing him to take the proper path of reincarnation. It ought to be a great ending. Why isn’t it? Well, it’s because the protagonist, referred to as Joey throughout the film in spite of its later Ming dynasty setting, is wearing purple spandex and back flipping through colored smoke.

Some people think Chang Cheh was a closeted homosexual, others think he had an unhealthy fixation on the male form. Either way, the problems with Nine Demons come in part from his love of gaudy costuming and artifice that made some of his later films look like insane drag shows. Cheng Tien Chi, as Joey the demon, wears purple tights, a gold trimmed vest, gold eyeliner and a bat crown. Roland (yes, another very Chinese name), the only swordsman who doesn’t want to kill Joey, wears billowy white pants and a cape, but no shirt. A gang of swordsmen like to color coordinate. There’s not a single woman more made up or ornamented than the men, not even Joey’s love interest.

Chang utilizes dissolves, jump cuts, wire work, lighting, and sets to convey the fantastical elements without the benefit of expensive special effects work that Tsui Hark brought to Hong Kong that same year with Zu: Warriors from Magic Mountain. Other film makers have used the same tools to evoke the fantastic and supernatural, like Sergei Parajanov. Chang Cheh is not Parajanov (lol). Much of his lighting is as gaudy and variegated as his costuming, including such wonderful effects as “disco strobe light.” His demons are child acrobats in blue grass skirts that transform via jump cut into flying skulls that suck blood.

In fact, the kids are probably the most unsettling thing about the movie; the child actors basically impale somebody and drink the red glop that drips from the pole in one scene. What sort of parent, one wonders. It’s probably too ludicrous to be anything other than… ludicrous. But still, that’s some weird stuff.

Okay, it’s a very bad movie. The dub makes it worse (“y’know, baddies always end up hacking themselves, for the money”) and it comes from a once respected director long past his prime. It should be stated, though, that Chang had attempted fantasy time and again, never getting it right. His ambition always exceeded what he was able to get on screen, but making a movie like this wasn’t a result of his creative atrophy. Shaw Brothers didn’t really give him carte blanche as far as his budgets, and he certainly couldn’t afford it with his independent productions. Nine Demons is rubbish, yeah, but had Chang had the film making passion of his youth and been given unlimited resources it might not have been. The actual fight choreography is quite respectable, and while the fantastic elements aren't well realized, they could provide startling images if handled well. There’s even a potentially interesting morality play buried underneath the mess of Chang Cheh’s direction and the crappy special effects.

As it is, though, it’s only good for a laugh. Nine Demons at least goes crazy with bad lighting and special effects. Chang’s previous Attack of the Joyful Goddess is a better movie that’s less fun to watch.

No comments:

Post a Comment