Axing of the Coffin (Fu Ching-Wa, 1969)

When it comes to legendarily silly re-titles, Crash Cinema actually beat Dimension Entertainment for the title of “best ever.” This 1969 supernatural melodrama, the first film of director Fu Ching-Wa, found its way onto DVD through some rather fortuitous circumstances. Some guy, recently returned from a trip to Taiwan with a bunch of film reels, posted on what was then the “kung fu fandom” message boards, wanting to know what he should do to sell his newly acquired film legacy. Somebody wanted to know what he had, and he posted an impressive list of titles, all obscure, with some, like Pan Lei’s The Sword, thought to be lost in their original format.

I’m guessing that the movie I just finished watching was on that list under the title Chuang Tzu Tests his Wife. But that doesn’t sound so cool to the sort of customer who buys DVDs at the brick’n’mortar, and, although the reel has embedded subtitles, it has no on-screen English title. So Crash Cinema, one of the companies to which the individual who posted at “kung fu fandom” was directed, could rename Chuang Tzu Tests his Wife whatever they wanted when they released it on DVD. And they chose an attention getter, I have to admit. Axing of the Coffin: it sounds like the title of an Iron Maiden tribute album.

This movie is actually a remake of the very first movie filmed in Hong Kong in 1913, and the very first Chinese film production internationally distributed. Chuang Tzu (in pinyin: Zhuangzi) marries a young woman, and decides to test her loyalty by faking his own death. While his wife prepares funeral arrangements, a young man comes to call on Chuang Tzu for tutelage, but takes an interest in the young widow, which she reciprocates, forgetting the funeral arrangements and enjoying the new courtship. When the young man reveals himself to actually be Chuang Tzu, her shame and embarrassment lead her to suicide.

Axing of the Coffin apparently follows the plot of the original film, which I have not seen, but makes additions, such as the villainous Chi Hsuan who attempts to take the young woman by force before Chuang Tzu marries her. Saved from the advances of General Chi, Szu Chin enjoys a happy marriage with Chuang Tzu, frolicking in a garden playing with butterflies. Chuang Tzu’s occupation as a travelling sage takes him abroad often, leaving Szu Chin lonesome for his company. A meeting with a woman who refuses to leave her husband’s grave. The encounter gets him to thinking about his wife’s loneliness and need for companionship, and inspires him to test her loyalty to him.

The original story sounds sadistic enough, but the update further supplements its exploration of Chuang Tzu’s jealousy with a sequence where he tests his wife by disguising himself as the Chi Hsuan and threatens to rape her. Szu Chin passes this test handily; threatening the apparition of Chi Hsuan with her own death should he touch her.
His second test is even more elaborate, as he fakes his own death, disguises himself as a younger man who courts Szu Chin, and fights Chi Hsuan who returns, for real this time, to try to marry Szu Chin. Chuang Tzu, still in disguise, kills Chi Hsuan and marries Szu Chien, but pretends to fall ill to a strange disease which only a concoction made out of fresh human brain tissue can cure. The only fresh source of human brain tissue, unfortunately, is in what Szu Chien believes is her dead husband’s coffin. So she proceeds to pick up an axe and try to extract Chuang Tzu’s brain herself.

At this point, the goes into full out horror mode, with Chuang Tzu rising from his grave and floating around in optical printing effects and spooky blue lighting. He chases the confused and terrified Szu Chien about their home, demanding to know why she would be so disloyal to him.

As his magic disappears and Szu Chien realizes that it is morning, Chuang Tzu appears behind her in the flesh. Ashamed of herself, Szu Chien flees into the woods, Chuang Tzu chasing after her, and hangs herself. Chuang Tzu realizes the grave sin he has committed against his wife, and holds her body, calling her name.

In some versions of this story, Chuang Tzu turns himself and his wife into butterflies, and as they flutter away together they slowly turn into dust as they fly away together. The film seems to set this up in scenes where Chuang Tzu and Szu Chien admire butterflies together. This sort of mystical ending would put Axing of the Coffin in line with other fairy tale-esque horror films of the time, like the Korean film The Thousand Year Old Fox, but the ending as it is strikes an appropriately melancholy note.

Axing of the Coffin is actually more unsettling in its premise than its horror segments. The supposedly wise Chuang Tzu really seems to get off on toying with his wife’s emotions, and I wanted her to actually run off with a good-hearted young scholar by the end of it. But, I have to admit that the horror sequence is an entertaining showcase of late sixties effects work and cinematography. The sequence benefits from an effective performance from the lovely Sam Juet-Jam. But the standout is Tung Lan as Chi Hsuan. Often cast as a villain in Shaw Brothers films, he snarls his way through the scenery like its just delicious.

This movie probably is an interesting little curio, but it is difficult to imagine that there is too much of an audience for faintly misogynistic, mystical Chinese tragedy these days, especially given that it features none of the outrageous grotesqueries of later Taiwanese and Hong Kong horror films and strains to create the sort of atmosphere seen in similar films, like Bao Fang’s Painted Skin or Li Han Hsiang’s The Enchanting Shadow.

1 comment:

  1. I bought this thinking it was a chinese horror movie. Thanks for the explanation, I had a hard time reading the subtitles so for the most part I guessed what was going on. I kinda liked it. It did have those funny yet dark effects and it made me think of old horror movies like Vincent Price's Tomb of Ligeia but with an asian story. Your explanation confirms what I was wondering in the end about his being in the flesh chasing after her with concern. He was actually tricking her. Yeah, I don't think a lot of people would watch this but I found it entertaining.