Blood and Despair: The Horror films of Billy Chung

Horror films have long been a staple of Hong Kong cinema, though many of the best efforts combine horror with kung fu, comedy, or both. Billy Chung, on the other hand, uses his films to plumb the depths of the human soul in the grisliest manner possible. Two words sum up his directorial output so far: Blood and despair.

The horror comedy has a long history in Hong Kong, but let's face it, sometimes watching people being chased by hopping vampires being chased by Taoist Keystone Cops gets old. Those who prefer their horror with a bit less comic relief often have to look very hard to find horror movies that take themselves seriously, especially now, when dark, Category III slasher pictures are a thing of the past.

Thank goodness for Billy Chung. His pictures are often a model of low budget, genre filmmaking. And he's willing to try to deliver genuine chills, without going for the cheap gags as an easy way out. He's not afraid of gore: His 2002 efforts together probably contained more blood than the rest of the year's films put together. And beyond just splashing some blood around, he is willing to ruin characters psychologically, to bring his heroes and ant-heroes to the brink of despair, and beyond, to ruin, and rarely, redemption. His movies are populated with deeply flawed characters, with broken relationships, who live as best they are able. They have been denied their happy ending some time in the past, and often live day by day, unable to look forward to the future, seeing none for themselves. His movies provide a dramatic contrast to the usual Hong Kong production, whose running time is often principally devoted to a particular cantopop star and developing his or her image. In Chung's films, the actors actually try some acting, sometimes with powerful results.

Most of Chung's films were written either by Simon Loui or Chung Shing Yuen. Both are entertaining genre stylists who, while not exactly rising above their references, are able to make a good film out of most any hoary old cliche'. Chung Shing Yuen in particular adds psychological complexity often missing from the run-of-the-mill genre picture.

Billy Chung's films from 2002 were POSSESSED and DEVIL FACE, ANGEL HEART. In both, a broken romance leads to mental and physical breakdown. In DF,AH, Daniel Wu is a horribly disfigured hitman, betrayed by the one woman who claims to love him. When by a lucky chance the magic of modern science is applied to make his face whole again, his soul is still twisted, and when he could do anything, start a new life, instead he chooses to devote himself to revenge. In POSSESSED, Julian Cheung spurns the love of Ozawa Maju, who despoils herself in the depths of her despair. When at last he finds her, she is providing sexual favors to strangers in the back booths of a bar. An angry ghost has possessed her soul, but what is the ghost and what is her? And does it really matter one way or another? In the end, the ghost is just another fractured soul that cannot move on.

Chung's most recent film is SHIVER (2003), which continues to develop the themes which have run through his horror films so far. Francis Ng plays a dedicated cop, one so dedicated that his wife, played by Athena Chu, is divorcing him because of his neglect. When stuck in a traffic jam, Ng sees some armed robbers and proceeds to get into a firefight with them, with complete disregard for the safety of innocent bystanders. Several are shot, including his wife, who barely survives. Even so, her new needs do not so much bring them closer together as continue to distract and drag on his professional life. His wife, meanwhile, begins seeing visions of deadly crimes before they happen, crimes that her husband is investigating. At the beginning of SHIVER, their relationship is at a dead-end, but circumstances force them to stay together. By the end, you feel they don't so much change who they are, but learn to better accommodate each other's needs. Despite stale genre trappings (long haired female ghost in white, anyone?) the despair that creeps out around the edges make it satisfying viewing.

Billy Chung has, since all the way back to 1993's ASSASSIN, consistently made genre films with a dark, bleak tone and plenty of extreme violence. Chung's world of blood and despair makes for poor box office returns, but rewards viewers looking for movies with a more mature, more complex world view than ordinarily appears in Hong Kong genre cinema.

This article was originally published on November 24, 2003 at the Hong Kong Move Database.

Posted by Peter Nepstad on May 12, 2004.


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