To Hell with the Devil
Hong Kong 1981
Directed by John Woo.

John Woo mines his Methodist childhood and rips off Bedazzled to make this sometimes funny but mostly really weird film of flying heads, pop music, and space invaders.

Let's get one thing clear up front: if this film was inspired by John Woo's Methodist upbringing, then Methodism is deeply, deeply weird, and the Anglican Church never looked so normal. It's too late to do anything about it now, but I'm betting there was something in those Sunday school brownies everyone kept eating. Now that I think about it, perhaps if I had a few the ending of this film would start making sense. But I doubt it.

In addition to mining his own disturbed adolescence, Woo must have watched the Dudley Moore - Peter Cooke film Bedazzled a few too many times, and decided he could do better. It turns out he couldn't, but we can at least appreciate the attempt.

The luckless loser in this version is Bruce, played by Ricky Hui, the least popular of the Hui brothers. His brother Michael was a successful film writer/director/actor, his brother Sam a popular cantopop musician and actor, while Ricky himself was known as the funny-looking one. His flowing '80s hairdo does nothing to help this. As Bruce, he is a down on his luck musician who can't get a break musically or romantically, as he can't even gain the attention of Peggy, the girl of his dreams. Instead, she swoons over the the cocksure and arrogant Rocky (Nat Chan), who gains all the accolades.

Bruce runs into two somewhat supernatural beings, one a drunken priest (Paul Chun), who also happens to be dead, and the other a devil (Stanley Fung). They vie with each other for Bruce's soul. It's not much of a contest, though, as Bruce sells his soul almost immediately to the devil for a chance at success in the music industry, which in my understanding is how the industry works for pretty much everybody anyway. Except Metallica, of course, they just handed their souls in at the door.

The first few scenes of the film take place in the afterlife, where we explore John Woo's own very personal look at Heaven and Hell. In Woo's world, Heaven is filled with interpretive dancers, and God is a crotchety old windbag, whom one could imagine farting to create the world. Hell, on the other hand, seems mostly lifeless, but the devil shows up with a massive pair of lower inscisors. Like most representations of ultimate evil in Hong Kong cinema, Satan is androgenous, played by a man but sounding like a woman. I've often contemplated what exactly Satan would be like, but I have to admit I never pictured Boy George.

The whole center of the film, in which the Devil grants wishes to Bruce, each one more screwed up than the last, plays like a remake of Bedazzled, right down to the amusing segments between each wish in which the devil is doing some minor little devillish things, such as dressing as a postman and destroying the mail, while conversing with Bruce about his wishes. But by the end, we leave Bedazzled territory far behind, and enter into a lengthy climactic battle for which Woo later becomes well known. Though, in this case, instead of a hail of bullets and bloodshed, we have flying heads, laser vision, and Space Invaders. At one point, Bruce asks, "What's a soul?" and the Devil responds, "It's like toilet paper." Indeed.

To Hell with the Devil is one of those comedy films that only Hong Kong can make. A priest dies while taking a crap, he reaches up and closes his own eyelids with his fingers as he expires. The devil rips off his head to show how powerful he is, then has trouble finding it. A hunchback gets hit in the back so hard the hunch is pushed through his chest and becomes breasts. These are just some of the visions pulled from the darkest corners of John Woo's subconscious and put on display here. Some might call this a skeleton in Woo's closet, but I say dust it off and put it on the rack -- it's more entertaining than M:I2, and here, the laughs are intentional.

Rating: Marginally Recommended (Marginally Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on April 19, 2004.

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