The demise of a once-flourishing production company is hardly a point for celebration, especially when the company in question was once one of the great powerhouses of global cinema. Shaw Brothers was the Hong Kong Production Company, responsible for most of the city-state’s exported film produce over a thirty year period, tallying up a whopping 1000 films over that time. The number of films isn’t that important to be fair, it’s the quality of those features, and the many talents that company heads Runme, Runje, and Runde Shaw nurtured over that tenure.
The Slow Death of the House of Shaw
For most people unversed in Kung-Fu or martial arts cinema, the line gets drawn at Bruce Lee, but what about the Venom Mob, or Gordon Lui? Before western directors started handling performers like Jackie Chan and Chow Yung Fat, there were Chinese directors who were, for lack of a better word, a brand. People like Chang Cheh dolled out nihilistic ultraviolence in flicks like One-Armed Swordsman, Lau Kar-leung orchestrated some of the greatest fights ever put to screen in 36th Chamber of Shaolin. Tarantino would later pay tribute to this golden age by using Gordon Lui, one of the great Shaw Brothers talents, in his Kung-Fu hark-back Kill Bill. Just about every major star working in Martial Arts today owes their career to the veritable longevity of the Shaw Brothers’ work.
But all good things must come to an end. By the end of the '70s, the Shaw Brothers were running thin, their brand of classic Fu movies set in the other-when of Chinese history ran into the same issues that the UK’s Hammer horror did; cinema was changing, and cosy old fables didn’t quite cut it anymore. Golden Harvest, an up and coming Hong Kong producer, had spewed forth a torrent of flashy Westernised films, built around the pizazz of Bruce Lee, turning both into a major success. And, like all dying animals, Shaw Brothers lashed out in spectacular fashion. The aim? To revitalise their ailing reputation, recapture the market, and prove they still had what it took to make daring contemporary films. The result of this troubled period was a jumble of flicks which had all the hallmarks of desperate attention-seeking, but one, in particular, rose to the top with the filth and the grime, calling out loud and clear in a voice which sounds something like the last roar of a fatally wounded, but proud beast.
The film is Boxer’s Omen, and the year is 1983.
Boxer’s Omen follows a relatively simple, but arguably pointless story: after a Hong Kong kickboxer is paralysed by a cheating Thai competitor (Bolo Yeung Sze), his mobster brother vows revenge and journeys to Thailand for a duel. Along the way, our hero is met by bizarre visions, entered into a Buddhist monastery, and begins a quest to save the soul of a deceased Monk (his twin brother in a past life) who died at the hands of a powerful black magician.
As a kickboxing film, or even a martial arts film Boxer’s Omen isn’t particularly consistent, or impressive. It is, however, a mad-ass jumble of genre ideas which equates to a fascinating, bonkers, totally unique kung-fu horror. Even without its later moments of ballsy colouring, Hung projects a surprisingly psychedelic version of the world with kaleidoscopic lens flare and beautifully composed frames. Director Kuei Chi Hung had already made a name for himself as a daring auteur at Shaw Brothers, capable of orchestrating epic Wuxia flicks like Killer Constable, or hard-Boiled thrillers like The Teahouse. When the 80’s hit Hung made a district step towards horror and the supernatural with nasty flicks like Hex, Corpse Mania, and Curse of Evil, showing increasing interest in controversial imagery. The shift is an easy one to explain.
By 1980, the horror genre was one of the most prevalent, commercially viable, and culturally significant the world over. Jaws and The Exorcist proved mid-70’s audiences were willing to give their hard-earned buck for a good fright, whilst Star Wars opened the eyes of a cynical post-Vietnam population to the wonders of fantasy, adventure, and space. On the other hand, Rocky delivered Sylvester Stallone into the lap of international stardom and became an instant smash hit across Europe and the US. So, to recap, adventure, sci-fi, horror, and boxing had made it onto the list of bankable projects. The release of Encounters of the Spooky Kind in 1980 only bolstered this, written and directed by its star Sammo Hung, the film became one of the first to popularise the kung-fu horror comedy, merging slapstick-fu with practical effects and black magic for an OTT adventure. It was Golden Harvest’s first big hit and one of the first nails in Shaw Brother’s proverbial coffin. Shaw Brothers smelled potential and then something wonderful happened.
In 1981, Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell made big waves with a small low-budget horror film called Evil Dead. This, along with infamous films like Cannibal Holocaust (1979), would go on to provide fuel for the fire of the UK’s Video Nasty era. Though films wouldn’t be officially banned til the Obscene Recordings act of 1984, the increased reliance on gore and sexually explicit material became a hugely bankable, totally controversial formula, and if we’ve learnt anything from history it's that banning something only secures its safety in the long term. It could be believed that films like Raimi’s first Evil Dead, Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust, and lesser “Nasties” like Island of Death, only survived because of the massive attention brought to them by furious conservative newspapers.
Thus, not only were the aforementioned genres bankable but the active participation in gross all-out effects, was a controversial and thus audience-attracting prospect. And Hung threw himself in full-pelt. The black magic on display is some of the grossest we’ve ever seen. One particularly disgraceful sequence sees a trio of black magicians disembowel a dead alligator and entomb an enshrouded corpse within it, only to remove it after an appropriate amount of time. What proceeds is one of the vilest but enthralling rituals put to screen: the men gnaw on a platter of chicken anus and mouldy fruit, regurgitate it, then pass it to the next person to repeat. The mixture is then placed in the dead woman’s mouth and revives her with dark powers. It's moments like this, along with the generally gloopy vibe of the effects, that call parallels with the successful schlocky flicks of Lucio Fulci, another director who benefitted greatly from his “bad” press. Interestingly on some versions of the film, as the alligator is hacked open, you can distinctly hear a sound bite from the final seconds of Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm. It’s a weird inclusion, but one which adds to the general oddness of this wild and weird venture.
From there, things are less disgusting but more bizarre. In particular, there’s a duel between Chan Hung and the magician which really points out the shift in Shaw Brothers’ focus. More of a battle of wills, the fight consists of an army of animated crocodile skulls chomping their way across a smoky set towards our hero, a levitating demon head (which, with its day-glo green hue is imbibed with sci-fi spookiness), and a flock of blood-sucking bats. Just when you thought this battle couldn’t get any more arcane, the magician, in a bout of rage, strenuously removes his own head, flies it over to a meditating Chan Hung, and attacks him with fleshy tendrils. The moment is indebted to Carpenter’s The Thing (released one year before Boxer’s Omen) but never feels awkwardly ripped-off. It's simply the natural progression of this mad experiment.
Aside from foul shock-inducing imagery, there’s also some pretty swell fantasy elements and ace production design afoot. It's a particularly trans-Asian journey through spiritual iconography and has much to cram into its 99 minutes. The props are larger than life and near-cartoonish, and the same can be applied to the many puppets which populate this mad adventure, be it bat skeletons or demon heads. The important thing to note is that both the dark side and the light are rendered in distinctly different cinematic styles. Where the black magic side of the film is kept to night sequences and bogging horror imagery, the Buddhist side is a Technicolor daydream characterised by airy colouring and lens flare. The magic performed by the Buddhist monks is more transcendental since in one sequence our hero seems to absorb protective characters from an ornate vase, perhaps predicting Neo’s manipulation of code in The Matrix.
An adventure to a secret underground chamber reveals the source of the Abbott’s strength: an ancient mushroom which, with the sunrise, oozes a miraculous ointment. You can chalk this up to the success of The Dark Crystal, perhaps even Conan the Barbarian, but there seems to be a bigger anchor for the fantasy adventure horror mix. The ancient chamber, with its supernatural connection to astrology, calls to mind Indiana Jones’ own adventure to the Well of Souls, whilst the scene, on the whole, is so beautifully done it stands out amidst the rest of this peculiar film. The effects remain a point of interest to this day, mixing drawn and digital elements beautifully. That’s maybe why the film really sticks with you; one moment it’s a near-exploitative mess of gore, the next, its flaunts an uncanny eye for gorgeous fantasy images. In all of this, there is a strong tangibility thanks to the practicality of the effects.
Pair all this with the densely psychedelic colouring of the cinematography and Boxer's Omen is an undeniably sickly treat. It’s a sensual overload as horrifying as it is beautiful, as pulpy as it is nuanced. It could be the ultimate film about shock and spiritualism, or the most outlandish kickboxing film ever made. It’s a film of extremes and for that reason it deserves attention.
In the end, Boxer’s Omen became a cult classic in Hong Kong, but the weirdness that made it unique also made it a difficult pill to swallow. Shaw Brother’s closed its doors in 1986, whilst Hung made one last film then retired to America where he opened a pizza parlour and left his cinematic CV to the halls of cult obscurity. Boxer’s Omen remains a diamond in the rough, for its bold Day-Glo madness; a palette of wow-inducing nonsensical, memorable, and utterly bombastic set pieces and ideas glued together via a tenuous tale of spiritual turmoil. For the hungry horror hound and the bored Kung-Fu fan, Boxer’s Omen is a one-of-a-kind venture and a fascinating cross-section of cinematic trends at the start of the '80s.