Gong Tau An Oriental Black Magic (2007)
Directed by: Herman Yau
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WARNING! REVIEW CONTAINS GRAPHIC IMAGERY!
Cop Rockman Cheung (Mark Cheng - Peking Opera Blues, Election 2) has cop killer Lam Chiu (popstar Kenny Wong coming through with, for him, an impressive performance) after him, for revenge reasons. Lam was shot by Cheung but pulled through, only with the sensation of pain missing. In the midst of this, Cheung's newly born baby dies under mysterious and graphic circumstances while wife Kapri (Maggie Shaw - The Longest Nite) begins to act like she's got a spell on her. A curse rather and Cheung's superior Sum (Lam Suet) has a theory that she might've had a Gong Tau placed on her. He asks Cheung if he's angered anyone in the past...
It's not like we consider it a humongous event when someone decides to direct a Category III picture with horror elements in it but it undeniably brings back joyous thoughts to the 90s era of unashamed, exploitive Hong Kong cinema entertainment. Many speak of grave workhorse Herman Yau favourably in that regard, after some little flicks called The Untold Story and Ebola Syndrome and as many know now (hopefully), Hong Kong cinema should feel blessed to have this long haired gentlemen working his buns off for them. In addition to occasionally producing and acting as cinematographer on films (latest in the latter capacity on Dancing Lion for Marco Mak and Francis Ng), gory darkness may not have dominated Yau's past, varied resume but he's produced some of his best work when employing it, gore or not. The Masked Prosecutor, Killing End and recently On The Edge are very much evidence of a director who's a mainstay but a mainstay below at least one ground level. The viewing community doesn't mind, nor that the resume is to boot uneven! But going back to the famed III rating, Gong Tau An Oriental Black Magic sees Herman Yau going back to A well of depravity last seen in 1996 when he had Anthony Wong running wild on the streets of Hong Kong, shouting "Ebola!" Sweeeeet... sour or foul? What's your poison?
Don't work up a deadly sweat though as expecting a 2007 movie to be just like they were in 1993 or 1996 just ain't healthy. Genres get old, cinema renews itself for better or worse, people get old, people mature and Yau's status as competent definitely has grown. That's why it's perhaps a mature choice to go with highest rated horror in a movie making climate that often desperately needs some juice. But remember, it's a choice of Yau's to concoct Gong Tau An Oriental Black Magic now. Considering he apparently gets backing to do any number of things, including a Ninja movie, the origins of Gong Tau probably does not stem from a wish to go back to the 90s but to any other black magic movie of the last 20 or 30 years. The end result is a script written in such a basic manner that it's all an excuse for excess and by the end, Yau has taken a troubled road towards excess BUT...delivered.
His production company POV, where he shares duties with Dennis Law once more shows up and writing together with Lam Chun-Yue (who also worked in that capacity on Yau's A Mob Story in 2007), I'm willing to be forgiving for certain parts of the flick by saying that the script is just a necessity preparing us for what the III-rating allows today. Wong Jing is nowhere near and the flick is totally humourless in intent (more on that later) so ultimately there is a serious, dramatic arc as written. Concerning basically what the price is for sin, Yau and Lam line the clichés up for target practice. Mark Cheng's Cheung is an overworked cop with a new born baby and wife at home, with cracks in the marriage being very apparent. Nothing like a little black magic and baby death to make 'em come together again. Well, not really as Cheung rarely lets go off his pursuit and seems to be heading towards saving his wife only, but not the marriage. Certainly sounds like a fresh idea but there lies a problem in the casting when it comes to the emotional facets of the story. While Mark Cheng can exhibit torment and look rather worn out, it's still a stretch for him to be the sensitive male in films. Maggie Shaw is also directed towards annoying overacting and pretty much screams and cries in every scene. The intent is understood and we know Herman isn't playing on away grounds here. But we pray we can forget about personal drama and get to experience some good ol' black magic nastiness instead.
Within a technical frame that spews out heavy doses of MTV editing tricks, imposing sound design and score cues that kick in dependently when the words "Gong Tau" are uttered, this is actually a tiresome stretch of the film and not any grounds Yau should be walking. There's atmosphere in need to be created but he's dangerously close of making his horror completely forgettable and disposable. So the Category III whore in me is tempted to utilize his own black magic just to get excess carousels going already and the final verdict on that is pretty positive despite bumps along the way. Although I had nothing to do with that.
It's black magic for the new century, which means freaky imagination will be able to flourish (and does at one particular point, involving a self-imposed decapitation) but there's a little too much emphasis on computer generated imagery combined with prosthetics work. It's definitely a desire on Yau's behalf to make a combo for new and old audiences and Maggie Shaw spewing up CG centipedes may not compete with Margaret Lee doing the same FOR REAL in Centipede Horror but the new technology certainly gets the desired effect set in stone. But sprinkled throughout are pretty embarrassing attempt at making gory and nasty deaths and mutilations come to life. It approaches laughable when the flying head idea gets its ultimate payoff but thank god Yau treats the finale as the high point. Because here the ritual to exercise the Gong Tau curse pushes the limits of good taste to quite a neat degree. Let's just say that it involves masturbation, corpse fat and as the events spiral out of control, Yau has a better grasp of combining the physical gags and ones created in post-production.
Because that's where the movie magic sometimes lies. It's about the final push a filmmaker manages to do to hopefully rightly plant vivid images in viewer's minds. Gong Tau An Oriental Black Magic ain't a return to a golden era of shameless exploitation but its rare appearance as a genre movie containing black magic will be commended by fans looking for a kick to the balls. A kick Hong Kong cinemas dependent workhorse Yau gladly provides but prepare to sit through filmmaking below the recent, more consistent string of acclaim Herman has enjoyed. In fact, he may have grown out of the gore and sleaze but he still earns the right carry the Category III rating on his sleeve. A badge of bloody honor.
Gold Label presents the film in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, with anamorphic enhancement. A desaturated film visually and designed to be dark, the transfer looks like it handles the requisite aspects in an effective manner.
Audio options are Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1, Cantonese DTS 5.1 and Mandarin Dolby Digital 5.1 but as I'm not equipped with such a system, my assessment of this disc aspect will be left off this review.
The English subtitles contains a few minor errors but they don't contribute to any incoherence at all. Traditional Chinese subtitles are also selectable.
The supplemental package starts with the standard Making Of (2 minutes, 43 seconds, no subtitles) where nothing of importance happens during the brief running time. 3 trailers follows, each with a different rating (I, IIb and III respectively) and each featuring a little more graphic material as we move up. Movie Information option in the main menu is a filmography of POV Production, including what works are currently in production. Trailers are available for the following of the selections: Love @ First Note, Fatal Contact and the coming 2008 release Fatal Move (an early teaser). The Gong Tau options leads us to the special features menu again.
reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson