Hex Education, Shaw Brothers Style

by Arthur B

Hex starts off strong but fails to stick the landing.
The Chan family is a well-established merchant house which has fallen on hard times; the last of the line is Chan Sau-Ying (Ni Tien), whose parents decided to marry her off to one Chun Yu (Jung Wang) to keep the line going. However, after Sau-Ying’s parents died of consumption, Chun Yu became a bully and a tyrant, terrorising Sau-Ying and the servants regardless of whether he was stone cold sober or blitzed out of his head after another drinking binge, and having fallen sick herself Sau-Ying is unable to protect her servants from Chun Yu’s cruelty.

Eventually, after the last servant has left, a certain Yi Wah (Szu-Chia Chen) comes to visit, explaining that she is the daughter of Madame Fook, who was the Chan family servant in times past and asked Yi Wah to come and give the Chan family her best wishes if she was ever going past. Yi Wah insists on sticking around to help Sau-Ying, despite Chun Yu taking especially badly to her. One day, after an especially brutal attack, Yi Wah fights back and gets Sau-Ying to help - which makes both of them accomplices in Chun Yu’s death. The duo dump Chun Yu’s body in the lake just outside of town, but Sau-Ying is consumed with guilt, and this, combined with the chilling discovery later that Chun Yu is no longer in the lake, pushes Sau-Ying’s already precarious health over the brink, causing her to die.

However, it turns out that it was all gaslighting and trickery on the part of Chun Yu and Yi Wah, who had colluded all along; the two lovers planned to do away with Sau-Ying so that Chun Yu could inherit her family’s wealth and the two could enjoy the spoils. There’s just one problem: with Sau-Ying’s memorial shrine disrupted and a rat infestation coming into the house, Yi Wah and Chun Yu find they don’t feel so secure in the Chan family mansion any more. And then, as they get some workmen in to dispose of Sau-Ying’s old furniture, one of the workmen is ordered to leave the furniture where it is by someone who both appears and claims to be Sau-Ying, who then disappears when Chun Yu and Yi Wah come to investigate. Is it possible that Sau-Ying has now truly become the type of avenging spirit that Chun Yu had only pretended to be?

This, then, is a straight horror movie for much of its running time, though it is generously sprinkled with a range of comic relief characters in keeping with the Shaw Brothers house style. You would think that this would spoil the scares, but the fact that they are far from immune from terrifying supernatural assaults if anything makes the horrors of the movie more effective, perhaps by underscoring that nobody is safe. Perhaps best example of this is when Chun Yu, pushed to the edge by Sau-Ying’s manifestations, flips out and murderously attacks the door-to-door salesman who pops by asking after Sau-Ying. This leads into a long sequence which captures this really unsettling balance between slapstick and terror.

On the whole, the movie presents an interesting blend of styles, because the aesthetic in terms of the sets and costumes and so forth puts me in mind of the sort of “costume drama horror” that the likes of Hammer put out, but the varied spectral manifestations are especially imaginative, with the ghostly forms ranging from the overtly gorey to the apparently lifelike to the outright otherworldly. (The horrid glowing blue-eyed form, in particular, beats out even much more modern horror movies for sheer eeriness.)

Chun Yu’s abusiveness towards Sau-Ying is truly shocking, as is the show he and Yi Wah put on for her benefit; in particular, there’s one scene where he apparently rapes Yi Wah to really put across the idea that he is out of control and is right on the verge of following through on his threats to kill her. Naturally, because it turns out they are colluding, this presumably wasn’t a rape at all, but all part of the plot, but the director shows excellent judgement in showing just enough to make us truly shocked but not showing so much as to be gratuitous or remotely titillating.

One notable thing about the film is that it’s a horror movie in which the major targets of the horror are victimisers in their own way. Yi Wah is a bit less overtly villainous, at least to the extent that she seems to feel contrition to one extent or another, but Chun Yu was an abusive bully even before the murder plot gets under way, and whilst he never turns on Yi Wah (indeed, the fact that they seem to genuinely care about each other is perhaps their most humanising feature) he soon ends up taking his fear out on others once the manifestations start getting extreme.

That said, it’s not perfect. The terminal exorcism sequence in which Sau-Ying’s spirit appears and does a strange nude dance feels a bit gratuitous. I mean, in its first phase it’s basically a dissonant erotic dance sequence with spooky lighting and body graffiti, which kind of works as a very odd depiction of the ritual but still. The concluding part where a nude.Yi Wah, painted in spells and repeating Buddhist prayers, spiritually faces off with the ghost is much more effective as actual horror, though still somewhat gratuitous. There’s also an annoying plot twist at the end to try and put a non-supernatural spin on things but which doesn’t entirely account for everything that happened.

On the whole, Hex is good in its first two thirds, but escalates to a point it can’t work out how to pay off, with the nudie exorcism sequence not quite hitting the right note and the final plot twist rather deflating things. On top of that, the job that 88 Films does on the translations of the subtitles is, frankly, a bit shaky. It’s worth watching once for the early sequences, but for my money it doesn’t quite stick the landing.

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Comments (go to latest)
Ashimbabbar at 20:09 on 2018-10-22
Soo basically it's a ripoff from Les Diaboliques ?
Arthur B at 21:20 on 2018-10-22
Maybe, not seen that (it's sat in my to-watch pile at the moment).
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