236. THE BOXER’S OMEN (1983)

Mo

“Any way you slice it, The Boxer’s Omen (1983) is a massive experience. For some, it’s massively unpleasant. For others, it’s massively bizarre. And for adventurous horror fans craving intensity, it’s massively entertaining.”–Stephen Gladwin, liner notes to the Image Entertainment DVD release of The Boxer’s Omen

DIRECTED BY: Chih-Hung Kuei

FEATURING: Kao Fei [AKA Phillip Ko, Phillip Kao], Bolo Yeung, Elvis Tsui Kam-Kong

PLOT: Chan Hung, a gangster, sees his brother paralyzed in a kickboxing match with a cheating Thai fighter. Later, he is rescued from a rival’s ambush by an apparition of a Buddhist monk. Chan Hung travels to Thailand to challenge the evil boxer, but while there he discovers that a local Buddhist temple has prophesied that he will defeat a black magician who has waged a longstanding war against the holy sect.

Still from The Boxer's Omen [Mo] (1983)

BACKGROUND:

  • The Hong Kong-based Shaw Brothers studio made a fortune in the 1970s with their cheaply produced, widely-distributed kung fu films, and came to dominate the local film industry. By the early 1980s the kung fu fad had died out, however, and the studio started losing ground to competitors who came to represent the “Hong Kong new wave.” The Boxer’s Omen comes from a period when the studio was searching for a new cash cow; horror films were a natural candidate. Expensive (by the Brothers’ standards) spectacles like Omen did not help stop the studio’s slide, however, and in 1986 the Shaws stopped making feature films altogether and segued into television production.
  • “Black magic” films had been a popular Shaw Brothers subgenre since 1975’s Black Magic. They were set in East Asian countries like Thailand (exotic locales to the cosmopolitan Hong Kong set) and involved evil spells that required gross-out ingredients like pubic hair, human milk, and vomit.
  • Mo (The Boxer’s Omen‘s Chinese title) is actually a sequel to Gu (1981), a film that is seldom seen in the West.
  • This was the second-to-last film in the career of director Chih-Hung Kuei, who had a “respectable” exploitation movie résumé that included “Brucesplotation” hits like Iron Dragon Strikes Back (with Bruce Li), the creature feature Killer Snakes, and the women’s prison sleaze of Bamboo House of Dolls. After retiring from directing in 1984 he immigrated to the United States and opened a pizza parlor (!)
  • This film was legendary, but almost never seen in the U.S. until Image Entertainment’s 2006 DVD release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Covered in maggots which buzz like bees, a nude woman is magically birthed from the sealed corpse of a crocodile after an elaborate and disgusting ritual involving (no joke) a regurgitated chicken rectum.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Eel vomiting; flying-head strangler; nude crocodile zombie

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDThe Boxer’s Omen is pure Shaw Brothers desperation and delirium, an excessive black magic oddity that holds nothing back, with gratuitous nudity, kung fu, rough sex, vulgar Buddhist mysticism, and ample viscera.


Original trailer for Mo

COMMENTS:If you’re looking to take a break from “deeper” weird movies and dive into a thoughtlessly bizarre, id-like world of nude zombie sorceresses and reanimated crocodile skulls, The Boxer’s Omen is just what you’ve been craving. Despite what may appear to be an odd mix of genre film elements, Boxer’s Omen‘s brutal kickboxing duels and violent bouts of sex exist comfortably alongside its vomited eels and crawling bat skeletons; it all plays like one seamless exploitation dream. Not substantial enough to be an art movie, and far too ambitious to be called a  B-movie, The Boxer’s Omen probably best fits into the category of failed blockbuster. It was intended as an indigenous Chinese globetrotting adventure a la Raiders of the Lost Ark, or an effects-laden fantasy spectacle like The Empire Strikes Back, but its black magic backbone makes it far too weird and alienating to serve as escapist entertainment for a general audience. Consider it the cinematic equivalent of a culinary adventure, a hot steaming bowl of something you might buy from a Hong Kong food stall in a back alley at midnight. You don’t know exactly whether it’s been flavored with chicken anus, octopus sucker, or poodle nipple, but you know it’s going to be spicy and weird.

Starting off as a simple tale of revenge, the first indication that the kickboxing subplot The Boxer’s Omen has nothing essential to do with the wild proceedings comes early on in the film. A glowing chevron that appears to Chan Hung one sleepless night is a harbinger of the weirdness to come. He sees it again on his trip to Thailand to confront the boxer who paralyzed his brother, forming the roof of a riverside temple. On entering the sanctuary, a monk explains to Chan Hung that he has been expected. When asked why, the monk prefaces the coming flashback with “it’s a long story,” and launches into an explanation that reveals that this film intends to take us places far out of the ordinary. You see, years ago the temple’s abbot had flown to Hong Kong to melt a warlock’s face by throwing a rainbow crystal at his forehead in order to collect the felt bat puppet that crawled out of his mouth after he transformed into an old crone and died.  But after he took it back to Thailand and drove a stake through the puppet’s heart, another dark magician complained, “how dare he kill my bat!,”  and chewed up a live rat and spat the blood on a different bat skeleton, which made the monk have to hit the first bat skeleton with a giant wooden hammer so it wouldn’t crawl away. Really angry now, the evil magician got his final revenge by training spider puppets to inject poison into the abbot’s eyes just before he attained immortality. When we wake up from the flashback, we realize that ten minutes of film have vaporized, and that we now actually know a lot less about why Chan Hung is there than when we started.

As it turns out, Chan Hung was actually the abbot’s twin in a past life, and so must be trained as a monk so he can duel the evil magician and free the prophet’s soul. Even after talking with the undecomposed corpse of the abbot, however, Chan Hung thinks this is a line of bull, and heads back to Hong Kong until he starts vomiting up eels, which is enough to convince him to return to the temple and let them shave his head and put him through an ascetic warrior training montage. After throwing him in a river of leeches, they put him into a giant clay pot and hook him up to a bunch of chanting monks until everything turns red and the pot reverses polarity so that the mystical symbols appear on the inside of the jar. Only then is Chan Hung ready to face off on a blank stage set hung with a giant moon against an evil magician whose face is painted like a 1980s wrestling heel. The wicked one drips chicken blood on some crocodile skulls, but Chan Hung puts lotus candles in their jaws and sends them flying.  Our hero also survives a flock of bats and blows up a levitating green alien head, until the magician pulls out his ace in the hole: he cuts off his own head, flies over to where Chan Hung is meditating, and strangles him with the viscera that trail from his neck. Naturally, the chosen one eventually wins, after a surreal magical duel that goes on for an amazing ten minutes.

That would be the climax of a less excessive film, but we’re actually only halfway through this one. Chan Hung still has to fly back to Hong Kong and train to defeat the Thai boxer (the massive Bolo Yeung, who should be familiar as Bruce Lee’s most memorable adversary in Enter the Dragon). Meanwhile, just because he’s beat one sorcerer doesn’t mean the entire cult is dead, and interspersed with the duel with Yeung we see three apprentice magicians engaging in a bizarre crocodile corpse ritual to summon a nude demon to get revenge on Chan Hung. Unfortunately, our reformed gangster has had sex in the interim and the Buddha has forsaken him, so the only way he can defeat this new evil is to fly to Katmandu and get the Golden Ashes, a powerful relic from another of the abbot’s previous incarnations. Once there he must face the evil female mummy/zombie/demon/witch (now clad in a revealing gold bikini) in the film’s final battle. This clash includes disembodied green hands that attack Chan Hung’s nipples, an animatronic reptile, the threat of being squeezed to death between the bikini demon’s thighs, and deadly caterpillars that go straight for the ear canal and nostrils. Finally, however, the relic works, and the holy one’s previous incarnation shows up to ring a bell and shoot some laser beams, giving him the power to rip the she-monster’s skin off. This turns her into a living relief map of the human circulatory system and squirt blue goo. She gives birth to the three magicians who had been hiding inside her (who promptly commit suicide), then dissolves into a mass of wriggling bugs. And thus is the world once more made safe for Buddhism.

Largely because of its exotic imagery, its use of animals and totems like peacock feathers, and a soundtrack that utilizes throaty drones and chants, The Boxer’s Omen is frequently compared to The Holy Mountain. I admit that the resemblance initially occurred to me, as well, but the similarities are entirely superficial. Whereas Alejandro Jodorowsky mapped every sequence in his magnum opus to some kind of obscure spiritual precept—not restricting his inspirations to just Buddhism, but including Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and pagan occultism—there is no larger purpose in Omen‘s mysticism other than to shock and amaze. The stunning ritual where three black magicians sew up a mummy in the body of a slain crocodile, perform incantations, and resurrect the body by stuffing her mouth full of chicken anus that they have successively chewed up and spit out isn’t a vision of spiritual transformation: it’s pure peasant folklore (although no doubt Jodorowsky would come up with a symbolic interpretation of the scene if you asked him). If you squint, you can find the faintest of spiritual messages in Omen, in that the essence of evil magic arises from things of the body (vomit, corpses, vermin) rather than the spirit (the monks fight with beams of energy and stuff like that). Indulgence in carnal sex robs Chan Hung of his mystical powers. But that body/spirit dualism a pretty simplistic message, and hardly unique to Omen (the use of breast milk and pubic hair as ingredients in evil spells in this subgenre stretches all the way back to 1975’s Black Magic). In reality, despite showing the trappings of Buddhism, Omen’s monks act more like Jedi warriors fighting an evil empire than holy men meditating to escape the cycle of death and rebirth. You’ll learn as much about Buddhism from watching The Boxer’s Omen as you’ll learn about Christianity from watching Excalibur. But that’s hardly a criticism: I recommend you watch Excalibur, too. The outrageous visuals and wild occult rituals of Boxer’s Omen make it a superior, exotic exploitation film, and if you value weirdness as flavor rather than sustenance, you’re in for a strange and rare treat.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…almost psychedelic in its excesses.”–Pete Tombs, “Mondo Macabro: Weird and Wonderful Cinema Around the World

“(Is the film really that insane?) I don’t know where to start. But, seriously, to answer your question, yes, it really is that insane. In fact, it’s so insane at times, that I felt guilty about all the instances in the past where I used the word to describe other so-called works of cinematic insanity.”–Yum-Yum, “House of Self-Indulgence”

“…looks and feels like the unholy union of Jodorowsy’s Holy Mountain and HK horror… Entertaining craziness.”–Zev Toledano, Worldwide Celluloid Massacre

OFFICIAL SITE: The Boxer’s Omen – Not much more than a synopsis and DVD info available at Image Entertainment’s official website

IMDB LINK: Mo (1983)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

The Boxer’s Omen (1983) – The movie’s entry at the Hong Kong movie database; there’s little here except for the most complete list of the cast and crew to be found

Boxer’s Omen – Synopsis from a screening at Lincoln Center Film Scoiety

DVD INFO: As mentioned in the “background” section, The Boxer’s Omen was not available on home video until Image Entertainment’s 2006 DVD release (buy). The picture is not advertised as restored, but looks remarkably bright and clean for a film that went over 20 years with no active preservation efforts. Extras are a slideshow of production stills and lobby cards, an informative pamphlet by Stephen Gladwin, and a couple dozen vintage trailers for Asian B-movies (from the Shaw Brothers and others).

(This movie was nominated for review by “Gerby,” who said it was “[n]ot as good as a lot of [the Shaw Brothers] kung fu flicks but by far the weirdest!” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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