October 18, 2006


DAUGHTER OF DARKNESS It's October which means that everyone and their dog is engaged in some kind of lame SPOOK-tacular stunt to celebrate this pagan, devil-worshipping, hell-born holiday. Never one to let lameness pass me by, I'm celebrating Halloween on Kaiju SPOOK-down with reviews of horror movies. Some of you may have seen these before. Some of them may be old news. But here they are, all in one place and ready for you to SPOOK them. And when I say "SPOOK" I mean "read". And, just a note, but this is more of an essay about these movies than a review. If you're in it for the plot, then bail out now because I'm giving away the endings. Which is no great loss.

The years 1993 and 1994 were Hong Kong’s highwater mark for a certain style of bleak horror. The opening shot was Billy Tsang and Danny Lee’s DOCTOR LAMB and Simon Yam’s ON THE WATERFRONT - a masterpiece of a movie crafted around a totally unrestrained actorly leap into the void. No movie will make you feel more like you’ve just crawled through the sewers. It’s the first of its kind, and while its intensity and bloodshed is trumped by later films, it has the wild hallmark of true originality. You watch it and feel the floor break out from under the film makers as they crash through into unexplored depths of sleaze.

The grime kept coming with RUN AND KILL, and continued until Bloody Billy Tsang burnt out his dark light with his masterpiece RED TO KILL.

The neglected crown jewels of this period, however, are the Darkness movies: DAUGHTER OF DARKNESS, BROTHER OF DARKNESS, and DAUGHTER OF DARKNESS 2.

For Billy Tsang, BROTHER OF DARKNESS was a respite. A by-the-book Confucian nightmare full of castration angst with a finale in blood, it’s his gulp of breath after the unrestrained fury of RUN AND KILL and before he closed himself up into the claustrophobic apocalypse of RED TO KILL, an end-times slasher flick where armageddon is seen in the violation of women’s bodies. After RED TO KILL, Bloody Billy sank into a series of banal high-end rip offs from which he has yet to emerge.

Daughter But Ivan Lai Kai-ming’s DAUGHTER OF DARKNESS 1 & 2 craft a singular directorial vision of a hellish Chinese society chewing off its own legs and eating its young. DofD 1&2 are true feminist horror flicks, not in the New Age empowerment sense of "Thelma and Louise" or the male fantasy of SHE SHOOTS STRAIGHT, but in the sense that the movie forces a feminist reading on the viewer. You cannot see these films as anything other than a brutal critique of the treatment of Chinese women. And a deserved one. In a country where boys are so consistently over-valued and the worth of women is so consistently undermined DofD 1&2 seem more like timely statements than hysterical exploitation.

Ivan Lai’s Darkness films are rejoinders to all the round-eye “tut-tut”-ing about Hong Kong filmmakers’ lack of political consciousness. What Westerners consider a “political consciousness” is really just pro-democracy good feelings (Zhang Yimou pretty much called it for what it was when he withdrew from the Cannes film festival several years ago). Ivan Lai’s Darkness films are bloody, gore-strewn consciousness raising classes for women, Asian and Caucasian, something the West hates as much as the East. Lai is political, it’s just not the politics that a group of entrenched male honkies (most film critics) feel comfortable with.

DoD 1 is a bloody re-telling of Cinderella, set in a nation of perverts, peeping toms, and petty thugs. The kick off happens in grand guignol fashion when Anthony Wong (playing the local PSB captain as a lewd Columbo) shows up at the site of a family home, family wiped out and home smeared in blood. Flashbacks ensue when he catches young survivor, Fong, and her boyfriend, Kip, trying to cover up the murder. After some “no, I did it” shenanigans, Anthony Wong cuts through the crap and plonks down Fong to tell the whole story. The horror is quickly revealed to be not the slaughter of the family unit, but the hideous abuse that the family unit enacted and hid from the world.


Papa (a gleeful Ho Ka-kui) is a rapacious, peanut shell wearing shrimper, and mom, son, and sis are all just different settings on the shrew-o-meter. Papa spies on and rapes Fong, repeatedly, and in response to people who claim these rapes are played for laughs, only a cold-hearted bastard could laugh at them the way they’re shot and edited. Throughout the movie the constant violations of privacy, the way everyone is in everyone’s business, evolves from light-hearted (Anthony Wong spying on Fong and Kip having sex from a neighbour’s balcony, or the local AIDS cure being sold by a group of village busybodies) to homocidal (Ho’s spying on Fong, his constant attempts to strip her of her privacy) and finally the spying is used as evidence of the person being spied on’s complicity in the spying. When Fong tries to call out Dad as a peeper the whole family runs to his defense:

Mama: He’s your papa. How will he peep at you?
Brother: Bitch, admit you want to be peeped at.
Papa: Your mom is here. How will I peep at you?

Fong is raped by her daddy. More than once. And even when her family sees it happening they look the other way. The final indignity is an allnight torture/sex fest her dad plans for her on her birthday. Maybe no one likes DAUGHTER OF DARKNESS because it answers the question of who did it: daddy did it, over and over again, and that’s why he gets it in the neck. But the structure of the movie is a no-win situation for Fong. After watching indignity after indignity piled on her head, the final bloodbath feels like a cathartic release, but the viewer still knows it’s a flashback, told from a police station, and that no matter how hard Kip begs for it, Fong will be the one executed for her crimes. The final execution is where the movie's two divergent tones meet: sexual vaudeville mingles with gutcruncher politics, striking a deeply unsettling note.

Despite the much ado made over the relentless sexual gore of the movie, the most chilling moment occurs with everyone clothed, and no karo syrup in sight. When Fong returns to her family’s home on her birthday night she walks right into the House of Pain living room her Daddy has ready for her. But before she enters there’s a shot of her standing outside the front door and unlocking it, returning home like on any other night. If you look, in the background, there is an almost identically-dressed young woman mirroring her entrance at the next house down in the row of bleak little homes. In a movie this cheap, that’s not an accident, that’s planned. And the implications of this little directorial touch echo back and forth throughout the entire movie. The domestic hell of Fong’s family is bad enough. But imagine a country where every house hides the same sickness? It’s not an anomaly. It’s a contagion.

Daughter_of_darkness DAUGHTER OF DARKNESS 2 sees much of the same cast return to make the same point, although the sequel manages to be less claustraphobic and more optimistic, downright sunny in comparision to its predecessor. This time Sau Yan, our Daughter of Darkness, sits the investigating cop down in a cemetary, “Comrade,” she says,”let me tell you a story.” This story’s all about arranged marriage, venereal disease, and a battle between two nuclear families: good new family, and old evil family.

This time around the bad family is a gang of kidnapping hillbilly perverts, set in opposition to Sau Yan’s new family (in utero baby and Ben Ng) and led by demented patriarch, Ho Ka Kui. They hold Sau Yan hostage, rape and torture her, and get it in the final stab down at her hands. Making the family someone else’s family opens up the movie and removes the incest onus so present in DoD 1, settling for gang rape as the crime du jour. The discovery of the butchered family is played straighter in this film as well, the cast devoid now of Anthony Wong’s manic comic performance. Perhaps weighed down by gloom, Ivan Lai decides to have Sau Yan kill herself rather than be arrested and executed for her crimes. There’s no yellow brick road, but humanity is certainly given some more play here, and even the investigating PSB officer can’t believe that Sau Yan committed any murders at all.

DAUGHTER OF DARKNESS 2 is most impressive for its desire to show everything. At one point, a virile young man has been procured to impregnate Sau Yan for her impotent husband (Ben Ng, who’s made a career playing degraded, impotent hunks). The arrangement is made, and at this point most movies would cut to the aftermath leaving the audience to imagine a beautiful night of lovemaking. Not so for Ivan Lai. He films a grueling  realtime sex scene: stud and wife going at it painfully and awkwardly while she holds her husband’s hand. The clincher comes later in the movie when Sau Yan, informed she is pregnant after being raped, takes matters in hand and performs an abortion on herself in the shower, while Ben Ng cluelessly waits in the other room. Now it’s one thing to talk about abortion rights and wrongs, and it’s another to watch someone use a coathanger to do it themselves. It’s a scene the viewer won’t be able to flush from their brains, and one that says more about back alley abortion than any fifty Lifetime movies.

It’s in this relentless desire to show every humiliation, every wound, every degradation in the lives of a bunch of people you may pass on the street and not think twice about, that Ivan Lai distinguishes his directorial vision. His protagonists work in sweatshops or rundown police stations full of quacking ducks. They steal money, go gaga over cheap imported dolls, and sell fake herbal remedies, desiring nothing more in life than to get married and have a family. The problem is, they often get what they want, not realizing that in one way or another it will kill them. Ultimately, like any good PSA, Ivan Lai’s DAUGHTER OF DARKNESS films revolve around the desire not to tell. Secrets are toxic, but they are what holds hearth and home together, and clamming up is too often equated with character. As an arrested gambler complains to Anthony Wong at the begining of DAUGHTER OF DARKNESS 1 “We are righteous men. We won’t tell on anybody.” To Ivan Lai, this is the most horrifying thing of all.

October 18, 2006 at 01:22 AM in Reviews | Permalink


i wish there was more attention given to these kind of Cat 3 movies... there's a couple of forum threads and a site in french kicking around, nothing which gives a good resource for tracking through and finding out what might catch my interest. yes, i've seen 'daughter of darkness', tempted by 'run and kill' and anthony wong's 'love to kill' (?) also, maybe 'on the waterfront' now you mention it... thing is, thought these are general bad in every department, they're good in one key are - they're a heavy blend of sex and violence that's so odd it has a certain amount of value to see how that's handle and to experience it, considering nobody has done it quite like HK has done it...

Posted by: logboy | Oct 18, 2006 2:11:57 AM

Well, I'd argue about the badness of Billy Tang's movies. If you can leave aside issues of taste, his films are well-shot, have good production values, attention-grabbing characters, and they're tightly plotted.

DOD 1 and 2 are not good movies, but they're interesting despite themselves. Same for A DAY WITH NO POLICEMEN. Not good, but really fascinating to watch.

Posted by: Grady Hendrix | Oct 18, 2006 2:37:26 PM

"A Day Without Policemen" (or rather "Day Without Policeman") VCD right here (and in stock too) :


Posted by: David Harris | Oct 19, 2006 1:25:38 AM

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