Gong Tau: An Oriental Black Magic [降頭] (2007)
Starring Mark Cheng Ho-Nam, Maggie Siu Mei-Kei, Lam Suet, Kenny Wong Tak-Ban, Teng Tzu-Hsuan, Kris Gu Yu, Hui Siu-Hung, Jay Lau Gam-Ling, Kam Loi-Kwan, Fung Hak-On
Directed by Herman Yau
Expectations: Moderate. I love the black magic, and curious to see how a modern, CG-era film can bring the elements together.
Oh boy, did I have high hopes for this one. I may not have expected a whole lot, but I held onto the hope that a 2007 film could push the boundaries much further than an ’80s Shaw Brothers film could, and while that definitely could be the case overall, it is definitely not the case with Gong Tau. This is unfortunate because all the basic pieces of the black magic movie are in place, but instead of compiling them and assaulting the audience with wild, magical antics, Gong Tau instead chooses to try for a more realistic approach. While this might sound like it could take the black magic film into new and interesting territories, it just obscures the awesome of the magic and surrounds it with a whole lot of boring.
Gong Tau‘s story is remarkably similar to Bewitched, probably my favorite Asian horror film from what I’ve seen so far. A policeman travels to Thailand and has an affair, and when he has to return to Hong Kong, he promises that he will return. He doesn’t, and it sends his life into a spiral thanks to the girl’s connections in the black magic world. Kinda. This is one of the stories being told in Gong Tau, and it is ultimately the most important one, but before you get to it you have to wade through a bunch of meandering stuff that is of varying importance. Where the Shaw films presented the setup for why the magic is being laid on its victims up front and at the beginning of the tale, Gong Tau tries to layer it throughout and make it something of a mystery as to who is doing these things to the policeman’s family. While this may work for a first time viewer of a Chinese black magic film, I knew what was going on the whole time, so their obscure storytelling and pointless wondering led me to somewhere a black magic film should never venture: the land of boredom.
In a movie where a dude’s head disconnects from his body and flies around (The Boxer’s Omen style), I should never be bored. In a movie where a man is killed with three strangely placed bullet wounds, and the coroner finds a giant centipede inside his torso, I should never be bored. In a movie with a maggot-infested infant, I should never be bored. But time and time again, Gong Tau went away from what is compelling about the genre and filled in the gaps with boring police procedural scenes and needless dialogue. If the Shaw Brothers witchcraft films were wild explosions of magic backed with a thin story, then Gong Tau unsuccessfully tries to flip the formula into a “deep, meaningful” story backed with small bits of wild magic. And when I say small bits, I mean small, small bits.
And, inexplicably, most of those bits are CG. I can understand using CG due to the ease of shooting and not having to worry about physical FX, and I can understand it from a budgetary perspective, but is there honestly a reason why anyone would use CG vomit instead of just giving the actor something nasty looking to spit out? It has to be cheaper to buy some food coloring and some oatmeal than it is to pay a guy to animate CG vomit, right? And if you’re too lazy to figure out how to film a vomit scene practically, then I would argue that maybe you should look for a new line of work. It just boggles my mind because it’s so easy. Maggots coming out of a baby’s orifices, I get, but CG vomit takes the cake for what it perhaps the most ridiculous use of CG ever.
Gong Tau is also fairly frustrating for a witchcraft movie fan because when it does play off of the genre conventions, it’s almost always to poor results. The cops visit a Buddhist who specializes in taking care of black magic, and I thought that for sure this would be a turning point in the film. He even gets a scene where he starts to battle the evil practitioner, dispelling whatever surface magics he can. But where the Shaw films cranked the knob as far as it would go in these moments, Gong Tau starts to turn it up and then decides, “No, police procedural scenes are much cheaper and easier to shoot, so let’s do that.” Argh.
For those that make it through to the ending, it turns into something a bit like Saw, where the main character is forced to do a few things he’d really rather not do. While it’s not nearly as intense as it should be, it does make you squirm around a bit, and after a whole lot of nothing I’ll take what I can get. I was hoping for a film that contained some of the manic energy displayed in the Shaw Brothers black magic films, but unfortunately Gong Tau is a disappointment. I’d say you’re much better off watching something else.