The Nine Demons was directed by Cheh Chang in 1984. Chang may not be a household name in America but he is a prominent figure in the Hong Kong Film world. When he died in 2002 he had made very close to 100 films. If you are familiar with the martial arts genre Chang was responsible for One-Armed Swordsman, Five Shaolin Masters, Five Venoms, and Kid with the Golden Arm. The Nine Demons was one of his last films.
It’s a pretty large scale movie made on a pretty small scale budget. By 1984 The Shaw Brothers production company had been in business for 60 years. When they produced The Nine Demons, they already had a sprawling estate covered in period sets. They made films all day every day with entire village streets, palace interiors, brothel interiors and, actually that is pretty much all you need to make a kung fu film.
This production had something I had never seen before. The version I watched was dubbed but there was an effort made to westernize it. The characters were given English names and the dialogue was peppered with idioms. At one point a villain confronts our hero named Gary, and exclaims “Holy cow! How’d you get away?” Later in the movie, during an ambush, someone yells out to Gary “It’s to each his own Gary! Run Away!” I’m guessing they meant “It’s every man for himself.”
The dialogue is one of the most entertaining aspects of the film. Here is a sample,
Man 1: Frankly my good friend Joey helped me along.
Man 2: Joey? The demon Joey?
Man 1: Joey? He’s my closest childhood friend who grew up with me. I don’t know anyone called demon.
Man 2: I have been hearing all about this man Joey. That he’s not human, That he is very brutal. That he kills and steals and never leaves a witness. Although the victims were no saints either, but no one should kill wantonly. Many innocent people fell prey to his hands.
Man 1: Joey doesn’t do that. I’m sure that demon Joey isn’t the same person.
Man 3: He (Gary) was killed by the demon Joey. Just before he died he saw Joey coming out from cousin Gary’s house. Did you see him?
Man 2: I did not see him. You know this whole thing seems strange. Johnson’s estate was taken over by Ye. Then all of a sudden Gary managed to recover the place. Quite easily too, but he claimed he had help from Joey, but not Joey the demon but then you claim you saw Joey. This time, Joey the demon coming out from that place.
Clearly, neither the dialogue nor the plot is the film’s strength. The fight choreography is quite good. I often complain that Kung Fu movies do not contain enough kung fu, but that is certainly not the case with The Seven Demons. My ears are still ringing from that metallic “ching” that assaults you every time two swords collide. By the end of the film, I was begging for everyone to just calm down and make peace.
As this was late in Chang’s career he had to have his “jump the shark” scene. The climactic last fight takes place on an ice rink disguised to look like a very square lake. The characters fight while wearing mini water skis that allow them to glide across the surface. It looks like a Disney On Ice show.
Joey is our unfortunate hero who accidentally falls into hell where he runs into The Black Prince who isn’t black. The Black Prince lives in The Black Castle which isn’t black and is also not a castle but a cave, a white cave. The Black Prince gives Joey a magic necklace that contains 9 bloodthirsty demons who will do the wearer’s bidding. It’s sort of a cursed talisman that causes the user to slowly become evil.
The neckless looks like a $1.99 party favor from Party City. Never the less the skulls can fly around and chomp people to death. There’s lots of blood and screaming. The mixing of Kung Fu and horror is really a match made in heaven. Chang even throws in the music from Psycho. Not a reference to the music from Psycho, I mean he got a recording of Bernard Herman’s soundtrack and put it in The Seven Demons. It fits pretty well too.
Chang claims Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah as influences and Chang’s moral universe reflects the grey and muddied morality exhibited by these other directors. However, Chang has his own way of expressing his ambivalence toward ethics. In a scene where Joey is comforting the woman who loves him and also happens to have the same hairdo as he does, the two embrace and ruminate together on the nature of right and wrong.
Li: “I’m so glad to see you again, but watch out for yourself. Everyone is mean. They’re all after you. Saying you are bad.”
Joey: You think I’m bad?”
Li: “Of course not. I think you’re a good person.”
Joey: “I’ve done some bad things, such as killing.”
Li: “You, you must have had a reason.”
Joey: “You know, I used to have a good friend who grew up with me. We lived together, harmoniously. Then one day the badies came, killed my father and my friend’s father. I promised myself I would seek revenge.”
Li: “I knew you must have a reason. But killing is bad. I hope you won’t do it again.
Joey: “I can not promise. Because I have to kill the Fu brothers. They killed the friend I told you about.”
Li: “Then be discriminate. Just kill the very bad and rotten ones.”
Most martial arts films are based on revenge, almost all of them really. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, revenge is frowned upon but in China, it can be honorable. Seven Demons roughly follows the classic Hong Kong form. A stranger comes to town and unjustly kills a kung fu master. The master’s students fight the murderer and fail. The rest of the movie is spent training in preparation for revenge. The students find the bad guy. The bad guy compliments the students on their new skills and then the students kill the bad guy. The end of the film comes just as the villain takes his last breath. There is almost never any kind of epilogue.
The resolution in The Nine Demons is unclear, but by then you’re so tired you’re just glad it’s over. It’s an entertaining film full of action and crazy, cheesy magic, but after an hour and forty minutes you ready for some peace and quiet.
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