In 1980, the legendary Shaw Brothers Studio was having a hard time keeping up with the competition. They had ruled the world of commercial Chinese-language films for decades but had started losing steam when Golden Harvest and Bruce Lee stole their thunder. Their fight for survival meant that they were more open to less formulaic experimentations from trusted filmmakers. Kuei Chih-Hung was one of them. His career includes many films that are now considered to be cult classics, from the exploitative, genre-defining Bamboo House of Dolls (1973) to the ultra-brutal martial arts epic Killer Constable (1980), the pre-Category III ground-breaking The Killer Snakes (1974), the socially charged Big Brother Cheng (1975) and the unabashedly imaginative The Boxer’s Omen (1983). His movies prove that Shaw Brothers were producing both so-called ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’ fare, going from prestige pictures to exploitation horror.
So, when given the latitude to remake Henri-Georges Clouzot’s noir masterpiece Les Diaboliques (1955) Hong Kong horror style, he went all in. Twenty-five years after the French master’s formal tour-de-force, Kuei took the basic premise of the story and adapted it to the local market into an actual ghost story influenced by a multitude of cinematic landmarks.
Hex starts in a similar manner to the black-and-white classic: a violent, abusive husband who is by far even more detestable than his French inspiration is seemingly assassinated by his dying wife, with the help of the new maid. When his body disappears, and the dead man’s ghost starts haunting his house, the widow panics and dies of a heart attack. Of course, the husband’s death was but a sham, a conspiracy hatched by the man – looking to inherit his wife’s wealth – and his new lover, who is none other than the maid herself. What Clouzot developed and explored over two hours, Kuei sums up in half the time so that he can focus on what the audience actually came to see: the ghost of the deceased, betrayed wife who fully intends to take her revenge.
From this moment on, the film leaves his European heritage behind, and foregoes its slow-burn, atmospheric narrative centred on historical drama in favour of a hybrid, unbridled frenzy representative of Hong Kong genre cinema. The plot thus switches without warning from chilling sequences to slapstick comedy, makes a U-turn into horror again, and ends with a phantasmagorical exorcism who will leave no one indifferent. This final act is memorable for blending shameless exploitation and cultural, gender-based reinvention with ease. The naked female ghost whose body is covered in tattoos and who dances and moans for almost ten minutes is of course subject to the gaze of the camera, which moves with the audience’s visual pleasure in mind.
When blood is spit on her chest before she’s instructed to crush dry leaves with her body, Kuei Chih-Hung lays the groundwork for the infamous Category III films that will emerge at the end of the decade. There is, however, a fundamental difference: Hex is very explicit in its morality, and though it can’t be called a feminist film, it definitely reworks the mechanics of the film noir and the classic Chinese ghost story to humiliate the male antagonist twice and transform the female ghost into a spirit of unstoppable vengeance. The character of the wife remains a martyr for most of the runtime, but takes on a much more potent, impactful role in the final act.
As explained by Raymond Tsang in the first chapter of the book Hong Kong Horror Cinema, Chinese movies involving female ghosts (or “neoi gwei”) traditionally conveyed slightly more rigidly conservative values in spite of the liberal intents of the left-wing artists making them from the 1950s onwards. In Beauty Raised from the Dead (Lee Sun-fung, 1956), for instance, a film praised as progressive at the time for heralding the struggle against pre-arranged marriages, the female character still has to abide by the patriarchal value system to take control of her rebirth from the dead. She steers the wheel, albeit on a very narrow road. With less censorship and a studio desperate for money, Kuei Chih-Hung can be more abrupt, more transgressive. He can bestow more agency upon his female protagonist. The narrow road has turned into open plains, and the neoi gwei unleashes on her tormentors a punishment that allows for proper catharsis.
As the story unfolds, the jumps from one reference to the next matches the progression from noir drama to comedy horror. The climax draws on various inspirations to pay a grandiose homage to films from all over the world, making Hex a more audacious Hong Kong ghost story than its predecessors. Among them, one can find The Mirror (Qin Tao, 1967), which focused on a dysfunctional couple’s confrontations and mind games before veering into sequestration. Black Magic (Ho Meng-Hua, 1975), an erotic horror film that pioneered the genre in Hong Kong, is another obvious influence. As he takes ownership of the unforgettable idea of the tattooed body to fight the spiritual showcased in the magnificent Japanese anthology film Kwaidan (Masaki Kobayashi, 1964), Kuei transforms his final act into a stylistic exercise that brings local horror cinema to unexplored territories, embracing aesthetic sensibilities inspired by the British Hammer films or the Italian gialli. Several subsequent Chinese ghost movies will work from where Hex left off, notably Encounters of the Spooky Kind (Sammo Hung, 1980) or A Chinese Ghost Story (Ching Siu-tung, 1987).
The free reigns given by Shaw Brothers to their filmmakers sometimes meant they ended up with inconsistent, messy films, but Hex ranks among the best hybrids of the era and is now considered a classic. The lavish sets (the entire movie was shot in the studio), the controlled tonal shifts, the daring reinventions, and the exploitation aspect of the film ensured its success. It spawned two sequels: Hex vs Witchcraft (1980), and Hex after Hex (1982). What has changed from Les Diaboliques to Hex? A whole lot. The careful character study and noir atmosphere was replaced by an action-driven plot that mixes genres in a masterful way. Both films tell the same story but take widely different paths and reach inevitably distinct conclusions. For all the masterly, refined control of Henri-Georges Clouzot, Kuei Chih-hung infuses the same amount of daring hybridity to create a cinema of excess and bewitching power. If one were to choose the perfect example of the synergy between exploitative schlock and auteur subversion in Hong Kong cinema, they could do worse than Hex.