When a man breaks his promise to a spicy babe, he'd better be prepared to meet some of the strongest Thai voodoo around in Herman Yau's Gong Tau, an update of those '70s Shaw Brothers Black Magic movies. Vomitting centipedes will be the least of his problems. Stephen Tan reviews.


Those who use gong tau (the Asian version of voodoo or black magic) do it for two reasons - for wealth or for love, a white magician sagely intones in Herman Yau's Gong Tau: An Oriental Black Magic.

Policeman Mark Cheng looks the dependable type but while in Thailand on a case, he has a fling with dancer Teng Tzu-Hsuan (China-born but currently working in Thailand). The way Yau shoots the film, the affair is anything but torrid though most of Teng's scenes has her in the nude. Before returning to Hongkong, Cheng promised Teng that he would return for her, but of course he never did.

Three years later, Cheng's wife (Maggie Siu) begins to suffer from headaches, needles and pins and before long, their baby son dies after turning into a bloated, bloody mess. Cheng looks for a psychological reason for his wife's condition - her "needles and pins" pain is so excruciating that she cannot lie on her back and she sleeps crouching over the hospital food tray on her bed. Meanwhile, Cheng's superior, Lam Suet, tells the younger detective that someone has put a charm on his wife.

A white magician or sorceror helps to relieve the situation when he gets Maggie to vomit out a bunch of (digitally-generated) centipedes but he is no match for his opponent. Cheng feels that gangster Kenny Wong is behind the gong tau as Cheng once shot Wong and caused the gangster to lose all sense of physical pain. Also, Wong is a black magician from Malaysia!

While Wong is in police custody, he tells Cheng there is a black magician who is even more powerful and also tells him how to counter the gong tau. The final confrontation involves semen, centipede, scorpion, human body fat and a vicious flying head - the most deadly of the gong tau.

Prolific filmmaker Herman Yau is best known for The Untold Story and Ebola Syndrome. He was also involved in that money-making series called Troublesome Night. But it is guts-and-gore Untold Story (featuring human meat buns) and Ebola Syndrome (ebola runs amok) that Yau got a reputation for his over-the-top films. So expectations were high when it was reported that Yau was not only making a gong tau movie but updating a genre which was a hit in the '70s with films such as Black Magic, Revenge Of The Zombies, Evil Black Magic and Centipede Horror.

Update is correct. Gone are the studio-bound sets that Shaw used, the new film has a gritty and realistic look. But for Gong Tau to be seen as over-the-top, it has to have more of everything. The film has a Category III rating but that surely can't be for the sex and nudity. With her full frontal shots, Teng Tzu-Hsuan sure looks enticing but there is much more explicit sex and nudity in many Japanese pinku eiga movies.

For gore fans, the bloody baby is a shocker. Not even Hollywood would kill a baby on screen but there really aren't that many "yuk" moments. Maggie Siu vomitting out the centipedes? Been there, done that. In Kuei Chih-hung's The Boxer's Omen (1983), the hero vomitted out a live eel! In fact, the flying head was also featured in The Boxer's Omen and Herman Yau recycled it here. Twenty-four years ago, the flying head didn't work (it just looked plastered onto the screen) and it still doesn't work today. The scene works only in the beginning when Teng's admirer, Kris Gu Yu, begins to separate the head from the body (with flowing entrails) but with all that digital effects, no one has yet to perfect a deadly flying head.

The Shaw Brothers gong tau movie, Black Magic, had a strong villain - nevermind that veteran Shaw actor Ku Feng had to wear a sarong - but one knew what he was about and how he effected his charms. For instance, for his charms to work, Ku Feng needs centipedes; the "victim's" hair (with the roots attached); cut-off finger; foot prints (in the mud); and, the crème de la crème, breast milk. Then, there is the unforgettable "rice-pussy." Herman Yau may have got the right atmosphere and set design - his black magic altars and paraphenalia look authentic enough - but the "fun" in such movies is seeing the black magic concoction come together, how the charm is effected and how the charm can be overcome. Viewers might feel shortchanged here.

Part of the film's problem is its lack of pacing. Too much time is spent looking for the missing gangster Wong and trying to convince Cheng that his wife has got gong tau. And everyone is so earnest while the film might look better if the leads are not so prosaic and are out and about tearing their hair out!

Even then, all these seem too hefty a price on Cheng's head as compared to the "loss" suffered by Teng in Thailand. One can't imagine Teng to be a virgin before she went to bed with Cheng. And even if she is not a sex worker, to hope for Cheng's return would likely be an elusive dream, and not really something to kill yourself for - she offs herself in the nude, so there's another look at her naked body. And the twist ending - that Teng herself had already placed a gong tau on Cheng - only indicated her twisted frame of mind - that if she can't have him, no one else can. The theory is that the gong tau can only be overcome if the person who placed it is still alive. Otherwise, the gong tau will literally eat you alive.

For fans expecting something out of the ordinary from an "over-the-top" filmmaker, three scenes stand out - the bloated baby, Gu Yu removing his head and Cheng burning through Kenny Wong's hand to help free the gangster after he has been handcuffed. After all, what's a little charred flesh when you can't feel any pain? But fans should still keep their copies of Ho Meng-hua's Black Magic and especially The Boxer's Omen if they ever want to retch up that "yuk" moment.

Note: The Gong Tau DVD (Gold Label) is banned in $ingapore.

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November 6, 2007


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