Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Trail (Jui gwai chat hung) (1983)

Michael Hui produced and co-wrote The Trail (Jui gwai chat hung) (1983) with director Ronny Yu. The Trail is a film with three strong elements: adventure, comedy, and horror; and the film is also an offhanded morality tale, which is pretty cool, too.
Set in 1922 in the Xiangxi province in China, Kent Cheng plays a Taoist priest who, along with his assistant, played by Ricky Hui, is leading a group of corpses to their burial grounds. (All gweilo who are versed in Hong Kong horror cinema are familiar with the image of the Taoist priest leading a group of corpses. These corpses' main mode of locomotion is "hopping." They are under the control of the Taoist priest who rings a bell to lead them and uses charms/talismans to control them.) This is, however, a front. Cheng, as the Captain, is actually leading a group of opium smugglers. Those corpses are Cheng and Hui's comrades, played by genre stalwarts such as Chung Fat (who also serves as co-stunt coordinator) and Anthony Chan, for example. They move from town to town within the province, not collecting corpses and performing religious rites but moving product. The crew makes a stop in a small town which is controlled economically by a lecherous and iron-fisted businessman, played by Miu Tin. He lusts after the town's pretty singer (Tsui Siu Ling). Miu Tin's character kills the singer's husband in order to have sex with her. For a large sum of money, Miu Tin gives the husband's corpse to Cheng and Hui, to lead out of town, away from prying eyes...
After a skirmish with some bandits, while en route to another town, Cheng, Hui and crew lose the corpse in a pit of quicksand. "Oh, well" is the consensus of the group. At a layover at an inn, later that evening, one of the crew is killed. The perpetrator is the corpse of the singer's husband, back from the grave for revenge.
Nothing about The Trail is over-the-top. It's a rare film, because it's energetic in its pacing yet low-key in its humor and tone. When Cheng, Hui and crew realize that the corpse is reeking havoc near the local village, they decide to subdue the creature (with Taoist magic and good old-fashioned ingenuity). Yu presents two fantastic episodes, one in an abandoned and ruined temple and the other in some ancient catacombs. The set design, by the way, is superb. Yu, one of the best visual directors currently working today, establishes the temple as an ominous and eerie location with a single composition. Within the temple, he uses shadows and off-kilter compositions to show the monster. Intuitively, one would think that the production is hiding poor special effects with such camera work, but Yu's style appears organic and artistic. Likewise, the jokes are subtle but by no means are the jokes small: nearly every punch line is dangerously close to a character's death.
The primary reason that Cheng, Hui and crew decide to subdue the walking corpse is not because it's the right thing to do (like preventing more deaths) but rather because the walking corpse will hurt their credibility. If word gets out that they lost a corpse, then they will become suspect and their smuggling operation will cease. As The Trail progresses, the seemingly small task of leading a corpse to burial becomes monumentally and drastically hazardous. By no means is The Trail didactic (the talent involved is too good), but by the end of the film, it's quite obvious that exploiting the spiritual world for material gain is a losing proposition.
The Trail (Jui gwai chat hung) (1983) is a fantastic film for fans of any of the participants or for fans of old school and really cool Hong Kong cinema.


Richard of DM said...

Hey! Glad to see you're back, duder. I need to see this film!

Hans A. said...

Kewl. Thanks for stopping by, Richard!