The Boxer’s Omen Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: December 6, 2022 (as part of Shawscope: Volume 2)
Audio: Mandarin and Cantonese DTS-HD Master Audio Mono
Subtitles: English, English SDH
Run Time: 103:35
Director: Kuei Chih-Hung
When his brother is paralyzed by a post-fight sucker punch from Thai boxer Bu-Bo (Bolo Yeung), Hong Kong heavyweight Chan Wing (Phillip Ko) travels to Thailand seeking revenge. After being visited by visions of a Buddhist temple, he discovers that he is the long-lost past-life twin of the temple’s deceased head abbot. There, Chan undergoes rigorous and fantastical training in the divine arts so that he may confront Bu-Bo as well as the black magicians that threaten himself and his newfound Buddhist friends.
As they entered the mid-’70s, Shaw Bros. Studios had to find new ways to fight off growing competition, leading them to combine efforts with the equally-ailing Hammer Studios to co-produce Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (aka: The 7 Brothers Meet Dracula, 1974), directed by Roy Ward Baker & Chang Cheh. It was not a success and a planned sequel was canceled. But the idea of Shaw-branded horror stuck, leading to Ho Meng-Huathe’s Grand Guignol extravaganza, Black Magic (1975) and its sequel, Black Magic 2 (1976). Most of the Shaw horror movies followed the lead set by Ho’s work, focusing on regional folklore and developing increasingly surrealistic visuals. Another key filmmaker in this movement was Kuei Chih-Hung, whose work combined the wild grotesqueries of Black Magic with frenetic action and psychedelia into a heady stew of colorful violence that helped set the stage for the next generation of Hong Kong directors, especially those who worked in horror/action/comedy hybrids.
Kuei trained in Taiwan where he learned filmmaking and animation (helpful here, considering how many effects are hand animated), was mentored by Shaw elder statesman Chang Cheh, and had been working behind the camera at the studio since 1970, when he co-directed Love Song Over the Sea with Kôji Shima. His first decade of output included romantic comedies, contemporary-set thrillers, and Shaw’s first foray into the lucrative women-in-prison genre, The Bamboo House of Dolls (1973). He began developing his horror skills with an HK-flavored version of William Grefé’s Stanley (1972) called The Killer Snakes (1974) – which is amusing, since Stanley was already a rip-off of Daniel Mann’s Willard (1971) – followed by ghost stories Ghost Eyes (1974, pseudo-remade by the Pang Brothers as The Eye in 2002) and Spirit of the Raped (1976), and an episode (The Psycho) in the 1975 anthology Fearful Interlude. But his biggest contributions to the Shaw pantheon were his possession and curse movies, beginning with Hex (1980) and followed by Hex vs. Witchcraft (1980), Bewitched (1981), Hex After Hex (1982), Curse of Evil (1982), and finally, the best one of them all, The Boxer’s Omen (1983).
The Boxer’s Omen is the culmination of the skills Kuei cultivated while retooling his version of the Black Magic formula. It’s comparable to other victory laps, like Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell (2009) or Dario Argento’s Tenebrae (1982), the key difference being that those were returns to formula, whereas The Boxer’s Omen represents the sixth film in a back-to-back series. Unlike other filmmakers that were pigeon-holed into doing the same thing over and over, there were no diminishing returns here. At its feverish heights, The Boxer’s Omen has the relentless energy of Raimi’s Evil Dead (1981), the brilliant technicolor sheen of Argento’s Suspiria (1977), the surrealist horror of Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm (1979), and, of course, all the gross-out magnificence and nutzoid chaos of the Black Magic series. A small sampling of highlights includes: barf-eels, a floating head dripping in prehensile living gore, a sexy mummy brought to life after gestating with maggots inside a (fake) crocodile’s hollowed-out chest cavity, and the same sexy maggot mummy being turned inside out and giving birth to slimy, shrink-wrapped priests. Occasionally, Kuei will pause to celebrate Thai Buddhist culture in a fashion I can only describe as Alejandro Jodorowsky meets tourism bureau promotion. Don’t worry about things like realism and traditional narrative structure, just enjoy the fever dream take on the The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978) formula.
Perhaps knowing he had achieved the greatest art of his career, Kuei only made one more movie as director after The Boxer’s Omen, 1984’s Misfire, then he moved to the US and apparently opened a pizza restaurant. Many of his movies remain unreleased outside of Asia, but, with the help of repertory screenings and DVD releases, he eventually found his cult following. The Boxer’s Omen, in particular, still feels fresh – not contemporary and definitely a product of its era – but utterly unique. Despite waiting nearly two decades to catch on, it undoubtedly helped inspire Hong Kong New Wave horror pioneers Tsui Hark, Ricky Lau, Ching Siu-tung, and Ronny Yu, maybe even Japan’s resident cyberpunk, Shinya Tsukamoto. A must-see. Maybe keep a sick bag handy, though.
Note for animal lovers: The bats and crocodiles are fake, as are the milked snakes and devoured rats (though prior to being milked and eating they are real), but the production was not above slaughtering chickens on screen.
Mondo Macabro: Weird & Wonderful Cinema Around the World by Pete Tombs (St. Martin's Griffin, 1998)
The Boxer’s Omen was never released on North American pre-digital home video. In 2006, Image Entertainment premiered an anamorphic DVD, though it is well out-of-print and running hundreds of dollars on eBay and Amazon. I can’t even find evidence that it was included alongside other Celestial Films’ Shaw Bros. movies on streaming services. This Blu-ray (a shared disc with Wong Jing’s Mercenaries From Hong Kong ) features a brand new 2K restoration made using the original negatives exclusively by Arrow Films. Now, if ever there was a Shaw Bros. movie I want in 4K, it’s this hypercolor monstrosity, but a nice 2K makeover is a good second option. Film grain is a little fuzzy and there are some noisy moments, most occurring when the frame is absolutely blasted by reds and pinks. Aside from that, there’s little of the DNR issues that mar the majority of the Celestial Shaw HD transfers and, in fact, the 2K restoration has brought out more detail than I expected, but the vivid colors, strong shadows, and tidy elemental separation are the real value here.
The Boxer’s Omen is presented with Cantonese and Mandarin audio options, both in uncompressed DTS-HD MAster Audio 1.0. I assume the majority of the movie was shot without sound and all tracks are dubbed. In this case, I highly recommend going with the Cantonese track, since it includes, for the most part, better lip sync (not to mention that the main character is canonically from Hong Kong) and better overall mix. It’s on the muffled side, but the Mandarin track is tinnier and otherwise has a very ‘electronic’ quality. Despite its rich visuals extremes, The Boxer’s Omen is a mostly aurally sparse affair that bursts with sound effects and music during its wildest black magic sequences. Chin Yung Shing and Su Chen-Hou are credited as composers, but library music, including (I believe?) cues from Phantasm, is also used throughout.
Commentary with Travis Crawford – Crawford, a contributor to Film Comment, Fangoria, European Trash Cinema, Eyeball, Asian Trash Cinema, and Shock Cinema, among others, just passed away this past July. This posthumously released track is in line with his other commentaries, albeit a little more distracted by the weird shit happening on screen, including a basic overview of Kuei’s career and careers of other cast & crew members, the film’s release and cult following, the other Shaw and Hong Kong horrors that surrounded it, and Kuei’s genuine interest in depicting Buddhism on film (despite being an avowed atheist), alongside a few rare quotes from the director himself.
Tony Rayns on Kuei Chih-hung (21:02, HD) – The author, critic, and screenwriter discusses Hong Kong’s interest in Thailand as a tourist destination (he confirms that the film’s version of black magic is ridiculously xenophobic), before breaking down the life and career of the director, from his earliest industry work and education in Taiwan and Japan, to important collaborators, and tenure at Shaw Bros. making horror and traditional martial arts movies.
Extended scene and overlay (1:57, HD, technically) – An additional shot from the film’s shower sex scene and brief text overlay taken from a rare Taiwanese VHS tape.
Two Hong Kong theatrical trailers
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.