Monday, August 2, 2021

Census Bloodbath: In The Village, The Peaceful Village

Year: 1983
Director: Ching Wong
Cast: Hon Chi Lai, Pui-Chi Law, Hsi Chang
Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

Whenever we get this deep into a particular year of Census Bloodbath, things begin to get a little... obscure. You don't want to know what harrowing corners of the internet I had to hack through with a machete to find today's offering, the forgotten Hong Kong slasher Sketch, also known as Xue zhong xue. This review is going to be structured a little differently because, other than the poster, there are no images from this film available online. So get ready for a big block of text! Multimedia be damned! 

Also, the actors in the film are listed on IMDb, but there are no character listings so I don't know who played who. I was lucky enough to get a subtitled copy of the movie, so I at least have the character names, but I will unfortunately be unable to provide any proper credits.

Anyway, on with the show! Hong Kong actually provided quite a few entries in the slasher movement, typically categorized as "Hong Kong giallo," a title that would certainly apply to the previous year's He Lives by Night, which is more inspired by the works of Dario Argento than the American slasher cycle. Hong Kong had already pumped out a couple entries by 1983 (including Devil Returns, another 1982 film that I didn't originally have access to, and will be circling back around on), so Sketch isn't breaking any new ground. Plus, the plot would be familiar to anyone who has watched any horror film released since about 1961.

Inspector Chin has just moved to a smallish village with his wife Jun. It is implied that either they have lost a child and Chin has just gotten over it sooner, or Jun is generally super-hysterical-lady-crazy from having a uterus and whatnot. Anyway, his first case begins immediately as a series of rapes and murders rocks the community. He and his partner Sgt. Chung Ng investigate, narrowing the suspect list to the two local perverts Snake and Squirt.

However, the killer continues to evade their grasp, and a gang of hooligan teens led by Seng and his overzealous junior enforcer Pig Head terrorize Jun, making the fact that she's also being terrorized by the killer, who she suspects is local psychiatrist Dr. Lin Chin Wei.

At first I was eager to see where this movie would take me, thinking it might go the "women's picture" route that was so common in 1982, much like the delightful Taiwanese slasher Exposed to Danger. Unfortunately, Sketch makes it immediately clear that it has no intention of centering women. The first couple victims are women we meet in the same scene that they are killed, one of whom doesn't even get a name. And even though Jun's psychology is the most interesting to explore, she is pretty much a tertiary character. Indeed, the big third act moment where her survival is in question doesn't even play out onscreen.

No, Sketch thinks we want to spend more time with the cavalcade of terrible men that populate this town. For one thing, Seng's gang gets a dizzying amount of screen time (Pig Head gets an entire character arc - more than Jun!). Their antics are probably meant to be comic relief, but it's hard to get on board with a group of young men who terrorize women in grocery stores, throw a firecracker into the mouth of a parade dragon dancer, and smash all the windows of the inspector's house because they don't like that he got mad when they tried to steal his car. Their antics are shrill and irritating, and they come flooding into your eyes and ears in pretty much every other scene of the movie.

It's a shame they whiff so hard on the characters, because the movie is actually constructed quite well. Well, maybe not the whodunit itself (which does have a twist ending reveal, but doesn't have the energy to make any of the red herrings actually believable), but the filmmaking technique is above reproach. It's not particularly unique or energetic, but it does deliver a healthy dose of atmosphere. The first and final kills in the main body count portion of the movie are zippily edited and pumped full of startling imagery, like a face being jammed into a chickenwire fence or a woman's scream cutting directly to the open mouth of a singer at the party outside, the thing distracting all the people who could otherwise be saving her.

Sketch is certainly always doing something, it's just that those things are only ever rarely serving the whodunit slasher it's trying to be. It's too distracted sketching out the lives of male villagers who don't drive the plot to do anything particularly compelling with its generic premise. It's not a movie I'd call actually "bad," but it certainly wasn't worth scouring the backrooms of cinema history to find it.

Killer: Chi Ken
Final Girl: Jun, I guess, but really Inspector Chin is the only one the movie cares about
Best Kill: The killer goes on a rampage in a surgery room during the film's extended outro and slashes a nurse with a scalpel in the most outright slasher gore moment of the film.
Sign of the Times: Squirt has a cassette tape that is just a lady making sex noises over light jazz.
Scariest Moment: The killer bursts out of the water in front of a woman who is feeding the fish.
Weirdest Moment: Seng draws glasses and a giant smile on his girlfriend's face with lipstick.
Champion Dialogue: "Always last to arrive. Is it true you have bad kidneys?"
Body Count: 8
    1. Dovey is killed offscreen.
    2. Fish Lady is drowned.
    3. Ah Ying is slashed.
    4. Seng is beaten to death.
    5. Dr. Lin is shot.
    6. Nurse is slashed with a scalpel.
    7. Nurse #2 is stabbed with a scalpel.
    8. Chi Ken is shot.
TL;DR: Sketch is a perfectly competent Hong Kong slasher, but its herd of annoying characters are certainly to its detriment.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1016

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