The Dead Return on “The First 7th Night (頭七)” (2009)
The 2009 Hong Kong film The First 7th Night (頭七) — literally “First 7th” — was billed in the U.S. as a horror movie, but it is and it isn’t. It is not a horror film in the Western tradition. Written by Zexin (also known as Yin-Yee Tin) and Herman Yau and directed by Yau, it is a blend of two Hong Kong genres, the triad/gangster and the ghost (or “gwei”). As a result, it is a drama on both the human and supernatural levels.
The title of the movie comes from the Chinese mythological (probably, and more specifically, Taoist) tradition that the spirit of a dead person takes 49 days, or 7 sets of 7 days, to make its journey to the Underworld, where it waits (and often suffers for its wrongdoing during its prior life on Earth) prior to reincarnation. On the night of the end of the first 7 days, the spirit “returns” to its living family members to take care of unfinished business, positive or negative. Sometimes these spirits become lost, so the gods Ox-Head (牛頭) and Horse-Face (馬面) are often sent from the Underworld to act as guides and guardians through the seven weeks of the transition. My wife, who is from Hong Kong, told me that Chinese people often arrange for Taoist monks to say prayers to help the spirit to make its journey without complications.
Set in the present, the movie tells the story of “Map King” (Gordon Lam), a taxi driver who knows how to drive to many remote locations in the areas of China north of Hong Kong’s New Territories. He is hired by “Pony” (Julian Cheung), a delivery van driver, to guide him and his van to a remote village called the Sun and the Moon. Pony wonders how Map King knows about the village, so along the way, Map King tells the story — his version at least — of how he knows about it. Thirty years ago, four thieves, on the run from the police after a robbery, came to the village and holed up in the Chun Lei (Spring Thunder) motel, which was owned by Fang (Michelle Ye). As it was the first 7th night after her husband’s death, she had made the necessary preparations and was waiting at the motel with her young son for the return of her husband’s spirit.
One of the thieves raped Fang, a crime for which he was punished in a gruesomely appropriate way by Fang’s husband’s ghost on its return. This event prompted a shootout among the thieves, which caused a fire that burned down the hotel. It is unknown whether Fang and her son survived the fire.
Pony then reveals that Map King’s version of the story is not correct. He retells the story, casting a different light on Fang and the thief who allegedly raped her. When Pony and Map King arrive at the burned-out hotel, Map King realizes the real reasons why he knows about it and its village.
This film was rated as Category III in the Hong Kong system (which roughly corresponds to the R/NC-17 ratings in the US system) because it contains plenty of gruesome scenes of gore as well as sexual content. However, the story-line’s main concern is with the mysterious nature of the identities of Pony, Map King, and Fang. The solution to this mystery lies in the realm of the supernatural, which Map King ultimately cannot avoid.
The First 7th Night‘s story was filmed and edited in such a way that it will keep the viewer guessing up to its very end. There are many loose ends to be tied up, but the film succeeds in doing so in a satisfying way. Rather than relying on special effects or CGI, director Lam chose to focus on the rising drama among the major characters. The acting is good — for example, gorehounds will appreciate the transformation of Fang’s character from Map King’s telling of her story to Pony’s. Those who are used to the SFX makeup and visual and audio special effects of American horror movies, however, will be disappointed.