feat

Vampire vs. Vampire

Hong Kong stuntman-turned-star Lam Ching-Ying made a whole slew of vampire comedies following the success of his turn in 1985’s Mr. Vampire, and Vampire vs. Vampire is inarguably one of them. Coming on the heels of two official Mr. Vampire sequels, the film stands out for a couple of reasons, not the least being that it marks Lam’s debut as a director. But, to me, the most interesting aspect of Vampire vs. Vampire is the fact that it pits Lam’s character against a Dracula-like, Western style vampire — rather than the jiang shi, or hopping vampires, seen in the previous entries — and in doing so sets some choice gothic elements against the series’ familiar backdrop of Chinese folk magic.

Lam essentially plays the same Taoist priest character here that he does in the Mr. Vampire films — in this case simply referred to as “One Eyebrow Priest” — and, as there, is accompanied by a couple of bumbling disciples, Ho (Chin Siu-Ho, reprising his fundamentally identical role in Mr. Vampire) and Fong (Lui Fong, of New Mr. Vampire and Mr. Vampire 3). If possible, these two are even more inept than their counterparts in the original Mr. Vampire, making a disaster of absolutely every task they’re charged with. They are also responsible for the lion’s share of the film’s piss and fart jokes, an element that seems to have become a linchpin of the genre somewhere between the outset of the Taiwanese Hello Dracula films and now. Another such staple is the inclusion of an adorable little kid jiang shi among the film’s central team, here played by Lam Jing-Wang, whose character speaks in an indecipherable, synthesized chirp and whose every hop is accompanied by a comical “BOINGGG” sound effect.

Of course, it is the chaotic haplessness of the One Eyebrow Priest’s sidekicks that provides a spotlighting contrast to his own stoic competency — and, indeed, the opportunity for it, for without their agency it seems that most of the spiritual threats the priest is charged with containing would remain safely put. Given Lam’s mastery as a physical performer (a mastery that made him a valued associate of both Bruce Lee and Sammo Hung), it’s interesting that the character with whom he’d become most widely identified would be one whose power derives primarily from knowledge. As presented in these films, the primary function of the Taoist priest is that of a mental repository for all of the arcane rituals and texts necessary to keeping at bay the supernatural evils so prevalent in their fictional worlds. In illustrating this, Vampire vs. Vampire takes to the task of laying out the particulars of these elaborate rites with all the enthusiasm of a gourmet cooking show. This makes it all the more striking when our hero finds himself facing a villain against whom this vast store of specialist knowledge proves useless, forcing him to improvise and, ultimately, fall back upon his skills as a fighter.

The story proper of Vampire vs. Vampire begins with Lam’s priest using his knowledge of Feng Shui to advise his village’s elders on where to commence the digging of a new well. This leads to the discovery that a nearby stream has been contaminated by the bodies of a large number of dead bats. A search for the source of the bat infestation follows, leading the Priest and local officials to a ruined Catholic mission that is in the process of being rebuilt by a group of young nuns and their Mother Superior. During a search of the church, Lam and the Mother Superior discover a hidden room in which they find the skeletal remains of a priest, one of the Mission’s founders, amid evidence of a catastrophic battle between good and evil. The Mother Superior tells Lam that this priest was one of two that came to the mission ten years previous, and speculates that the other, missing priest may have succumbed to the assaultive evil spirits and become possessed.

The Mother Superior here is played by the Macao Born, half-Portuguese/half-Chinese performer Maria Cordero. Cordero is primarily famous as a singer, known to Chinese audiences for her brassy stage persona and Western-style, R&B inflected vocal delivery, but she has also acted in a wide range of Hong Kong films. Here much comedy is mined from her physical heft (Cordero, who has in more recent years hosted a cable cooking show, has come to be affectionately known by her fans as “Fat Mama Maria”), but, to Cordero’s credit, what one ultimately takes away from her performance is the fierceness and resourcefulness that her character brings to both the strenuous task of rebuilding the mission and to the protection of her young charges. Cordero also takes part in a number of exchanges with Lam that underscore the alien-ness with which each regards the other’s faith, Lam even saying to her at one point that the two don’t speak the same spiritual language. Nonetheless — and despite the film enlisting Cordero’s character in a couple of satirical potshots at Christian practice — the two are presented as a quirky and appealing heroic duo, allied on equal footing regardless of their differences.

Anyway, with the mystery of the bat infestation still an open question, Lam returns to the more pressing issue of determining the site of the well, and soon designates a spot at which digging is then planned to commence the next day. In the course of the night, however, a flock of bats descends upon the marker and moves it, with the result that, when the crew does start digging, they unearth the leering corpse of the missing priest, a ruby encrusted crucifix driven through his chest — an event made even more deliciously ominous by the raised body being silhouetted against a suddenly darkening sky amid a flurry of animated lightning.

A worried Lam advises that the priest’s corpse should be burned as quickly as possible. But Vampire vs. Vampire would not be a worthy heir of the Mr. Vampire franchise without the inclusion of a comically pompous police captain among its cast of characters, and in this case that captain (Billy Lau Nam-Kwong, also reprising nearly identical roles in previous Mr. Vampire films) is determined to prize the bejeweled cross from the body for his own personal enrichment. Aided by his cousin (Sandra Ng Kwun-Yu), with whom he has a somewhat queasy-making romantic relationship, the Captain substitutes a statue for the body when it comes time for putting it on the pyre and sets to work on removing the cross from the genuine article. Of course, once this is accomplished, it only succeeds in resurrecting the rotting cadaver, which quickly sprouts fangs and makes short work of Sandra Ng. Thus rejuvenated, the beast then assumes the form of a snarling feral vampire who looks like a cross between the Hammer version of Dracula and a young Nick Cave.

It should go without saying that my above attempts at summary would be revealed as misleadingly focused and linear if one were to compare them to the narrative flow of the actual Vampire vs. Vampire, which exhibits all of the digressive and episodic qualities typical of its subgenre. Such a film must establish, after all, its occurrence within a world in which the supernatural is both commonplace and a part of the work-a-day routine of its protagonists. Also requisite are a sufficiently generous number of juvenile comedic set pieces. Toward the first end, Vampire vs. Vampire includes, interspersed throughout its central story, sequences in which Lam and his crew come up against a toothy blob of spectral ooze, a forest of possessed palm trees, and the ghost of a murdered prostitute who in turn possesses both Ho and Fong. All of these provide the opportunity for a welcome abundance of fun and effective practical and animated effects, with probably the most visually stirring sequence being one in which Lam implements a spiritually-infused hot air balloon in a dream-like nocturnal search for the missing body of the dead prostitute. Toward the second end, there are too many instances of raucous low comedy to mention, with probably the most amusing of those being the one in which a vampire-ized Sandra Ng is put off biting Billy Lau by a repulsive boil on his neck.

Despite these various narrative detours, Lam, as director, does an admirable job of ratcheting up a tense and foreboding atmosphere in the build-up to the film’s reveal of its central threat — even if one must struggle to divine that build-up amidst manic pacing that’s less the fault of Lam than it is of the generic standards of 1980s Hong Kong action cinema. Regardless, once that threat hits the stage, Vampire vs. Vampire snaps tightly into focus, providing for a final act that is both gripping and propulsive. To wit, it is not long before Lam’s Priest realizes that all of the spells and talismans central to his practice are completely ineffective against this new, foreign breed of vampire — and the initial panic and dismay that the formerly unflappable holy man exhibits in the face of that realization is truly jarring.

Adding to the problem is the fact that this vampire, in addition to being impervious to Taoist magic, is also seemingly imbued with Hulk strength, capable of both breaking through stone walls and tossing the Priest and his men around like rag dolls. In response, Lam and his crew adopt an improvised strategy that is as much fight as flight, initially involving a lot of running away, but ultimately coalescing when Lam determines that, if he can’t defeat Dracula with little strips of scripture imprinted paper, he will simply have to beat the living shit out of him. This, in keeping with the series, is accomplished in a number of imaginatively staged fight sequences, in this case choreographed by Lee Chi-Git and Stephen Tung Wai, who were recruited, one might guess, to free up the usually more hands-on Lam so that he could focus on his directing chores.

The enduring appeal of Lam Ching-Ying’s Taoist priest is not hard to understand;  he’s an extremely likable hero. His character is refreshingly free of all of the tiresome signifiers of badassery so prevalent in today’s cinematic action heroes. Instead, he’s just a humble guy who happens to be very good at his job for the simple reason that, well, you’re supposed to be very good at your job. This aptitude does not render him immune to moments of unflattering pomposity or occasional comic humiliation, nor does it render him superhuman in any emotional sense. This is not a character that you will see walking unflinchingly away from a massive explosion; he will instead frantically run for cover from said explosion because that is the sensible thing to do, and then, once composed, return dutifully to the business at hand. All of the above makes him a protagonist that is, despite how phantasmagorical his context may be, very easy to both identify with and root for. Modern action filmmakers should be reminded of this — and watch this film, as well as some of those Jackie Chan movies that are actually good, to spur their memory.

These aforementioned qualities of Lam’s character also make it all the more affecting when, in Vampire vs. Vampire, we see him so clearly outmatched and out of his depth. Despite the comical hijinks surrounding them, Lam’s fight scenes here have a real sense of peril, of there being something really at stake for him – and, as such, a frantic desperation borne of more than Hong Kong cinema’s typical practice of giving fights a pace that is frantic simply for the sake of being frantic. It’s a tribute to Lam as both a performer and director that his film can weather the number of sharp tonal about-faces it pulls during its running time, such as when a fight between Lam’s crew and the vampire, staged on a dilapidated suspension bridge above a yawning ravine, abruptly shifts from slapstick into pure nail-biting territory.

Still, even for those amenable to the peculiarities of Hong Kong horror comedies, Vampire vs. Vampire is not without its flaws. It boasts a farty synthesizer score that is oftentimes more appropriate to an arcade. And tolerance may vary when it comes to Lam Jing-Wang’s aggressively cute Little Vampire character — though, personally, I have to admit I was charmed by the precocious talent for physical comedy displayed by the kid in what was an entirely wordless performance. Also, many might find the performance by the Random-White-Guy-Playing-Dracula to be too cartoonishly over the top.

For my part, though, I think there is enough that is wonderful about Vampire vs. Vampire to merit overlooking those shortcomings. As an added bonus, I also think that the previously disappointed will find it delivers better on the East-meets-West vampire action than an at-first-blush more promising seeming title like Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires — which for many is a redress long in coming. Either way, I think you would have to be a soulless member of the undead to flat out hate this movie, and, thanks to its example, I now know about a million ways to defeat you if you are.

Release Year: 1989 | Country: Hong Kong | Starring: Lam Ching-Ying, Chin Siu-Ho, Lui Fong, Sandra Ng Kwun-Yu, Billy Lau Nam-Kwong, Maria Cordero, Lam Jing-Wang, Yip So, Faat Laan Cho Chiu Shut, Tiffany Lau Yuk-Ting | Screenplay: Shut Mei-Yee, Chan Ka-Cheong | Director: Lam Ching-Ying | Cinematography: Cho On-Sun, Kwan Chi-Kan | Producer: Chua Lam