My introduction to Hong Kong cinema came in the form of a crash course between the years of 1991 and 1993, when I began to discover and voraciously devour a seemingly endless parade of mind-blowing films made in the past decade. Finding the movies was hard. Finding information on them was even harder, but there was an explosion in the popularity of these films among cult film fans in the United States around that time, so though it took some leg work, we soon found that we were not alone. Together, then, we stumbled through the dark, trading tapes, raiding Chinese grocery stores that stocked videos, writing reviews for one another, publishing fanzines, and doing our best to spread, pre-internet style, every scrap of information we were able to dig up on these amazing movies. In the course of two weeks (maybe less), I think a few friends and I huddled around my massive 10-inch screen TV and watched A Better Tomorrow, The Killer, Swordsman, Zu, Once Upon a Time in China, and A Chinese Ghost Story. We sat there another week and just drooled. Though I love each of those movies, there was something about the elegance, beauty, and melancholy of A Chinese Ghost Story that made it stick out as my favorite of the time. Decades later, it’s still one of my absolute favorite movies.
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.
Old Hong Kong movies use the presence of a Taoist priest as a license to print crazy, despite the real world practice of Taoism’s emphasis on quiet contemplation and equilibrium with nature. As these filmmakers would have it, that age old philosophical tradition is all about people shooting cartoon lightning bolts out of their hands, repelling one another with weapon strength, supersonic laughter and, of course, watermelon monsters. In short, exactly the type of religion that might get me to turn my back on my secular ways once and for all.
Japan’s occasional flirtations with an interest in vampires are, like most things having to do with Japan and Western pop culture, a bizarre mix of revulsion and fascination with the foreign — a dichotomy that is almost certainly (in my eyes) born of the interests of the young simply not lining up with the prejudice of the old (something that is not unique to Japan, or to any culture). One portion of the Japanese population can import and read home-grown vampire fiction as cautionary tales about the corrupting influence of the foreign on Japan, while another portion of the population can read those same tales and simply walk away having enjoyed a fun horror story about strange creatures. The presentation of vampires as symbols for the threat of and infection by the foreign is hardly a uniquely Japanese trait. The very foundation of modern pop culture vampire lore, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, is basically a cautionary tale about swarthy Eastern Europeans with weird customs coming to the “more enlightened” west of Europe and Britain to mess things up and steal women.
As a kid, I was a sporadic comic book reader at best, thanks mostly to growing up pretty far from just about anywhere. Within biking distance, as long as I didn’t tell my parents I was riding that far, was a Convenient food mart where my friends and I could exchange our hard earned chore money for the currency of American youth — baseball cards, squirt guns, superballs, and on occasion a comic book. As a monster kid who grew up staying up late and watching the classics on “Memories of Monsters” and the sometimes less-than-classics on WDRB’s “Fright Night” featuring The Fearmonger, my favorite comics weren’t the superhero fare upon which the industry was built. Instead, I always favored the monster comics like Marvel’s Frankenstein and Werewolf By Night. The closest I would come to superheroes was Dr. Strange, who occasionally tooled around in a dune buggy with a green bodybuilder in purple pants, a naked silver guy, and an elf in Speed-O’s. Easily my favorite comic above all others, though, was Tomb of Dracula.
Samurai films have a curious knack for expressing compassionate, humanist ideals via soul-crushing bleakness and violence. One would be hard-pressed to find a bleaker, more violent indictment of the romance of the samurai — and the culture of violence in general — than director Tai Kato’s blood-drenched and aptly named Brutal Story at the End of the Tokugawa Shogunate. This is samurai drama stripped entirely of any pretense, robbed of the myth of the noble samurai code, and devoid entirely of any sense of heroism. In the eyes of this film, the samurai of the historic Shinsengumi clan are brutish exploiters and backstabbers at best, and murderous, paranoid psychopaths at their worst. The Shinsengumi were an actual group of samurai, charged with keeping the peace in Kyoto and defending the Tokugawa Shogunate from threats both foreign and domestic — this being the period in which Japan had finally been pried open to contact with the Western world. In popular Japanese culture, the Shinsengumi have been portrayed as everything from heroic defenders of the Japanese heart to thuggish throwbacks mercilessly defending their own power at the expense of progress. Brutal Story at the End of the Tokugawa Shogunate is a particularly harsh look at them and at the entire concept of samurai.
Researching the history of Japanese yokai in cinema is a difficult task. At least, it’s a difficult task if, like me, you don’t read Japanese and are kind of lazy. Almost all of the English language writing about movies involving these bizarre and multitudinous creatures from Japanese folklore focuses on the three loosely related yokai movies released by Daei in the late 1960s — Spook Warfare, 100 Ghosts, and Along with Ghosts — or on Takashi Miike’s more recent take on those old movies, Great Yokai War. A few people will talk about the history of yokai in popular Japanese culture and the role Shigeru Mizuki and his manga series, GeGeGe no Kitaro, played in turning this bizarre assembly of ghosts, demons, monsters, and goblins into pop culture icons. But beyond that, the field of cinematic yokai studies is largely empty even though, as Ghost Stories of Wanderer at Honjo illustrates, someone was out there making yokai movies even before Mizuki published his comic book.
I am breaking little new ground when I point out that the original 1954 film Godzilla was a serious sci-fi horror film that is taken seriously by serious critics (seriously!), even the more annoying ones who usually refuse to give genre films the time of day. Few people would argue that it was a cinematic milestone, that it was to the crossover scifi/horror film what Citizen Kane was to movies about grumpy newspaper moguls and what Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was to the road trip film. Whatever the franchise may have become, Godzilla’s contribution to film history was as big as the monster itself, and not even Michael Medved will argue that one. Or maybe he will. I don’t really know him personally, so I can’t account for him.
Austrian writer and director Rudolf Zehetgruber had two shots at the Kommissar X franchise, and Death is Nimble, Death is Quick, the second entry in the seven film Eurospy series, was the first of them. It’s a commendable, if not especially controversial effort on his part, although, thanks to a particular directorial quirk it revealed, it has resulted in me becoming damn near obsessed with the man. In my review of Death Trip, the fourth Kommissar X film, I described how Zehetgruber, the director and writer, inserted himself – i.e., Zehetgruber the actor — into the action, casting himself as a sort of all-purpose deus ex machina who single-handedly bridged an impressive array of narrative gaps and plot holes.
For me, one of the hazards of watching one of the Kommissar X movies is that it means I’ll have that “I Love You, Jo Walker” song stuck in my head for the next two weeks and will be at constant risk of bursting into it at any given moment, which is actually more of a hazard to those around me than it is to myself. Personally, I don’t care if the world knows that I love Jo Walker (though my wife might have some questions about it). Given that he’s a character with all the depth of a walking Playboy cartoon, it’s actually surprising how lovable he can become with repeated exposure. Death Trip, the fourth entry in the Kommissar X series, is also quite lovable, though only once you get past the expectations that it raises and learn to love it for who it really is.