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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. And then, of course, there are the hopping vampires. And if you are a Westerner who is not well versed in Chinese folk tradition, yet who still knows what a hopping vampire is, chances are good that you at least in part owe that knowledge to Mr. Vampire. Granted, these creatures of legend owe some of the novelty they hold for the non-Chinese born to the fact that the term “Vampire”, in their case, is a bit of a misnomer. Their Chinese name, jiang shi, actually translates as something like “stiff corpse”, and while there is much about them that renders them unique within the realm of supernatural beasties, as representatives of the walking dead they fall a lot closer on the scale to the modern conception of zombies than they do to traditional vampires.
The jiang shi hopped its way through Chinese folklore for a good few centuries before crashing its way into popular culture at the dawn of the 80s. This breakthrough occurred largely due to the efforts of Sammo Hung, a man who, though his contributions to HK cinema have been much lauded, may not quite have received the attention he deserves for his role in the development of the kung fu horror comedy genre. Encounters of the Spooky Kind, which Hung co-wrote, directed, choreographed and starred in, was a big hit at the HK box office and inspired a host of imitators — all of them pitting their hapless protagonists against a retinue of hopping vampires, ghosts and evil priests just like Encounters did. As a result, someone like myself, who is helplessly enamored with movies like Kung Fu From Beyond the Grave and Kung Fu Zombie, can only feel slavish gratitude to Hung for his part in making 1980s Hong Kong cinema as awesome as it was. And to seal the deal, in 1985 he produced Mr. Vampire, another massive hit that inspired a long string of sequels and knock-offs, in the process cementing the place of the jiang shi in popular culture worldwide.
Some of the Taoist priest’s most important duties involve the handling of the newly dead, and this because the stakes of doing so improperly are so high. An improper burial –- perhaps resulting, for instance, from an insufficient amount of attention paid to feng shui –- can in fact result in the disgruntled spirit of the departed hanging around to make trouble for the living, either as a ghost or in the form of the stiff-limbed, hopping jiang shi. When this occurs, it is also the priest’s job to sort the whole mess out, calling on his knowledge of the particular “rules” governing the behavior and maintenance of these creatures to accomplish it. These include things like the ability to incapacitate the jiang shi by affixing a talisman to its forehead, or to repel it via the employment of sticky rice.
Such is the task of Mr. Vampire’s Master Kau, who, as we see in the film’s opening scene, presides over a mortuary that is not only well stocked with coffins housing the freshly deceased, but also plays host to nearly a dozen temporarily immobilized zombies. This immobilization is accomplished by way of the aforementioned talismans, narrow strips of inscribed parchment that, while effective, have the tendency to dislodge themselves at the slightest breeze or movement. This, combined with the various other rites and practices that must be observed in order to keep the dead content and properly in their place, means that the mortuary and its inhabitants must be kept under constant vigilance. For this purpose, Kau has in his employ a couple of incompetent young disciples –- a comedic device that would become de rigueur in virtually every subsequent film inspired or spun off from Mr. Vampire.
In this case, the sage Master’s bumbling toadies are comprised of Man Chor (Ricky Hui Koon-Ying), a classic bowl haircut wearing goofball, and the more pleasing to the eye but no less hapless Chou (Chin Siu-Ho). In the opening scene, Man Chor and Chou lose control of the situation in spectacular fashion, in the process giving us a vivid demonstration of Mr. Vampire’s particular style of comedy. The jiang shi, while indeed stiff, are also quite fast, which makes the task of re-affixing a dislodged talisman to one of them one that requires a good deal of speed and agility. (Once that’s accomplished, however, they can be thrown over a shoulder like so much fire wood.) As such, the sight of Man Chor and Chou frantically trying to accomplish this with several hungry zombies who are, at the same time, viciously trying to attack them is indeed a slapstick spectacle. However, it is also, as one would expect in a film produced by Sammo Hung, a display of intricate and ingeniously conceived martial arts choreography. This madcap, physical aspect to Mr. Vampire’s comedy may make it an acquired taste, but I have to say that, as someone who is no fan of slapstick, I was won over by the cleverness and craft on display.
Another winning aspect of Mr. Vampire’s comedy is how, despite it occurring within a horror context, it is rarely particularly dark or mean spirited, and rather often downright sweet and good natured. I think that some of that is a function of the world the film presents — not necessarily a mortal world suffering an isolated incursion by the otherworldly, as is so often presented in Western horror films, but rather a world enlivened by all manner of supernatural possibility, in which mortals are reduced to being little more than hapless interlopers. It is, in fact, the very everyday-ness of the extraordinary in this setting that gives Master Kao and his helpers the demeanor less of fearless vampire killers than of plumbers or TV repairmen. Thus the jiang shi are not the only manifestation of the fantastic on display. Elsewhere, spells are cast and amorous ghosts make their presence known, energizing the film with an appealing sense of mystery and wonder. All in all, it gives Mr. Vampire an irresistible likeability that, while you may not be in stitches throughout, at least makes you appreciate the good time it’s having while you’re watching.
Anyway, the chaos of Mr. Vampire’s opening sequence is finally brought under control when Master Kau himself shows up on the scene, making quick work of the errant zombies and doling out well deserved slaps upside the head to his error-prone cronies. Master Kau is played by Lam Ching-Ying, a member of Sammo Hung’s stunt team whose performance here would turn out to be a star-making turn, insuring his presence in Mr. Vampire’s myriad sequels, as well as in a good number of lookalike roles inspired by the film’s success. Lam’s Master Kau is a tremendously appealing character, exhibiting the gruff authority one would expect from a master of Taoist magic such as himself, while at the same time displaying a humanizing fallibility. This latter is effectively demonstrated during a scene in a fancy English tea house, in which Kau, anxious to impress a wealthy client, fumbles in his attempts to approximate high-toned Western table manners. We realize here that Kau, while an unquestioned master within the walls of his mortuary, when taken outside of his comfort zone is as much of a bumpkin as his two disciples, and we root for him all the more because of it.
A physical performer of formidable skill, Lam Ching-Ying was also an action choreographer on Mr. Vampire, along with Sammo Hung associate and former Shaw Brother mainstay Yuen Wah, who also plays a key onscreen role in the film. That role comes into play after Kao is employed by the wealthy Mr. Yam (Huang Ha) to oversee the reburial of his late father. It seems that Yam was tricked by an unscrupulous fortune teller into burying his father under inauspicious circumstances, and that his family has subsequently suffered unfavorable luck as a result. Once the body has been exhumed, Kao, fearing that the damage has already been done, recommends that it be burned on the spot. When Yam refuses, the coffin is instead taken back to the mortuary, where later, just as Kao had feared, Yam Senior — played by Yuen in horrific zombie make-up — emerges from it as a murderous, super strong jiang shi.
Thanks, once again, to the inattention of Man Chor and Chou, Yam Senior escapes from the mortuary and kills Yam Jr. Master Kau is arrested for this crime by Wai (Billy Lay Nam-Kwong), a pompous and ineffectual police captain who is both Yam’s nephew and a rival with Chou for the affections of Yam’s pretty daughter Ting Ting, played by future “Girls With Guns” mainstay Moon Lee. Of course, it is only a matter of Yam Jr. also rising as a chi-thirsting member of the undead for Kau to be exonerated –- the occasion for which, occurring as Kau’s two minions frantically try to free him from his cell while at the same time fending off both the beast and Wai, makes for yet another of many bits of complexly staged action hysterics.
Alongside this ghoulishly zany main story, Mr. Vampire also introduces a side narrative involving a beautiful female ghost (Pauline Wong Siu-Fung) who bewitches young Chou. This story, despite a somewhat antic denouement, has a distinctly different tone from the other supernatural goings on in Mr. Vampire, marked by an eerie languor and haunted romanticism that stands in stark contrast to the raucous “boo” moments provided by the so-called hopping vampires — who, though as ridiculous as they sound, are also imbued with a kind of gleeful, EC Comics style creepiness. With these scenes, Mr. Vampire shows that its influence extended not only to the many jiang shi films that followed in its wake, but also to more lyrical forays into China’s spook-ridden folklore like A Chinese Ghost Story.
So what can I say? Mr. Vampire is, without question, a classic of Hong Kong cinema. However, while enjoyable on its own merits, it was also responsible for the creation of quite a few lesser films — some of its official sequels among them — that are also quite enjoyable on their own, second, third, or even fourth rate terms. Hell, I even like those Hello, Dracula movies with the little kid vampire who farts and pees on people. If you’re a fan of weird-ass Hong Kong movies, and have benefited from the whirlwind of kung fu craziness that Mr. Vampire reaped, then you owe it to yourself to see it if you haven’t already.