The Era of Vampires

In Tsui Hark’s 20 years as a director/producer of Hong Kong films there were few genres that he didn’t at some point either kick off or joyfully join the fray – from martial arts to comedy to bullet ballet to fantasy to romance to sci-fi to cannibal films – Tsui has done it all. Or nearly all. One genre that he had never really attempted was that very peculiar, very Hong Kong specific – the hopping vampire or gyonshi film – those lovable dead stiff creatures hopping about in their blue Mandarin finery who try to take a big bite out of you. Though based to some degree on Chinese mythology, many films freely played with the concept and created a whole world of fictional do’s and don’ts when around a hopping vampire.
Tsui left this genre to Sammo Hung and his most famous Taoist priest, Lam Ching-ying to deal with. Beginning with Encounter of the Spooky Kind in 1980, Sammo began exploring this mix of horror, kung fu and comedy and then really set the standard in 1985 with Mr. Vampire. Over the next few years there were many imitations, but few of them had much success and soon this genre was relegated to the “B” film bottom of the barrel – with titles like Vampire’s Breakfast, The Musical Vampire, Doctor Vampire, Vampire Family and Aloha Little Vampire. There are still the occasional forays into the Chinese vampire genre – Vampire Combat and Vampire Controller both in 2001 – but they are usually met with sleepy indifference.
Thus it is rather interesting that in 2002 Tsui Hark finally embarked on a vampire film as producer and writer (leaving the directing duties to Wellson Chin) at perhaps the nadir of his astonishing career. It could easily be argued that Tsui Hark’s last great film was 1995's The Blade. Since then he has had his disastrous foray into the Hollywood brain cell killing machine that seemed in some insidious manner to infect his Hong Kong output as well. Tsui became enthralled with film technology and lost sight of the human aspect that made his previous films so cherished. These recent films were so fast paced that he often left the viewer behind in a cloud of dust and bemusement. I thought that both Time and Tide and Legend of Zu were masterful failures – brilliant in some ways and yet unable to emotionally touch people and both were box office megaton bombs. Afterwards, the rumors began spreading that Tsui could no longer get major financing for his films.
Almost on the sly Tsui went out and made this scruffy little film and released it with a minimum amount of publicity. It was released in Singapore (in partnership with the Cathay Organization) and at least through 2002 it had not even been shown in Hong Kong theaters. While the Legend of Zu cast had a fleet of stars, this one is filled with a roster of generally supporting actors – Michael Chow, Lam Suet, Ken Chang, Chan Kwok Kwan, Yu Ruong Guang and Chi Chuen-hua with only Anya considered an up and coming star among the cast.
The film’s look and mood is very much a throwback to the 1980’s – messy and chaotic low budget fun with a mix of action, comedy, horror and romance. Perhaps Tsui’s choice of Wellson Chin who’s best work was in B films during the 1980’s  (The Inspector Wears Skirts I & II, Ghostly Vixen, Raid on Royal Casino Marine) was in order to achieve this retro look, but it feels very much like a step back for Tsui and certainly will not be a memorable addition to his filmography. It has its charms and a few enjoyable action scenes, but it is all over the place with way too many plot lines and with a set of characters that feel too ensemble without anyone stepping to the forefront or really engendering your interest.
Back in the days of yore, four vampire hunters (Chow, Lam, Chang and Chan) follow their sifu (Chi) into a fight against a supremely powerful vampire in order as the narration solemnly states “to save the human race”. This vampire has a lot more going for him though than the vampires of film yesteryear – he is able to suck the life force out of you, blast fire out of his mouth and move a hell of a lot faster than your everyday-hopping vampire. In a fight, the sifu disappears and the foursome spends the next few months looking for him and for the powerful vampire. They are not a particularly impressive looking bunch of vampire hunters – Chow and Lam Suet look a bit slow and lumpy and Chang and Chan are simply innocuous. Their vampire compass takes them to the mansion of the Jiang’s – the eldest Jiang being Yu Rong Guang. A marriage is taking place between his only son and Anya – but the son dies of a snakebite soon afterwards. A number of other plot threads are introduced – hidden gold, gold thieves, waxed mummified ancestors, some conniving neighbors, an infatuation – and it soon becomes a bit of a jumbled mess. In the end it is the rather enjoyable old-fashioned Hong Kong special effects, bad make-up and a number of martial art fights that make the film more than just passable.
As a reservation, I should fairly note that I saw this on a Singapore VCD (thanks CC!) and that it was fullscreen, very dark in certain night scenes and often tinted in green. I assume the film is not like this (most of these pictures are from Cathay by way of the John Woo/Tsui Hark Action website and they clearly look fine) and this may have effected my viewing experience.

My rating for this film: 6.0