GORE IN THE STORE
MR VAMPIRE ****
Directed by Ricky Lau.
Starring Lam Ching-Ying, Chin Siu-Ho, Ricky Hui, Moon Lee.
Horror/comedy, Hong Kong, cert 15.
Released on Blu-ray on July 20th from Eureka Entertainment.
One of the great pleasures in the last few years for collectors of physical media and genre fans in the U.K. is the ever-expanding collection of Hong Kong releases from the golden age of its action cinema. Recently Eureka Entertainment has made a splash with their releases of several gems featuring such greats as Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung. Following their recent release of Tsui Hark’s Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain they once again delve into Hong Kong’s rich history of folklore with the supernatural hopping shenanigans of the undead in the influential Mr Vampire.
Sammo Hung produced and brought the film to realisation by placing his former director of photography Ricky Lau in the directors’ chair. Hung also insisted that the leading man duties go to Lam Ching-ying, his defining role with four sequels until his untimely death in 1997.
Master Kau has a lot to deal with in this first instalment which stormed the box office in 1985. When the exhumation of a corpse for reburial unleashes a jiangshi, Kau and his two bumbling servants Chou Sheng and Man Choi, played by Chin Siu-Ho and Ricky Hui respectively, find themselves in an increasingly absurd plot. Chou Sheng finds himself falling prey to the vampire while Man grabs the attention of a seductive ghost. It is a plot that is packed with incident and detail, and many of those details may prove puzzling to first-time viewers.
Set at an unspecified point in the early days of the twentieth century this is a Hong Kong tale where signs of colonialism sit alongside supernatural rituals that are taken as a matter of fact. Right at the films beginning, we are treated to a line of upright corpses, pale faces covered with notes scribbled in chicken blood caught in a state between life and death, waiting to be led off, hopping, to their final resting places. No explanation is provided, which for the literally minded amongst us, may prove baffling for those looking for reasons as to why the supernatural is taking place. Mr Vampire plunges headlong into its Chinese folklore, making no concessions to the Western audience who nonetheless embraced it. Swords made from coins, charged by moonbeams captured through eight-sided mirrors are used against spiky-haired disembodied ghost heads while glutinous rice is used as an effective deterrence against the effects of vampirism. These are just some of the enchantments on display here that leave the viewer with the choice of trying to figure it all out or to sit back and enjoy the ride.
Less appealing is the films streak of basic slapstick that also runs throughout. There is a cultural context that has failed to translate, but the sight of a man in a gorilla suit at one point leads one to wonder if such a view is funny in any country. Moon Lee, as the jiangshi’s granddaughter, does little more here than provide a potential love interest for Chou Sheng and Man Choi to argue over. Especially disappointing when she had already proven her fighting and physical skills in a string of Sammo Hung productions before this.
These small niggles aside there is much to enjoy in this 2K release, making its worldwide debut on Blu-ray. A trio of detailed interviews with director Lau, Moon Lee and Chin Siu-Ho sit alongside the commentary by Asian film expert Frank Djeng. Also, on offer is the choice between two different English dubs, one for the U.S. video release and the other from the European video release for those who may want to relive the thrill of catching it on late-night Channel 4 from back in the day. The limited run of the first 2000 discs also includes a booklet which helpfully provides context and explanation of jiangshi in Chinese folklore and popular culture.
Existing fans will need very little persuading to snap up this nicely presented release while newcomers looking for a cult and otherworldly alternative to the usual 80’s fare should seek it out.