Written by Szeto Cheuk Hon
Directed by Ricky Lau
Starring Lam Ching-Yin, Chin Siu Ho, Billy Lau, and Ricky Hui
Released by: Fortune Star/20th Century Fox
My Advice: Rent it.
While not the very first kung fu film to mix martial arts, comedy, and the walking dead, Mr. Vampire (produced by Sammo Hung) is easily the most influential. It pretty much defined the subgenre of kung fu horror comedy, which has since seen dozens of entries and featured nearly every major name in the martial arts film industry. So this film’s historical importance was cemented before it was even popped in the player for review. Hell, there are something like a half-dozen sequels in the Mr. Vampire franchise alone, which tends to reveal a bit about the popularity of the film.
[ad#longpost]The story here revolves around undertaker’s apprentice Man Choi (Hui) and his fellow apprentice Chou (Chin). The pair are generally inept, and way too careless for their own good while going about their duties in their master’s business. Master Chu (Lam) is a Taoist priest and an undertaker, and seems to specialize in placating the walking dead. Part of his business success comes from his ability to guarantee that the bereaved’s loved ones won’t be crawling out of the grave and hopping around the countryside.
That’s right. Hopping. Chinese vampires are not the kings of the underworld that their Western counterparts are. Stiffened by rigor mortis, they can only move by hopping, and they do it rather slowly. Additionally, they are entirely blind, able to track their prey by its breath. So, if you can actually jog and occasionally hold your breath, the creatures pose little threat. But vampires aren’t Man and Chou’s only problem. There’s also the more insidious walking corpse (dubbed here as “zombie,” though that gives the wrong impression to Westerners), which has none of the vampire’s movement limitations, has acute senses, and is incredibly strong and destructive. So, in review, if a Chinese film calls an undead a vampire, it’s about as tough as one of Romero’s zombies. If they call it a zombie, it’s about as tough as the vampires of Western film. Simple, right?
With a pair of incompetent bunglers for apprentices, Master Chu rapidly finds himself in all manner of trouble. Wrongly accused of murder at one point, he is locked up with Mr. Yam, who is on the verge of becoming undead himself. While Man tries to convince the skeptical Inspector Wai (Lau) that there really are such things as vampires, Mr. Yam converts and things go a little berserk in one of the movie’s finest set-piece battles. In the course of subduing Mr. Yam, Man is bitten, meaning he will transform himself if elaborate rituals are not performed. The result is a long night of battling a sudden rash of undead while one apprentice begins turning vampire while another is being plagued by a seductive ghost.
This is a solid comedy and a solid action film. The martial arts prowess of the lead actors is unquestionable, and the choreography is excellent. In particular, the fight sequence in the police station is a fantastic blend of action and humor, as Man and Chu attempt to subdue the undead while the police inspector continues to get in the way. Entering into this film, the historical value was a given, but often historically valuable films are less interesting on their own merit than their derivatives. Not so here. Mr. Vampire stands up reasonably well after two decades of subsequent advances in the state of the kung fu art.
On top of all that, the film looks fantastic. Twenty-year-old kung fu movies just don’t usually look this good. The picture is clean, crisp, and free from any sorts of sign of age. The audio is likewise remastered to be absolutely sharp. Major props to the Fortune Star imprint at Fox for taking their kung fu cinema this seriously. Those of us that are fans of the genre are glad to see someone finally doing right by some of these classic movies.
So, should you buy it? If you’re a hardcore fu-head, absolutely. If your interest is more moderate, it’s still definitely worth a rental. Plenty of laughs, healthy dose of ass-kicking…how could you possibly go wrong?