remember when it was fairly hard to come by Hong Kong films -
unless one lived in a major metropolis with a melting pot of cultures,
one had to be satisfied with the pot luck of mail order businesses.
Nowadays you can buy Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh, and Jackie Chan at
Walmart, for goshsakes. And thanks to The Matrix and Crouching
Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I face the bewildering prospect of entering
a century where the general movie-going populace recognizes the
name of Yuen Woo Ping.
popularization of something you love can be a very changing experience
- at least for me. Back in the 70's I was lucky enough to hear
a couple of pirated studio tapes, a couple of tracks from an upcoming
album - something called "Born to Run" by a guy named Bruce something
or other. It was a bracing shot of honest-to-God rock 'n' roll
after years of glam rock, and I was immediately sold. "Gimme gimme
gimme," I said, to no one in particular. I may have drooled.
all know what happened after that. Springsteen became the biggest
commodity since the Big Mac and everybody knew him, everybody
loved him, and everybody had all his records. So, of course, I
dropped him like a hot rock covered in broken glass.
all I know, there's something tragic in that (actual tragic figures
rarely realize their own tragedy) - the feeling that something
is not well and truly cool unless practically nobody knows about
it. I don't think I'm alone in this. Out there in the fringe cinema
world, with HK films gaining wide acceptance, a lot of folks are
looking elsewhere for their odd cultural kicks, in the wildly
contrasting musical numbers of Indian films, or the strange conglomeration
of Western and Eastern tropes that is Turkish cinema.
hope I won't be leaving the fold of HK fans, and I don't really
think I will; I've got a quarter of a century invested in these
flicks, and you don't walk away lightly from a commitment like
that. Besides, I have an ace in the hole: though I love the work
of Jet, Jackie and Michelle, though I think Chow Yun Fat has never
gotten a fair shake on these shores, though I cheered when I found
out Sammo Hung was doing a TV series... none of these folks are
my favorite. And to be realistic, I don't think my favorite will
ever break through into the American mainstream. He's just too...
is Lam Ching Ying, and he is the Sifu Eternal.
had a very interesting career. Most people know about Sammo, Jackie,
and Yuen Biao coming up through the ranks in the same Peking Opera
school; Lam, on the other hand, attended the "other"
School, run by Madame Fan Fok Fa. By all accounts, he was a lackluster
student, but seeing the man move fluidly and precisely onscreen
seems to belie that.
worked as a stunt man at the Shaw Brothers studio for a while,
before moving to Golden Harvest and becoming Bruce Lee's assistant.
He was fighting director for most of Lee's films, and had a small
role in The Big Boss (or as we know it here in America,
Fists of Fury). He is the trainer usually acknowledged
as turning Michelle Yeoh from a dancer to a fighting diva. He
assayed a number of roles through the years - a cool, authoritative
demeanor usually led to him playing either villains or those hard-nosed
superiors who wind up getting the Dirty Harry speech delivered
to them. But it wasn't until two films - both horror-comedies
produced by powerhouse Sammo Hung - were released in the mid-1980s
that Lam would find his niche. A niche which would, for better
or worse, define his career for the next ten-odd years. Those
films were Mr. Vampire and Spooky Encounters 2,
and their success cemented Lam Ching Ying's reputation as the
Chinese version of Professor Van Helsing.
these films, Lam plays a Taoist priest, knowledgeable in the ways
of the supernatural world and well-versed in kicking the ass of
same. Possibly the closest analog to this sort of character in
Western films, past Peter Cushing's more swashbuckling outings
as the aforementioned Van Helsing, is the bellicose Father Sandor
in Dracula: Prince of Darkness, or the ever-popular Father
McGruder in Peter Jackson's Dead Alive/Braindead who "kicks
ass in the name of the Lord!" Even the redoubtable McGruder,
however, would be hard-pressed to compete with Lam in his adventures.
Vampire begins with what will become a standard in films of
this sort: the two apprentices of Lam's character. The first,
Man Chor (comedian Ricky Hui), the homely one, seems to be the
priest's general dogsbody, and handles all the physical humor.
The second, Chou (Chin Siu Ho, who made something of a career
of this role) is the handsome one, and handles the kung fu duties.
Man is tending to a roomful of vampires, who are standing in a
row, prayer scrolls affixed to their foreheads. At least until
Chou, disguised as a vampire himself, jumps out of a coffin to
frighten Man - their antics eventually cause the scrolls to become
dislodged and the vampires to come back to hopping unlife.
should pause here, for those unfamiliar with the ways of the Chinese
undead. The creatures bedeviling the two apprentices are more
appropriately zombies - they are the undead, to be sure, but death
has rendered them so stiff they can only get about by hopping.
Blind themselves and bereft of breath, they seek their victims
by zeroing in on their breathing. They are usually clad in the
cerements of Mandarins, and affixing the prayer scroll to their
foreheads renders them harmless.
much hopping about, and running and shrieking, master Kou (Lam
Ching Ying) and a visiting priest burst into the room, bite their
own fingers and use their own blood as makeshift talismans to
stop the dead in their tracks. The other priest is what is known
as a "vampire shepherd" - using Taoist magic and a bell,
he leads the undead from one point to the other. Why, we never
know, but these characters crop up in HK films quite a lot. This
particular shepherd is miffed that Man and Chou are using his
"customers" for sport (not to mention that Kou was none
too gentle in taking down the hoppers), and leaves in a yellow-robed
huff, the re-scrolled vampires obediently hopping in line behind
next day, Kou and Man meet with Mr. Yam, a local wealthy businessman.
It seems that Yam's father was buried in a very special spot twenty
years previous, and the priest officiating at the funeral left
instructions that the corpse be re-buried in two decades time.
Kou recognizes this parcel of land as "the dragonfly spot",
where burying the coffin in a certain way will cause prosperity
for the deceased's family... but the coffin was not buried
that way. Kou quickly determines that the elder Yam cheated the
priest out of the land, and the priest, in revenge, used some
very very bad feng shui in the interment of the corpse,
resulting in the Yam family business taking a downturn.
"At least he suggested a re-burial", he tells the grieving
Yam. "He only ruined one generation of your family."
bad omens abound - birds fly away in panic as the coffin is opened,
and Kou warns the crowd, "Those of age 36, 22, 35 and 48,
and those born in the year of the cock or cow - turn away. And
straighten your clothes afterward." The coffin is opened,
and Kou sees it was bad feng shui indeed - although in
the ground for twenty years, the body appears fresh and unspoiled.
Kou advises Yam to burn the body, but Yam refuses, as his father
was afraid of fire. Kou has the coffin removed to his compound,
and Chou and Man Chor stay behind to place incense on the remaining
graves - and Chou makes the mistake of reading a girl's tombstone
and saying aloud, "You died too young," attracting the
attention of the young lady's amorous ghost.
Kou's mortuary, the priest makes a special ink from the blood
of a chicken and various other magic stuff, and this is loaded
into a special ink pot, one with a roll of string that runs through
the ink - anyone who's done any construction or home handywork
will recognize the carpenter's chalk-line. Man and Chou snap the
line all over the coffin, laying down a grid of magic to keep
the body in the casket - too bad they neglect to do the bottom
of the coffin, being the lazy, bickering students that they are.
Thus it is only a matter of time before the elder Yam, now a full-fledged
vampire - think of him as a turbo-hopper - bursts free of his
wooden prison, tracks down the still-living Yam, and takes care
of that "still-living" part with his long fingernails
through the throat.
buffoonish nephew Wai, a local constable, decides that Kou is
the culprit because he has long fingernails, and besides, this
allows him to act manly and authoritative in front of Yam's daughter,
Ting Ting (Moon Lee), whom every non-priestly character in the
film wants to make time with. Under arrest, Kou manages to instruct
his two apprentices before he is led away in chains.
seems to learned his interrogation techniques from watching Shaw
Brothers movies like Five Deadly Venoms since most of his
time is spent threatening Kou with a branding iron that spells
out the character "villainous". Wai has quite the little
torture chamber set off a courtyard, with a couple of holding
cells. Kou is thrown into one of the cells, with Yam's body in
state among the torture devices. Chou sneaks in ninja-style with
Kou's magic props, but misunderstood his sifu when he requested
sticky rice. Thinking he wanted a snack, the rice has been cooked;
and whereas sticky rice is the Far Eastern equivalent to garlic,
cooked it loses its holy punch. Glancing at the corpse stirring
in the chamber, Chou asks, rather hopelessly, "Couldn't we
just feed him?"
manages to whip up a prayer scroll and Chou manages to place it
on Yam's forehead; however, Wai arrives, and seeing Chou just
as he hides, orders
his underlings to seal the courtyard, and not to open the door,
no matter what happens. And when you hear something like that
in a movie like this, you just know that mayhem is about to ensue.
What follows is one of the movie's major comedic setpieces, as
the vampire chases his nephew and Chou about the enclosed space,
Wai winds up not only afoul of his own torture devices but with
"villainous" burned into his chest, and Kou's head keeps
getting stuck between the bars of his cell door. Eventually, Wai
has enough sense to unlock the cell, so Kou can kick some undead
butt. With the Younger Yam turned into a bonfire, the beaten and
bruised Wai must admit that this was a pretty damned good alibi.
Besides, the Elder Yam is still out there, and Ting Ting would
be next on his list...
to worry, as Man Chor is guarding her. Everyone who would want
the comic relief to guard them against the forces of evil, please
raise your hand. Um hm. Um hm.Yeah. I thought so. Well, Man Chor
actually has a good idea, and is carrying around a long
piece of bamboo. When the Elder Yam attacks, he and Ting Ting
use it to breathe through... with the result that the vampire
attacks whatever the pole is pointed at. Being the comic relief,
Man has to eventually blow through the tube into the vampire's
face, and winds up eating the tube. Kou, Chou and Wai show up,
but not soon enough, as Yam grabs Man Chor in a death grip. It
is only through use of that ink pot that Man is released and Yam
hops howling into the night... but now Man Chor is infected.
informs his student that he must keep in constant motion to stave
off the creeping stiffness that will eventually claim his life.
As Man Chor dances (comedically, it goes without saying), Chou
is sent to get more sticky rice. Not only must Man dance and sleep
on this, he must also eat nothing but until the infection is cleared.
Unfortunately, Wai and his equally buffoonish police force heard
Kou mention the sticky rice, and there has been a run on the market
- so much so that the unscrupulous local rice merchant adulterates
the bag he sells Chou with regular rice.
more unfortunately, this is the night that the Ghost Jade
(the lovely Pauline Wong) makes her play for Chou, suckering him
into her remote house and conjuring up a storm so that he can't
so Chou turns up at the compound the next morning, half-dead and
covered in hickeys. He falls into a deep sleep in a chair; Kou
immediately susses out what is transpiring and takes time out
from beating Man when he lags in his exercise to prepare for that
night (with the adulterated rice, the exercise isn't taking anyway...
Man Chor has taken to clipping his lengthening nails and covering
his rapidly paling complexion with Ting Ting's makeup - with appropriately
rouses from his slumber and immediately heads out, with Kou in
stealthy pursuit. Chou arrives at Jade's house, but their first
embrace almost destroys her - while he was asleep, the priest
drew a Taoist symbol on Chou's chest. The smitten Chou wipes it
off, much to Kou's dismay, and the priest leaps in to save his
student, only to have Jade hypnotize Chou into believing that
Kou is actually the evil Wai, come to ravish her... so Kou winds
up not only fighting the ghost, but his student as well!
Kou is the hero, so he finally chases Jade off (after giving
his student a rather frustrated thrashing), and the next day finds
the two students looking very wan and pale, indeed. "I'm
80% cured," mumbles Man. "I'm 80% haunted," sighs
Chou. "You're both 80% dead!" snaps Kou, who decides
it is time for a showdown. That evening, the compound locked down
and festooned with prayer scrolls, Kou sits before the front door,
clad in his full yellow battle regalia, wooden sword, coin sword
and other paraphernalia to the ready. Inside, Chou sits tied to
a chair. Ting Ting battens down the hatches, then locks herself
in her room. Man Chor sleeps in a bed of sticky rice. Or what
they think is sticky rice...
as Jade makes her first assault on the compound, Man rises from
his bed, having sprouted teeth and claws and begins stalking the
helpless Chou. This is another major setpiece in the move, as
Chou shrieks from inside for his sifu to save him, as Kou
battles the Ghost without, yelling back, "I am saving
you!" Finally, we find that Jade has more feeling for Chou
than anyone suspects, as she braves the pain of the scrolls covering
the building to dive within and save Chou from the marauding Man
Chor. Kou takes this into consideration and does not destroy her;
he simply admonishes her that she and Chou come from two completely
different worlds, and allows her to leave.
discovers the duplicity of the rice merchant and the next day
finds Man Chor bathing in a vat of sticky rice soup and having
his fangs filed down. This still leaves the problem of the Elder
Yam, who has spent his downtime in a hidden cave, fighting off
the effects of the Holy Ink Pot and strengthening into a Super
Vampire. When he finally emerges, there is a battle royal betwixt
him and all the main characters, with only the timely return of
the vampire shepherd and his "customers" to tip the
scale ever so slightly in favor of the good guys.
much of Mr. Vampire is full of down-home goodness I
don't want to go into too many details - like many treasures,
it should be discovered tabula rasa, each step a fresh
delight. I've also not detailed many of the incidental comic
moments - unlike many HK comedies, the laughs are not entirely
encumbent on a thorough knowledge of Chinese culture or wordplay
which does not translate. One sequence, when Kou and Man Chor
find themselves in an English restaurant, desperate to look
like they know what they're doing, but unable to comprehend
how to deal with a coffee service, is so good that the same
setup was used time and again in several of the sequels.
sequels there were, though none ever really managed to match
this original for its skillful blend of comedy, action and
horror. Lam Ching Ying would be more or less typecast as the
Taoist Ghostbuster for the rest of his life, until his unfortunate
death by liver cancer in 1997. Like any actor, he must have
chafed at this limitation, but you could never tell from his
performances. Even when stuck in mean-spirited tripe like
Skin Stripperess, Lam was never less than professional,
bringing to bear all his talent on each role. Most of all,
I know that when I see Lam Ching Ying in a movie, I will usually
be treated to some exceptional Taoist theatrics, some skillful
kung fu - and usually a very strong dash of high weirdness.
Though he may have resented the way Mr. Vampire shaped
the remainder of his career, the movie is a classic, and serves
as a most excellent introduction to the Chinese horror film.
Ching Ying - Hero of This World and The Next - is
an outstanding fan site; I cribbed most of the bio information
features excellent articles on Asian - themed cinema.