The Bad Movie Report

Mr. Vampire

I 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.

The 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.

We 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.

For 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.

I 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... Chinese.

"I could kick Luke Skywalker's ass so hard..."He is Lam Ching Ying, and he is the Sifu Eternal.

Lam 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.

He 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-Bad form, Steve.  Bad form.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.

In 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.

Mr. 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.

Place obligatory Supreme Court Joke here.We 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.

After 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 him.

The 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."

But 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.

This was no boating accident!In 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.

Yam's 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.

"Couldn't we just feed him?"Wai 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?"

Kou 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, Uh....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...

Not 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.

Lam uses his magic compass to point the way to ass that needs kicking.Kou 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.

Even 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 leave....

And 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 komedic results).

One thing for sure, thought Vic, no more  jello shots.  Especially not in a bar next a tattoo parlor.Chou 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!

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...

Not interpretive dance!  NOOOOO!Just 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.

Kou 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.

So 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.
And 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.


Lam Ching Ying - Hero of This World and The Next - is an outstanding fan site; I cribbed most of the bio information from it.

The Illuminated Lantern features excellent articles on Asian - themed cinema.


Go, Sifu! Go, Sifu, Go!

- December 21, 2000