Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Vamp or Not? Finger of Doom

This was a Shaw Brothers production from 1972 that was directed by Pao Hsueh-Li and originally entitled Tai Yin Zhi. It has all the stylish hallmarks of the Shaw Brothers and an intriguing central premise that leads us neatly into the ‘Vamp or Not?’

It opens with a "hero", Chang Kung Chin (Yeung Chi-Hing, Enchanting Shadow & the Black Tavern) inviting four young swordsmen to discuss the appearance of a new player in martial arts, Kung Suen Mao Neong (Park Ji-Hyeon), the mistress of the Finger of Doom. The meeting is a trap, they are forced to spar and then Kung Suen Mao Neong fights them and embeds a needle in the back of each one’s neck, from a set of finger sheaths, causing them to fall in agony. She feeds them an antidote making them fearless of pain and death and obedient to her. They are taken off, given white robes, and then she gets into a coffin and they carry her off.

carrying coffin
An intriguing opening, which is followed quickly by us meeting our protagonists. The heroine (Ivy Ling Po), whose name we are never given, is sent out by her Mistress (Ou-Yang Sha-Fei, Kung Fu from Beyond the Grave), the Leader of the Finger of Doom clan, to kill her renegade clan sister. She sets to using the Finger of Doom needles on a series of criminals to make them her slaves and carry her coffin also. Elsewhere two brothers, Lu Tien Bao (Chin Han) and the younger Ju Jian (Chen Feng-Chen), make and paint umbrellas. The elder is content but the younger misses their swordsman days. Their middle brother, Tang Juen Shung (Hung Sing-Chung), shows up and then tries to blackmail Chang Kung Chin for the massacre of a clan. He is taken by the baddies and the search for him draws the two swordsmen out of retirement and they cross the heroine’s path.

feeling no pain
So, what’s going on? The needled swordsmen are referred to as the living dead. The needle administers a poison and the antidote is temporary, giving them just 10 days’ relief. However, it really does seem to set up a full control of the person, they become ashen of face and removal of the needle stops them. One practitioner swapping needles (and administering their form of the antidote) can take control of the swordsman and the more sinful a person is the more effective the poison is in controlling them. There is some confusion in film as to whether they are alive or dead, however.

We actually see one killed through a strike to the throat and left to be found by officials. However the body is then retrieved from the morgue by the baddies – so whether this is covering tracks or to resuscitate him we don’t know. We do see them eating and drinking a meal at one point. At another point the bad guys have the protagonists over a barrel and yet retreat as the cock crows. At first I thought that this was because Kung Suen Mao Neong’s brand of Kung Fu is said to be a form that can be effective only at night, however the heroine intimates that her sister’s swordsmen are dead and would rot if they were exposed to sunlight for four hours.

fighting the "living dead"
It’s quite a hotchpotch. The idea of poisoning and then offering an antidote to take over someone reminded me of Haitian zombies (specifically around the Serpent and the Rainbow type lore). The use of needles (indeed golden needles, as Kung Suen Mao Neong uses) reminded me of what would later be used in Wolf Devil Woman - except the needles were in fetish dolls and froze the corpse, so kind of inverted. The women use coffins as it is traditional in their clan when using Kung Fu to travel in coffins – there is no occult/vampiric reason. The last piece of evidence is the fact that the subtitles I saw actually refer to the swordsmen as vampires, once.

Ivy Ling Po as 
All in all, I don’t think we can call this a vampire movie. There are elements reminiscent of western tropes – such as putrefaction in daylight – but though they are said, at one point, to be the living dead they are more like zombies (as in those created and controlled by a voodoo master) than vampires. They don’t do anything particularly vampiric and they are far enough removed from the kyonsi type to really need to be doing something vampiric. Not Vamp but a fine Shaw Brothers film with some really nice cinematography. The imdb page is here.

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