Saturday, November 14, 2009

(Tsui Hark’s) Vampire Hunters – review

dvdDirected by: Wellson Chin

First released: 2002

Contains spoilers

Vampire Hunters, also known as The Era of Vampires, is a little odd in that something about it feels rushed at the head of the film as though we have entered the film part way through. Is it true? I don’t know but I do know the running time is considerably lower on the UK release than, say, on the Singapore release.

As it is the film begins with the following legend, “In 17th Century rural China during the Ching dynasty, zombies roamed the land feeding on human flesh, a nasty habit that turned them into vampires. Only a handful of skilled warriors dared to challenge these mystical demons of the night. This is their story.” We are at a temple and a voice over tells us of a group of five warriors battling evil.

the warriorsThe warriors are Master Mao Shan (Chun Hua Ji), Wind (Ken Chang Chi-Yao), Thunder (Michael Chow Man-Kin), Lightning (Chan Kwok-Kwan) and Rain (Lam Suet). Already we see a change in lore with this – the more kyonsi type of creature, which hops, in this is called a zombie. The zombie can become a vampire. We also hear that if you are scratched or bitten by a zombie you will become one yourself. A scratch or bite from a vampire will turn you into a vampire.

Chun Hua Ji as Master Mao ShanThe warriors are riding with an entourage of men and reach a General’s grave that is open. The Master feels a vampire could be close and they have a compass that detects the dead, which seems to confirm it. The Master gets into the grave but the men have to step back due to the methane round the grave – the torches will ignite it. The vampire attacks.

drained from a distanceNow three things to notice here about our rotten looking vampire. The vampire floats and flies rather than hops. His breath, when breathing outwards, is corrosive and can kill a man or melt stone. However more interesting is his feeding method. When he sucks air in he can draw people towards him and, when close enough, he sucks the blood out of the body from a distance. The blood is drawn from the victim, through the air and absorbed into the vampire – it is a most unusual feeding form.

The battle ends with the methane and some explosives going off, it seems the master was caught in the blast and the vampire escapes. Jump forward four months and the four warriors arrive at the Jiang house as a wedding is to start. They get employed by the butler (Lik-Chi Lee) who dislikes their names and renames them Kung, Hei, Fat and Choi, which translates to Happy New Year! The bride, Sasa (Anya), and groom, Young Master Jiang (Wang Zhen Lin) have to praise the parents. Master Yang (Rongguaung Yu) seems, to the viewer, okay but his wife is clearly dead, waxen and wax melts along her hand.

feeding on a banditA group of bandits ride through the forest. Now the DVD has various language options, if you watch this dubbed into English, rather than in Cantonese, then the bandit leader has a Mexican bandito accent going on! I kid you not. Anyway, having dropped her off, the bridal entourage was returning to town and are found slaughtered by the bandits, whose aim was to rob Jiang. They too are attacked by the vampire (who does a neat ‘enfold a head in his robe and then suck whilst floating upside down’ trick). One bandit survives.

Horace Lee Wai Shing as DragonIn the morning Sasa (who was wife number 7 after all his previous brides died on the night of the wedding) awakens to find her husband dead. It appears he has been bitten by a poisonous snake. In town, her brother – Dragon (Horace Lee Wai Shing) – is meeting with money lenders when the bandit arrives and says they were attacked by a vampire. He had sent them to rob his brother-in-law’s estate and has to kill the money lenders.

preserved in waxThe warriors know, through trails of killed birds and scorched gouges on trees, that the vampire is close by. Meanwhile Sasa wants to return home but tradition demands she remains at her husband’s home. Her father-in-law takes her to see her husband. He is now a waxen corpse. It is a Jiang family tradition that the bodies of the dead are not buried but preserved with chemicals and wax and there is a whole bunch of them down in the cellar.

Michael Chow Man-Kin as ThunderOf course, the problem with that is the fact that they are not correctly buried. Dragon really wants the gold and has been working with the Jiang butler (who killed all the previous brides just to get Sasa bumped up the matrimony lists). The butler suggests getting a zombie wrangler (Kuan Tai Chen) to reanimate all the corpses to distract Jiang whilst they find and steal his treasures. Thunder has fallen in love with Sasa and the vampire is still at large.

the vampireLore wise this is really quite different. As well as all the aspects that I have mentioned so far, we note that an infected scratch will burn in the sunlight (and zombies and vampires are destroyed by the sun also). An infected person might be saved by powdered coffin wood – though the nature of the treatment is not shown on screen. The vampire is resilient, surviving being virtually cut in two and can burrow and move below the earth. Explosives seem to be the answer for vampire problems.

zombiesThe zombies are not as tough. Like the kyonsi they can be controlled by prayer scrolls and bells. However they are sentient, they have memory and can speak. Both the zombies and the vampire look like the corpses they are.

This was good fun, with some decent action and higher production values than many of the Hong Kong offerings. Unlike many movies of the same lineage it doesn’t have an overt humorous side and even when it throws a joke in – like Happy New year – it is subtle. It does, unfortunately, feel as though a lump is missing from the beginning of the film and that is a shame. 6 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.


Anonymous said...

I got this earlier this year. Maybe something's lost in translation, but I generally have a problem with the style of story telling employed in East Asian action movies, which often seem to be more focussed on the display of elaborate fight scenes than anything else. I find myself watching the film without getting immersed in it or caring what happens to the characters.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Interesting point Simon... some of them are more succesful than others - Mr Vampire actually does bring a greater level of characterisation.

With this one, your point perhaps does tie in heavily with what I said about feeling a large chunk (of exposition maybe) was missing from the beginning. Maybe the edit of this was more giving us what the company thought we wanted rather than what we really wanted.

I do enjoy the fight scenes however, thus I do enjoy the chinese action flicks - perhaps in a different way to western cinema. I scored this at 6 because I did enjoy it, if it had more exposition and characterisation it would have scored higher.

One that I would recommend, though not actually vampire, is Painted Skin, which whilst having action sequences perhaps also has more exposition than many examples of Hing Kong action cinema.