Friday, March 13, 2020

Kung Fu Vampire Killers – review

Director: Phil Davison

Release date: 2001

Contains spoilers

There might seem something strange about taking the kyonsi figure and exporting it out of China, and yet it has been done several times. In this case it is over 9000 miles to New Zealand with an aim of transplanting the figure into the lowest of budget filmmaking.

The state of the filmmaking will be discussed, but it has to be said that director Phil Davison got away with making something that, whilst it is terribly low budget, worked rather well. The film nods, in character names, to both the Exorcist and Dracula, but the plot strays nowhere near Stoker and that is positive in and of itself, as it ploughs its own furrow.

The film starts in the Convent of the Little Sisters of the Poor, Kowloon, Hong Kong and the conceit is carried by having a doctor (Till Noever) briefly looking down at the person, Father Merrin (Phil Davison) whose point of view we take. Other than this the scene is just looking up at ceiling and ceiling fan whilst the doctor and a nun (Katherine Dick) talk. Merrin is suffering from PTSD and we hear that he is a medic and spent as much time as possible with the Chinese, only coming to the Convent for supplies. Mention is made of him having prophetic dreams. When he was brought in the police came for him but, after a day, the charge of murder of 16 people was dropped as it had been a mistake. Only in the credits do we discover his full name is Father Merrin Van Helsing.

meeting the bishop
3 Months later and he is back in New Zealand. He meets the bishop, who in credits is revealed to be called John Seward (Geoff Kennedy), and fellow priest Father Damien (Simon O'Sullivan). Damien asks him about China but Merrin seems distracted and reluctant to talk. Eventually he retires to bed citing jet lag. In his room he takes the prescribed lithium from his bag but then doesn’t take it, rather he goes to bed.

Ellie Swann as Lucy
A woman, Lucy (Ellie Swann), crosses a road, is nearly hit by a car and gives the driver the finger. Back at her house housemates Quincy (Christopher Summers) and Maceo (Aaron Orr) – who adopted that name and is actually called Arthur – are making a house meal. Allegedly Coq au Vin. This involves ironing chorizo to make it appear like bacon! Housemate Jonathan (Vincent Wong-Ming) brings in boxes of wine and Mina (Katherine Beresford) is barred from helping as it is the men’s turn to cook. Lucy flounces in with a storm above her head and goes to her room.

When the meal is complete, Lucy has calmed down and comes for food. The guys didn’t have chicken and so improvised by using fish fingers. That said, all eat and drink. Jonathan reveals their phone has been disconnected (Lucy neglected to pay the bill) and they ask her what was wrong. She reveals that her Masters thesis was a genetics one and she has been taking samples from local Chinese residents who were descended from 19th century immigrants. However, the Chinese University she was liaising with has reneged on the agreement to send her some 19th century tissue samples. Suddenly Maceo has a moment of blinding inspiration.

There is, he says, a 19th Century grave he passes regularly where a Chinese immigrant is interred after being lynched because he killed someone. They should dig the grave up to get her sample. Lucy likes the idea and Quincy is in. It takes some convincing to persuade Jonathan (they need him to drive) and Mina (Lucy wants to use her contact lens case as a sterile container). However soon they are all by a grave and digging. There are two markers (and a historical plaque) and one is in Chinese but they don’t ask Jonathan to translate until they are at the coffin.

Vincent Wong-Ming as Jonathan
The marker suggests that Lin Piao (Ben Butler-Hogg) was a Master of Kung Fu but was buried by barbarians with no knowledge of feng shui. Jonathan explains that Chinese tradition suggests that those who are kung fu masters, especially if they die a violent death, may die with their last breath still in their body and thus need strong feng shui to prevent them becoming vampires. They crack the coffin lid and thick mist (rationalised as grave gas) escapes, engulfing them. Maceo and Mina are convinced they see a figure. Maceo leaves but Lucy goes for her sample – there is no corpse.

film within film
So, Merrin dreams of the vampire and takes Damien on a quest to find the grave and then the grave robbers. Meanwhile Jonathan goes to a 24-hour video store and the others start being attacked by the vampire – with Quincy the first to die. Jonathan gets a Chinese Vampire film to show them (and we see several minutes of it) and in a moment of near genius (and certain amusement) creates a spell scroll by using a post-it note and red pen (the films always use yellow paper and draw the spell in red) and copies the spell from the video – it works as a spell scroll, freezing the kyonsi (though post-its aren’t that adhesive of course).

kyonsi detail
So, it is fight the vampires (those killed turn in short order), and that is the rest of the film. So, the low budget and amateur level of the filmmakers shows in several ways. The actual filming looks tatty, for every ingenious moment (for example, just looking at a ceiling for Hong Kong and trusting to viewer imagination), we get a moment where the film is washed out, virtually black and white, and it doesn’t feel deliberate – indeed the film quality and lighting can change dramatically between the cut separating angles in the same scene. There are at least three scenes where errant boom-mikes are in shot. The acting is decidedly amateur.

That said the amateur acting gives this film a level of charm (or perhaps that was just the New Zealand je ne sais quoi). The actual look of the kyonsi works really well and the film-in-a-film really felt the part. The film doesn’t outstay its welcome and has a decent pace to it. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter how low the budget was or how many boom-mikes appear in shot if the viewer ends the film feeling amused (in the right way) and I did. 5.5 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

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