"Vampire Hunters"

This Hong Kong action flick features pogo-dancing zombies, cheese-covered vampires, one beautiful woman and a stash of gold. It's a mess, but it's better than most of what Hollywood has to offer.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published May 30, 2003 7:00PM (EDT)

For a certain species of viewer (I include myself in this category) "Vampire Hunters" is just what the nascent summer movie season needed. It's a sloppy, fun, late-'80s style Hong Kong action flick full of pogo-dancing zombies and voracious vampires who look vaguely like Siamese cats with spoiled cottage cheese cooked onto their faces.

No one can claim that this piece of supernatural hokum set in 17th century rural China is any kind of classic, despite the presence of legendary Hong Kong filmmaker Tsui Hark (as producer and screenwriter), the impresario behind the "Once Upon a Time in China" and "Chinese Ghost Story" series. Tsui leaves the directing here to veteran grade-B helmer Wellson Chin (somehow I missed his "Inspectors Wear Skirts" series), and it shows. There are occasional flashes of the visual panache that distinguishes Tsui's work, but "Vampire Hunters" -- now playing as a midnight movie in New York, Los Angeles and Honolulu, with other cities to follow -- is basically a genre quickie.

Some of the action sequences, like a climactic martial-arts battle between brooding patriarch Master Jiang (Yu Rong Guang) and smirking villain Dragon Tang (Horace Lee Wai Shing, who looks like an action star in waiting) are dynamite. Others are so slapdash and clumsily assembled you have no idea where anybody is or which minor character is currently getting his tongue and eyeballs sucked out by the cheese-covered Vampire King. The central foursome of vampire hunters, led by the boyish good looks of Michael Chow Man-Kin as Thunder (his pals are called Lightning, Wind and Rain) never amount to much as characters, beyond their good cheer and bonhomie. And the plot, as in so many Hong Kong movies, is a jumble of stock elements, slapstick and mythological-historical sources obscure to most Western viewers.

Still, hardcore fans of Hong Kong cinema won't mind much. After a lull of several years following the Chinese takeover of Hong Kong in 1999, it's nice to feel that the territory's film industry is back in full swing. (It turned out that the Marxist-capitalists in Beijing, sensibly enough, had no intention of squelching this massively profitable business.) While some of Hong Kong's biggest names, like Jackie Chan, John Woo and Jet Li, have moved at least part-time to Hollywood -- with decidedly mixed results -- others, like Tsui, have sampled the West (he directed two atrocious Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicles) and then returned home.

For anyone who's watched a lot of Hong Kong movies, "Vampire Hunters" will seem utterly familiar, and I guess in that sense it is a kind of classic -- a mixed salad of horror, action, comedy and romance, thrown together without all that much attention to detail. It seems to work like this: People who die with unfinished earthly business are in danger of reanimating as flesh-eating zombies. (I mean, we all know that, right?) But once said zombie has eaten enough human flesh, it becomes a superpowered vampire, a flying, rotting ghoul closer in appearance to Alice Cooper than to Count Dracula.

As best I can figure out the incoherent opening scenes, a passel of hunters under the tutelage of Master Mao Shan (Ji Chun Hua) take on a particularly nasty vampire and get their asses kicked. Master Mao Shan takes off alone after the vampire, with his four surviving students in pursuit. Nearby, a beautiful young woman named Sasa (Anya) is marrying into the Jiang family, whose sinister compound features a secret stash of gold, a deadly viper that slithers around biting people and a crypt full of the family's dead, preserved in wax and looking truly awful. Sasa's brother, the nefarious Dragon Tang, has designs on Master Jiang's gold. And, say, do you suppose some avaricious black-magic wizard might be able to wake up all those corpses and turn them into zombies?

That's about all you need to know, really. As in any half-decent vampire movie, daytime seems to last for about three minutes and then it's time for another long night of eyeball-sucking and corpse-melting. The zombies' bunny-hop mode of locomotion is nearly worth the ticket price (or, more to the point, the video rental price) all by itself. There are some cool solarized shots from the Vampire King's point of view. (He can't see you if you're wet, which is a new one on me.) There's an obligatory romantic subplot and some Three Stooges-style comedy; even if you speak no Cantonese, you might recognize that the central foursome's Chinese names -- Kung, Hei, Fat and Choi -- add up to "Happy New Year."

Sure, "Vampire Hunters" is only middling as Hong Kong actioners go, and it's being released in the United States solely because "Evil Dead"-loving audiences of urban hipsters will presumably dig its combination of gore 'n' giggles. But so what? Anything that reminds us that there are mass-entertainment options beyond Hollywood's banal formulas is worthwhile. Besides, now I know to jump down the nearest well the next time I see the Vampire King.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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