Mr Vampire

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The first in a successful franchise and cornerstone of an entire genre – jiangshi – 1985’s Mr Vampire is a highly entertaining and madly inventive movie, particularly if you like high-level buffoonery and vampires who hop.

It wasn’t the first jiangshi movie. That honour probably goes to Sammo Hung’s Encounters of the Spooky Kind in 1980, the film that shifted Hong Kong vampires decisively away from the Nosferatu-like template and towards a more culturally Chinese vision of the undead. In jiangshi movies the vampires tend to come dressed in traditional changshan clothing. They are restless spirits or dead people whose burial has not been carried out according to the correct rituals. Drinking blood isn’t what they’re about, nor is immortal life.

All that said, bloodthirsty vampires do feature in Mr Vampire, which is directed by Ricky Lau and produced by Sammo Hung, and there’s also the use of a mirror to ward off a vampire, an echo of the European vampire tradition of vampires casting no reflection. But on the whole it’s a story of a Taoist priest in the early 20th century, Master Kau, or Chau (transliterations vary), played by Lam Ching-yin, whose sole job is to bury people properly, or rebury them if it’s been done badly, and his two largely useless assistants, Mann-choi (Ricky Hui) and Chau-sang (Chin Siu-ho), who deliver the foolishness.

For fans of lore, there is some to be found here – the talismanic slogans written on yellow paper and stuck to the head of a vampire will stop one in its tracks. Glutinous rice acts in much the same way as garlic in western vampire movies – regular long grain rice will not do.

A vampire and Mann-choi
Mr Vampire meets buffoon Mann-choi

The story revolves around a local businessman, Yam (Huang Ha), concerned that his dead father has not been buried properly. It turns out that Yam’s suspicions are correct. Once the dead father’s body has been disinterred it is obvious to Master Kau that he is now a vampire. The solution: to rebury him. But first the unusually intact corpse is put under watchful protection at Master Kau’s temple.

Yam is also the vector for the film’s other major plot strand. He has a pretty daughter whose very westernised way of carrying on (she dresses like Bo Peep), makes her instantly of interest to both Mann-choi and Chau-sang, neither of whom stand a chance with Ting-ting (Moon Lee), though that doesn’t stop either of them from trying.

Where they might stand more of a chance is with Jade (Wong Siu-fung), a pretty vampire who arrives out of the blue and sets her sights on Chau-sang, largely because she was the first thing she saw.

This vampire does have fangs and is also sexually motivated, a carry-over from the Western vampire tradition, while back in Kau’s temple traditional Chinese vampires who hop and can be de-activated with a piece of yellow paper predominate. These two realms remain largely separate until the recently exhumed corpse of the old man fully re-animates and enters the fray, when a cut-and-shut of the two traditions finally asserts itself as this film’s dominant MO.

With the bowl haircut of the Chinese comedy fall guy, Ricky Hui does most of the buffooning about, while the more traditionally handsome Chin handles the romance (and the neck wounds). Lam Ching-ying, a former PA to Bruce Lee and aged only about 33 when this was made, would eventually tire of playing aged Taoist priests in the many jiangshi movies to come (he was dead by the time he was 44), but he is the star of this show, a lithe and nimble presence as adept at suggesting priestly know-how as martial arts can-do.

A priest, two sidekicks, a lively quasi-Western vampire, several hopping traditional Chinese vampires, a pretty girl and a pretty female vampire, director Ricky Lau spins them all through high-energy farcical situations with a fluid camera and exquisite choreography, with brilliant but sparing wire-work adding to the kinetics.

It’s bright, fast and fun, not in the slightest bit frightening, with the emphasis so much on action and broad clowning (Hui in particular) that it could almost be a silent movie. The buffoonery has not aged well – it never does (see Chevy Chase, or Norman Wisdom) – but the rest of it has. It’s the all-round multi-quadrant entertainment proposition, and Lau and co do it brilliantly.

Mr Vampire – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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