Expect The Unexpected|
Horror, Humor and Hopping in Hong Kong
by Ian Whitney
Movies were made for horror. In North America and Europe, frightening films appeared not long after the first narrative films. The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, considered the first psychological horror film, was made in 1920 and less than 10 years later, horror films were an established genre. Whatever the reason - World War I, industrialization, immigration or other unnerving assaults on the status quo - westerners wanted movies to frighten them. The feeling was not universal.
Leslie Cheung on the verge of succumbing to the tempation that is Joey Wong in A Chinese Ghost Story.
In Hong Kong, horror films were not big business; or, at least, no native filmmakers embraced the genre. Before 1980, all of the icons of western fears - the creeping vampire, the lumbering undead, the misunderstood freak - had little impact on films in the British colony. The Universal horror films of the 30s and 40s and the Hammer remakes of the 60s did not inspire, as they did in so many other countries, endless knockoffs. Hong Kong, it seems, simply didn't want to be scared.
One reason, perhaps, is that Chinese mythology and religion have a radically different idea of the afterlife. Although it's typically called "Hell," the afterlife in China is usually described as an endless shadow world that's more of a waiting area than a torture chamber. More important and frightening than the western notion of a fiery underworld were souls that had lost their way or corpses who had absorbed too much energy from the moon. These creatures, while dangerous, simply needed the guidance of a Taoist priest towards reincarnation. These creatures of legend made few appearances in Hong Kong film before 1980, either because no one was interested or because the audiences were perfectly happy with their operas, romances and swordplay films.
The Enchanting Shadow, an early supernatural romance from Shaw Brothers.
Not exactly scary, it it?
It wasn't until the late 70s that Hong Kong made a serious attempt at western-style horror. As Shaw Brothers, the dominant Hong Kong film studio, faced real competition from upstart companies like Golden Harvest and western imports, they responded by adding horror films to their lineup of period kung fu and romance films. After co-producing Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1973) with England's Hammer studios, Shaw released a few films like Human Lanterns, and Black Magic - psycho meldings of period kung fu and western third-generation horror imports like Italian zombie films. These films went on to inspire a slew of Asian exploitation horror, eventually evolving into films like Untold Story and Ebola Syndrome, but for most of the 80s, these films were on the fringes of the Hong Kong cinema industry. In 1983, Shaw Brothers ceased movie production and focused on TV; apparently kung fu killers wearing monkey costumes were not more lucrative than soap operas.
During the late 70s, Hong Kong audiences were more interested in laughing than screaming. New filmmakers like Sammo Hung found increasing success with a mishmash of kung fu, slapstick, bathroom humor and word play. Hung, who had been working in films since 1969's A Touch Of Zen, used his Chinese opera school classmates Jackie Chan and Yuen Biao in a series of revolutionary comedies like Fearless Hyena (1979), Drunken Master (1979) and Knockabout (1979).
Based on the broad physical comedy of the stage, the films were juvenile (it's not a true comedy until someone gets kicked and/or punched in the testicles), sexual and unsubtle. They were also incredibly successful. Throughout the 1980s, a river of comedies poured from Hong Kong studios, probably outnumbering the bullet-blasting ballets and fist-filled films that most western audiences identify with Hong Kong filmmaking.
Sammo Hung is an innovator in a film industry that's more than willing to repeat past triumphs. While he has made his share of straightforward comedies, he is also willing to try something untested and bizarre. In 1981 (or 1980, depending on the source) he took his potent mix of bizarre comedy and elaborate fight choreography and added a third element, Chinese myths of the supernatural. With Close Encounters of the Spooky Kind (aka, Spooky Encounters) a new genre, the vampire comedy, was born and Hong Kong finally discovered a love for being scared.
Sammo has spells painted onto his body by Chung Fa in Spooky Encounters,
one of many films in which Sammo shows off his butt.
Like most genres, the vampire comedy is bound by specific rules, many of which came from Chinese folklore and were set in celluloid stone by Spooky Encounters. Knowing the rules is vital to understanding the films.1
Rule 1: Vampires Hop. Stiffened by death, the undead are not known for their agility. Instead, they hop, arms outstretched. Obviously, hopping monsters are not all that threatening, which is probably the main reason Hung used them for comic effect.
Indeed, Chinese vampires (sometimes called gyonshi or jiang shi by fans) are not what most people consider vampiric. They generally don't suck blood; instead, they stab their victims with long blue/black fingernails. They don't transform into bats or fear garlic. They don't have bug-eating assistants or chase after long-lost loves. They are often blind and use their nose to find their victims, who can be treated with sticky rice and snake wine. They aren't killed by crosses or stakes, but by a combination of magic and kung fu. And no monster is truly dead until it explodes.
Gyonshi at rest.
The paper that looks like a post-it note is a spell that immobilizes them.
These rules, however, are far from concrete; each movie gives its vampires a unique set of skills, often mixing in aspects of Dracula-style vampirism. Some films, in order to stage more elaborate fight scenes, grant their vampires greater mobility. Other rules are added or dropped for comic effect. Sometimes the film takes a break to explain how their vampires work, but in most cases you have to figure it out for yourself.
Rule 2: Beautiful women want to kill you. Hung's first spooky encounter with a female ghost in a mirror updates a common Hong Kong rule for the supernatural world. In many Shaw Brothers classics, scheming women sent men to their doom. In Spooky Encounters and its offspring, ghosts and demons disguise themselves as attractive women in order to lure young men, whose energy the ghosts consume, to their deaths. Invariably the young men think with their crotch and take the bait, only to discover the ghost's true, horrible form after a heavy make-out session.
I kissed that?!
A ghost shows her deadly side in Mr. Vampire.
Did I mention they can also detach their heads?
Rule 3: Spells, not fighting skills, rule the afterlife. Vampire comedies feature a lot of fighting, but, like all of those army attacks on Godzilla, brute force often proves useless. Fighting the undead requires a different type of weapon, the magical knowledge of a Taoist priest. Although they are only supporting characters in Spooky Encounters, the yellow-clad priests (Chung Fa and Chan Lung) steal the show. Writing with chicken blood, chanting over a coin sword and performing gymnastic rituals, these priests quickly became the whirling, dynamic center in nearly every supernatural comedy, once the right actor was discovered.
Spooky Encounters was a success, but did not inspire a lot of imitators. Perhaps because the comedy revolution in HK was still in its early phases; or perhaps it was just five years ahead of its time. In 1982, Sammo produced another horror comedy, The Dead And The Deadly. Featuring the same cast as Spooky Encounters, it also wasn't followed by a horde of knock-offs. In 1984, he tried again with Hocus Pocus. Again, no takers. In 1985, the genre finally took hold with the release of the Sammo-produced Mr. Vampire, the first in Hong Kong's longest series of vampire comedies. The film is a radical change from Hung's earlier attempts, and the vampire comedy genre emerges from Mr. Vampire fully-formed, as if it had just emerged from a cocoon - or a coffin.
Ricky Hui burns incense to placate the dead in Mr. Vampire.
Taoist priests use more incense than a class of college freshman at Berkeley.
Mr. Vampire added two new rules to the genre, solidifying the basic formula that would be followed by all of its progeny.
Rule 4: The Taoist priest is the star. Lam Ching Ying, a gifted actor, thrilling fighter and opera student (watch 1981's The Prodigal Son for a full sampling of Lam's abilities) had a roles in Sammo's earlier horror comedies, but in Mr. Vampire, he finally assumed the role of the Taoist priest, a role that controlled the next twelve years of his life (he died, at the age of 45, of liver cancer in 1997).
In nearly every film, Lam's priest is a combination of magician and stern kung fu master. Grumpy, but hiding a tender heart, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of the spells and rituals that became increasingly complex throughout the development of the vampire comedy. He's also recognizable by his bizarre eyebrows (or, more commonly, unibrow). Lam would go on to star or appear in at least 15 vampire comedies before his death, and his priest is often cited as a highlight of every single film.
Lam Ching Ying in the costume, and eyebrow, that would define the last twelve years of his life.
Rule 5: The Priest will have two bumbling assistants. One will be especially bumbling and ineffectual, the other will be somewhat irresponsible but have kung fu skills when the need arises.
Really, a Taoist priest's life would be so simple without his students. He captures an evil vampire and their silly games free it again. He starts a ritual and they've bought the wrong kind of rice. He tells them not to fall prey to beautiful women (see Rule 2) and they go off and get possessed. Almost invariably it is the assistants' mistakes that free the villainous vampire and set the plot in motion.
But the second, less ineffectual assistant is always there with an impressive kick or stunt when the time is right. Mr. Vampire follows the example of Spooky Encounters by interweaving impressive fight choreography with the vampires and comedy, another reason the physically gifted Lam Ching Ying was so popular in the priest role.
Fighting and stunts, like this one by Siu-hou Chin in Mr. Vampire, added excitement to the vampire comedy genre.
By 1985, the rules were set and a genre was born - an incredibly popular genre. Hong Kong rarely goes halfway; if an idea is popular, hordes of producers will seize on it and sequels will appear at a dizzying pace. Exact numbers are hard to determine, but a conservative estimate is that between 1985 and 1990, at least 45 horror comedies were released, including three sequels to Mr. Vampire.2 Almost one third of these films were released in 1990, the peak of vampire comedy production. Hong Kong at this time was one of the world's largest film producers, turning out an incredible amount of films. But, even if these 45 films were only a small portion of the total output, that's still a lot of vampire comedy and the genre quickly began to wear out its welcome.
Many of these films replicated the Mr. Vampire formula: Fighting + Horror + Comedy = Box Office Gold! But not all of the films were simple retreads. In 1987, Tsui Hark, who combined western effects and traditional Chinese wuxia pian swordplay stories in Zu, Warriors of The Magic Mountain (1983), produced Chinese Ghost Story, updating the Shaw Brothers 1960 supernatural melodrama The Enchanting Shadow. Tsui's movie uses some of the established conventions, such as the Taoist fighter played by Hong Kong veteran Wu Ma, but is more interested in the lush visuals and the combination of Evil Dead-style effects and weepy Chinese romances. Less slapsticky and better acted, thanks to the late Leslie Cheung, Chinese Ghost Story is no less bizarre than its bawdy brethren; few movies sport tree demon villains who kill with thousand-foot-long tongues. The film, like nearly all films in Hong Kong, was followed by sequels.
The influence of western horror films on the creatures of Chinese Ghost Story is obvious.
But western influences can't explain the giant tongue that has encircled Leslie Cheung.
That's pure Tsui Hark.
Even the films that copied directly out of the Mr. Vampire book added new twists that make each film a unique, bizarre experience. A later, non-supernatural Hong Kong film captures the genre perfectly with its title Expect the Unexpected (1998). Disembodied onanism? That's in Spooky Spooky (1986). Spiritual opera battles? Check out Hocus Pocus (1984). Zombies who look like members of Flock Of Seagulls? Go straight to Ultimate Vampire (1987). Lumpy, alien-like ghosts that can be distracted by menstrual blood? The Dead and the Deadly (1982), of course! All Chinese vampire films may start with the same set of rules, but each mutates them to create a constantly surprising genre.
After 1990, the production of vampire comedies began to wane and producers were obviously trying to find wacky ways to renew interest. Crazy Safari (1991) is a Mutt & Jeff pairing of vampire comedy and The Gods Must Be Crazy. One review captured the essence of the film in a single phrase, "Holy shit!", which is exactly what most people say after watching Lam Ching Ying ride an ostrich.
Political subtext fills the screen when Taoist priest Lam Ching Ying meets Catholic priest Wu Ma in Exorcist Master.
In another attempt at innovation, Chinese vampires met western vampires in films like Vampire vs. Vampire (aka, One-Eyebrow Priest, 1989), Doctor Vampire (1990) and Exorcist Master (1993). These films, along with Tsui Hark's Chinese Ghost Story films, transform readings of the vampire comedy genre from lewd comedies to an attempt to salvage traditional Chinese mythology from encroaching western media. Hong Kong's conflicted feelings over British rule and the impending handover to China manifest themselves in the various treatments of western and Chinese vampires. In some films, all vampires are villains and must be destroyed. In others, the western vampires are an invading army, defeated by Chinese vampires or the power of Chinese Taoism.
Mr. Vampire gave gyonshi fangs, although many vampire comedies left them out.
Imitation, overexposure, the decline of the Hong Kong film industry and the early death of the genre's greatest star sent vampire comedies back to the grave. Between 1991 and 1994, about a twenty vampire comedies were made; still a lot, but a significant drop off from the vampire-mad late 80s. After 1994, in which only two vampire comedies were released, the films disappear from Hong Kong theaters.
Of course the undying gyonshi continue to hop up from time to time; 2001 saw the release of Vampire Controller, and Tsui Hark returned to the genre with the animated version of Chinese Ghost Story (1997) and The Era of Vampires (2002, released in the US as Vampire Hunters) but, more often than not, vampires in today's Hong Kong films, such as 2003's The Twins Effect (to be released in the US as The Vampire Effect), are of the western, non-hopping variety. Perhaps the political subtext of the battles with western vampire were spookily prescient.
Hong Kong's appetite for horror didn't disappear along with the gyonshi. Cheap and quick horror compilations, featuring two or three self-contained stories, took the place of vampire comedies in the mid-90s. Troublesome Night, the best known horror compilation series, has pumped out 20 installments over the last six years. Beyond these quickie compilation films, Hong Kongies were increasingly finding their scares in a new wave of Asian horror.
1: Many people have used "The Rules" in order to explain vampire comedies. I am indebted to Stephan Hammond and Mike Wilkins, authors of Sex and Zen: A Bullet In The Head, for introducing me to the commandments of comedy horror.
2: These numbers are just short of wild-ass guesses. Searching through IMDb and the Hong Kong Movie Database turns up around 40 vampire horror comedies. But a quick skim through reference guides like Asian Trash Cinema turns up several dozen films that don't appear in any other film database. Many of these films were made on the super-cheap by companies that have long since disappeared, taking the films with them. In this primer, I've mostly stuck to talking about the available horror comedies, but there are dozens more films available to the dedicated searcher.