Tsui Hark’s Vampire Hunters aka The Era of Vampires (2003)
Dir. Wellson Chin
Written by Tsui Hark
Starring Ken Chang, Michael Man-Kin Chow, Suet Lam
Somewhere in fantasy-world 17th century China, a master vampire hunter (Chun Hua Ji, THE LEGEND II) gets separated from his four irreverent disciples Fat (Michael Chow, POLICE STORY 2), Choi (Chan Kwok Kwan, Bruce Lee in IP MAN 3), Hei (Ken Chang, SPL: KILL ZONE) and Kung (Lam Suet, ELECTION). Given the proliferation of vampires in the area, the four decide to strike out on their own, and end up infiltrating the house of Master Jiang (Yu Rong Guang, IRON MONKEY, MY FATHER IS A HERO), the extremely creepy patriarch of a wealthy family whose primary hobby seems to be preserving the corpses of deceased family members in an elaborate house of wax (this is not a spoiler, they openly admit to doing this). Recently, Jiang’s son has married another in a long series of mysteriously deceased wives (Anya, THE DEVIL INSIDE ME), only to have the son himself unexpectedly kick off and end up getting the wax treatment. Seems like there’s probably something vampire-y going on here, one would think, especially considering the title. But the four vampire-hunters (which in the parlance of Hong Kong cinema translates, obviously, to “kung fu masters”) are really more interested in the buried treasure which is said to be located somewhere nearby, and, as a secondary goal, perving out on the young widow who is now stuck in a somewhat macabre living situation with her in-laws.
Now, that sounds exactly like the kind of imaginative, ludicrous nonsense you’d want from Tsui Hark, the infamous Hong Kong madman who specializes in nutty, outrageous martial arts fare like his ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA series, and, most notably to me, Jean Claude Van Damme’s legendarily insane one-two punch of DOUBLE TEAM (which teamed JCVD up with Dennis Rodman and his inexplicable basketball parachute) and KNOCK OFF (which makes time for Rob Schneider repeatedly whipping Van Damme on the ass with an eel, and I’m not even a little joking). Hark wrote the screenplay here, and it’s plenty crazy, casting a wide net into the sea of Hong Kong and Western horror and action tropes and dragging the resulting pile back to shore to fester in the sun. But behind the camera is Wellson Chin (Qi yue shi si*), who has enjoyed an arguably less notable career, in that of his 19 movies as director, only 5 even have titles which have been translated into English. And one of those stars Cynthia Rothrock. This presents a problem, because while there might be a smattering of fun ideas in Hark’s ADD-addled screenplay, Chin’s execution of those ideas is too bland and lazy to make much of them.
It’s not a total disaster, but you’d think with Hark on board and an absolutely absurd amount of hopping vampires, this would be a little more memorable. Unfortunately it’s more generic than crazy, and too pedestrian to have much impact without better gimmicks. It’s not dull exactly; there’s almost always something happening and a fight is never more than a few minutes away. Problem is, there aren’t really any big showstoppers. The fights are serviceable, but short and lacking in any unique gimmicks or personality, and the film gets bafflingly little milage out of its kung fu master vs supernatural flying corpse conceit. It’s not that they don’t fight, because they do, it’s just never a particularly good fight. That basic problem is at the heart of the film’s dysfunction. I love hopping vampires (and there are plenty here**) but they don’t really DO a lot here. A really creepy concept with a whole house full of embalmed wax corpses doesn’t pay off at all (although it definitely does get the skin crawling a little). Yu Rong Guan has some nice beats as a not-quite-villain who’s nonetheless thoroughly creepy and a little deranged, but he turns out to be relatively unimportant. See what I’m getting at here? The story is needlessly overpacked with underdeveloped ideas and ends up being debilitatingly convoluted with unacceptably little payoff. It’s crammed with subplots and characters that don’t add up to much and just serve to clutter up a martial arts vs flying monsters setup that, by all rights, ought to have been completely straightforward. Hell, there is no defensible reason why the movie even needs four (and eventually five) vampire hunters. Only one ends up doing anything meaningful.
At least it’s shot like a horror movie, with no shortage of backlit fog and some pretty good-looking framings of the wax corpses, which are far and away the coolest thing in here. There's a sprinkling of nifty and gross-looking vampire designs, too. But the “comedy” pretty much undoes any atmosphere it can must long before it has any impact. Hong Kong comedy is a dish I never much took to anyway, and even by its usual shrill standards this seems pretty low-rent. The film is better as a horror movie, but it’s only ever intermittently a horror movie, and rather incidentally at that. It's much more interested in being an action movie. Alas, the action is workmanlike, but with approximately 180,000 similar Hong Kong period-set supernatural martial arts movies to compete with, “workmanlike” isn’t gonna cut it. And that all adds up to something a Tsui Hark movie about flying vampires and wax corpses and kung fu nonsense ought never, ever to be: unmemorable.
*I picked that one from a fairly long and completely undistinguished Hong Kong B-movie career (which translates outside Hong Kong to “Z or lower”) because the IMDB description is pretty special: ”Two undercover cops are forced to be a team to find a serial killer. Chow is straight-laced and Lau has ESP. The victims were all childhood friends. The killer is a ghost!”
**Though I guess they’re demoted to “zombies”? In VAMPIRE HUNTERS’ opinion, vampires are flying demigods which are the result of “zombies” (traditional Jiangshi) getting, I dunno, left out too long in the sun I guess and inexplicably gaining super powers.
CHAINSAWNUKAH 2016 CHECKLIST!
Good Kill Hunting
ERA OF THE VAMPIRES
Five Heroes. A Coven Of Vampires [sic]. A Lot Of Bad Blood.
It’s definitely a Tsui Hark-scripted movie about Vampire Hunters
No, although I could dimly see that being worthwhile, with some major narrative streamlining.
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN
Hopping Vampire / Demon Hunter / Kung Fu
BELOVED HORROR ICON?
I wanna say none?
WHEN ANIMALS ATTACK!
None, though some horses become victims again
GHOST/ ZOMBIE / HAUNTED BUILDING?
“Zombies” and “Vampires”
Wax bodies of the dead
Human into zombie into vampire
Yes, our heroes watch a girl bathe and then bicker about it. Not about if it's an indefensible invasion of privacy, of course, just about who should get to bang her.
MORAL OF THE STORY
Hunting vampires obviously requires a surprising expertise in Kung Fu. But then again, a lot of stuff does when you start to think about it.