Tsui Hark's Vampire Hunters
May 21st, 2003
After a career in Asia that led him to be hailed as the “Hong Kong Spielberg” in Time Magazine, director Tsui Hark joined his contemporaries like John Woo, Chow Yun-Fat and Jackie Chan as the leaders in an Asian Invasion of Hollywood nearly a decade ago. Unlike his colleagues, Hark never found an American project that would give him the kind of international success he enjoyed with films like “Once Upon A Time in China” and “Zu Warriors.” Like French filmmaker Luc Besson, he made two commercially unsuccessful films in the States before leaving for home, where he has reclaimed his spot as one of the region’s most influential filmmakers. And while his latest feature is being billed as ”Tsui Hark’s Vampire Hunters,” he acts only as writer and producer here. As directed by veteran Hong Kong filmmaker Wellson Chin, “Vampire Hunters” is a passable attempt to mix the cheesy do-it-yourself effects of Sam Raimi’s first two “Evil Dead” movies with the historical epic on a budget aesthetics of a “The Bride With White Hair.” While it never quite equals the levels of its obvious influences, it is still worth watching to the end.
In 19th century China during the Ching Dynasty, we are introduced to Master Mao Shan (Ji Chun Hua), a master vampire hunter, who explains to his disciples the process where a soul not yet resting in peace can build up and trap so much negative energy in its dead body that is has no choice but to become a zombie roaming the lands. Their main concern, however, is with finding the Vampire King himself, who can turn zombies into part of his vampire coven. The master and his students are separated when the group is attacked by the Vampire King at the grave of a much-respected general, as the master losing his battle with the big bad and his pupils run away.
Several months later, four of the master’s not-quite-learned apprentices, known as Lightning, Wind, Rain and Thunder, are having difficulties tracking a spirit. Their trail leads them to the house of Master Jiang (Yu Rong Guang), a practitioner of preserving dead bodies through a special wax formula. This evening, a wedding between Jiang’s son and Sasa, a local girl, is in progress at the house and the four are hired to help with the ceremony. The next morning, the son, who has been married six previous times but has seen all his wives die shortly after the wedding, is found to have died from a poisonous snake bite. The butler quits in shame, and the four heroes find themselves being hired on by Master Jiang to kill the snake and take care of the large estate. Fortunately, the Jiang house is a place where many other strange happenings occur, so they are kept rather busy.
We soon learn that, unbeknownst to Sasa, her brother Dragon Tang set up her marriage with Jiang’s butler in an attempt to learn the location of the rumored Jiang fortune. After an attempt by several of his henchmen to rob the Jiang home while the wedding ceremony was in progress, which is cut short by an attack by the Vampire King, Dragon hires a Zombie Wrangler to awaken the spirits of the many late Jiang family members housed within the walls of the family home, expecting to keep Master Jiang busy long enough to locate the hidden treasure. The Vampire King, alerted to the multitude of zombie bodies bouncing around the Jiang residence, pays a visit to the home, leading to a multi-leveled climatic battle involving Jiang, Dragon Tang, The Vampire King and the vampire hunters.
The main problem with the film, presented with its original Cantonese soundtrack with English subtitles, is that little distinction is made between the four lead vampire hunters. Each are supposedly named for the elements which they able to control, but they are never given any chances to show off. Nor does it help they are only referred to by name only three or four times, mostly in the film’s dénouement. Mostly, we are able to tell them apart by their actions or appearances, not by any specific character traits. Produced on a reported budget of approximately one million American dollars, the film is technically unimpressive, with a number of scenes involving special effects being darkened to the point one can barely see what’s going on. The makeup effects, what little is actually shown, can leave much to be desired. Thankfully, however, the many kung fu sequences more than make up for the film’s low budget limitations.
Opening on the midnight film circuit in major markets this summer, the film should find an enthusiastic cult audience looking for some chills and thrills.
I give the film a B for effort and a C for execution. If you are in the mood for an action-packed Hong Kong martial arts/horror film, then “Tsui Hark’s Vampire Hunters” is very much the film for you.
"Tsui Hark's Vampire Hunters" Scorecard
Director: Wellson Chin
Writer: Tsui Hark
Producer: Tsui Hark
Cinematography: Joe Chan Kwong Hung (HKSC), Sunny Tsang Tat Sze (HKSC), Herman Yau Kai To (HKSC)
Featuring: Anya, Ken Chang, Michael Chow, Yu Rong Guang, Ji Chun Hua, Chan Kwok Kwan, Horace Lee Wai Shing, Lam Suet, Chan Koon Tai
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence and gore
Running Time: 90 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Sound Format: Dolby Digital
May 23: Landmark's Rialto Theatre, South Pasadena CA
May 23-24: Laemmle's Sunset 5, West Hollywood CA
May 30: City Cinemas Village East Theatre, New York NY
May 30: Restaurant Row 9, Honolulu HI
June 6: Camera 3, San Jose CA
June 7: Landmark's Mayan Theatre, Denver CO
June 7: Landmark's Uptown Theatre, Minneapolis MN
June 13: Avon Theatre, Providence RI
June 13: Bijou Art Cinemas, Eugene OR
My rating: C