Mr. Vampire Review
The Hong Kong horror genre was redefined back in 1985 when producer Sammo Hung and director Ricky Lau brought the now legendary Mr Vampire to the screen. Using a combination of broad comedic touches, acrobatic displays of martial arts action and traditional Chinese mythology Mr Vampire became so much more than the sum of its parts thanks to the stories key character, Uncle Kau, a Taoist master whose portrayal by the late Lam Ching-ying captured the audiences to a degree that he was sadly typecast to the point of tedium. Seventeen years later and we are finally given the chance to sample this classic on DVD here in the UK. As a first time viewer though, I had my doubts as any film with this kind of background can only disappoint. Or can it?
Lam Ching-ying stars as Uncle Kau, a Taoist master who as a result of his work frequently comes into contact with various ghouls, ghosts and as the title suggests, vampires. As the film opens we initially come into contact with his two students, Sheng (Chin Siu-ho) who is the more skilled of the students and helps combat evil with his master, and Man Choi (Ricky Hui), the bumbling comedy sidekick of the two. In the opening minutes we see a trick that Sheng has played on Man Choi go wrong which results in a group of 'client' vampires escaping the control of their master and as such their instincts take over as they hop towards their prey. Fortunately Uncle Kau comes along just in time to save the day as we get our first demonstration of the use of sacred paper and other methods of stopping the vampires, all of which will no doubt be quite new to those more familiar with western vampire tales.
Getting the main plot underway we see that Uncle Kau has been asked to assist in the reburial of Mr. Yams (Huang Ha) father, but when his body is exhumed after 20-years Uncle Kau knows something is wrong when we see that it is still in perfect condition. He is of course a vampire and a very powerful one at that who manages to escape with his first port of call being his son, Mr. Yam, who is in turn killed and all set to become a vampire. This is where the story really gets underway as Uncle Kau and his students must battle not only against the two vampires but must also contest against the idiot police chief and deal with two effective sub-plots that fuel the action further.
To answer my initial question Mr Vampire does not disappoint. In terms of plotting the story is far more competent than most found in Hong Kong cinema from 1985, the main reason being the level of engrossing storylines occurring. The main one is of course that of defeating the vampire, which in itself is something different to what you might be expecting. Chinese vampires do not dress in aristocratic western outfits nor do they have servants and ride around in a horse and carriage! Instead they are usually dressed in traditional Chinese clothing and are generally unable to walk or see, so instead they hop around and locate their victims via their breath and when it comes to killing they tend to prefer the use of their long pointed nails rather than their fangs (which they do possess). In Mr. Vampire we see these Chinese vampires along with a more powerful vampire who is capable of walking around slightly more naturally and can also see, which means he poses a big threat to Uncle Kau and this makes for compelling viewing as he and Sheng employ exciting martial arts and Taoist methods to trap and finally destroy the vampire.
Making things all the more difficult for Uncle Kau are the aforementioned sub-plots that see Sheng pursued by a beautiful female ghost (Pauline Wong) who, looking for comfort, lures him into her trap which though appealing is threatening his life. All the while Man Choi, who has been infected by a vampire, is slowly beginning to change with quite humorous results, though the methods employed by Uncle Kau to save him are even more enjoyable! Comedy is another triumph of Mr. Vampire as we are treated to some of the better goofy antics that often take place in these movies with the various physical and verbal jokes working that much better thanks to the straight faced portrayal of Uncle Kau by Lam Ching-ying. I should also imagine that the majority of western audiences would find an added layer of humour within the portrayal of vampires, as their hopping nature is sure to raise a smile due to the bizarre appearance of it all!
I guess the only area where Mr. Vampire disappoints is as a horror film because even though I have to admit to flinching on occasion due to some well placed musical accompaniment there is little else here to satisfy those looking for true horror. With that said Mr. Vampire never comes across as a film that is going down the true horror route, rather it is a film that is looking to entertain within the horror genre much like Sam Raimi's crowning glory, Evil Dead 2, and in that respect Mr. Vampire works superbly well.
This Hong Kong Legends DVD is region 2 and 4 encoded. You can find a review of the Region 0 Megastar effort by our very own Michael Brooke here.
Presented in its original 1.78:1 Widescreen Aspect Ratio with anamorphic enhancement this is another triumph for Hong Kong Legends. The print sourced is in immaculate condition with not a single speck of dust or mark to be seen while grain is only present in a very minor form. Detail levels are pleasingly high with close up shots in particular looking quite superb while the gorgeous colour rendering and superb handling of black levels only helps to enhance your viewing pleasure. The encoding of this transfer has been handled with care and as such you will not find any signs of compression artefacts while the layer change is well placed and barely noticeable as a result.
The original Cantonese language soundtrack is presented in a remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 track as is the alternative (and only worth sampling for a giggle) English Dub track. Both offer the same basic mix which utilises the surrounds to project the score and the occasional well placed sound effect while the centre speaker outputs the dialogue in a clean manner with directional effects when required. Special note must be made for use of the subwoofer as HKL have taken the opportunity to enhance the 'hopping' sound of the vampires via the LFE channel, quite effective it is too.
The player generated English subtitle track is presented in an easy to read white font and contains no spelling or grammatical errors that I noticed. Something that should be pointed out is that the Mr Vampire subtitle track has been heavily criticised in terms of translation quality and there are errors that even the casual viewer might pick up on. These include Man Choi requesting a 'coke' in the English restaurant (the error is glaringly obvious considering the films time setting) and Uncle Kau referring to Man Choi by his English Dub name of 'Malcolm' at another point - both errors would suggest somebody was referring to the English Dub track during the translation process which is something of a worry. Another oversight is the lack of subtitles for the song used to introduce Pauline Wong's character.
Without wanting to sound like I am defending these errors it has to be said that to the majority of viewers these errors will mean nothing and the other faults apparently present in the translation will go by unnoticed, much like they did for myself.
Kicking off the proceedings with an Audio Commentary from Hong Kong Cinema Expert Bey Logan is always a sure-fire way to guarantee at least one worthwhile extra feature and as was to be expected Mr Logan does not disappoint. As a huge fan of the film and a great admirer of its primary star, Lam Ching-ying, Bey talks with great enthusiasm about the movie, its production and of Lam Ching-ying of whom he divulges a brief life history alongside a few stories he has obtained on good authority over his time in the Hong Kong movie industry. Of course every other primary actor is discussed briefly while other character actors who have moved on to greater things are pointed out as we go along but the main subject discussed throughout the film is that of the Chinese beliefs in Taoism and its many forms and rituals. Offering a greater insight to the films proceedings (although those who have listened to the superb commentary track on Encounters of the Spooky Kind may already know some of the facts) and on its cast and crew this is another informative and entertaining commentary track.
Moving in to the Special Features section of the disc you will first find a Tribute to Lam Ching-Ying section that contains a 21 page biography on the late great actor which covers his early days at a Peking Opera School to his work with mentors Bruce Lee and Sammo Hung and of course his work in films up until his death. Also present in this section is a 10-minute Memories of the Master segment that sees Lam Ching-ying's good friend and mentor Sammo Hung discuss his thoughts and fond memories on Ching-ying, while we also see some interview snippets with Chin Siu-ho who worked with Ching-ying on the Mr. Vampire film.
Next up is the Trailer Gallery which contains the HKL Promotional Trailer for Mr. Vampire and the original 4-minute Hong Kong Theatrical Trailer for the film. Both are presented in Anamorphic Widescreen.
The final section in the Special Features area of the disc is an extensive Interview Gallery. The first person under the spotlight is co-star Chin Siu-ho who speaks at length about his time on the Mr. Vampire project as he goes into the work put in by himself, the director, cameramen and more in an interesting and highly informative 42-minute interview. Also under the spotlight is Moon Lee who plays Mr. Yam’s daughter Ting-ting, and is seen here in a different interview to the one found on the more recent Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain disc. Here Moon Lee covers some similar ground when she discusses her entrance into the movie industry and her current 'Action Musical' dance project but she also has some amusing anecdotes from the set of Mr. Vampire to divulge, most of which strangely involve Chin Siu-ho who must have been keeping quiet about his mischievous on-set antics in his own interview!
All of the extra features on this disc are presented in Anamorphic Widescreen and it is worth noting that a fairly large number of clips from Mr. Vampire make it in to the various video segments, as do clips of a few other films including My Lucky Stars which I am beginning to believe we will see in its entirety in clip-form before the film is finally released!
The combination of an engrossing story, a fine cast with a scene stealing performance by Lam Ching-ying, some great comedy and as ever a wonderful blend of martial arts action Mr. Vampire is a highly enjoyable romp that comes well recommended to both newcomers and fans alike. And of course this Hong Kong Legends DVD is the only way to even consider owning this film thanks to a fine presentation and yet another great set of extra features.