Celebrating the world of supernatural kung fu

Jacob salutes the might of supernatural kung fu movies, with a tip of the hat to Chinese vampires and ghost stories along the way...

The 1980s were a great period for cinema, heralding original ideas and forward thinking, which is now being reprocessed by a Hollywood bereft of the risk and daring associated with the decade in the first place.

Of course, Hong Kong action cinema was no different. Jackie Chan had just signed with Golden Harvest, a young Yuen Biao had shown his acrobatic prowess in Knockabout (1984) and Sammo Hung  (Kam-Bo ) was busy making the innovative Encounter Of The Spooky Kind (1980) hence giving birth to ‘the supernatural kung fu’ genre.

Sammo included kung fu action, comedy and traditional ghost stories to produce something of brilliance. However, even though this was a fantastic offshoot from traditional kung fu, it was also a frustrating one, as so few of the films held up to the early promise. Are there reasons for this decline from such great pictures? And can the twenty-first century give rise to more hopping vampires?

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There had been a few kung fu films in the 70s that contained supernatural elements. Phantom Kun Fu (1979)featured zombies and people returning from the dead, while Jackie Chan’s Spiritual Kung-Fu (1978) included ghosts with orange wigs and Hawaiian shirts. Needless to say, neither was a hit.

It took the guiding hand of Hung Kam-Bo to bring the right elements together to make Encounter Of The Spooky Kind an instant success.

The film, also directed by Sammo, tells the story of Bold Cheung, a well meaning, but downtrodden servant whose wife is having an affair with his boss. It gets worse for Cheung, as he becomes the victim of an assassination attempt from a Taoist priest using black magic funded by the evil boss.

The film was only available in the UK in the late 90s and gave an insight into the Chinese supernatural, which had some key differences to what we had become accustomed to. Mr Vampire (1985) was available at the same time, but actually came out five years after Encounter Of The Spooky Kind.

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This film, literally translated as Mr. Stiff Corpse, reiterated the myth of the Chinese vampire, which far from being a charming seduction expert like Count Dracula, had more in common with a zombie. Becoming rigid and unhappy at death, they had no emotion or character left, just a stiff body, which had to hop to travel and killed with their long nails instead of teeth.

Sticky rice replaced garlic, but a sword to the heart and burning still appeared to dispatch these adversaries. Mr Vampire concerns an undertaker named Uncle Kau (played by the late Lam Ching-Ying) and his incompetent students dealing with a wealthy man’s dead father, who had not been buried properly and has thus turned into a formidable vampire. The film was directed by Ricky Lau, but produced by Sammo Hung’s Bo Ho Film Company. It was hugely popular in China and the eastern film market. The audience loved the manifestation of all the ghost stories they knew as children, as well as loving the action and comedy.

So, if you wanted to demonstrate this genre to a newcomer, they would surely be spoilt for choice. Unfortunately, no. Unsurprisingly, the Mr Vampire sequels couldn’t live up to the original and Lam Ching-Ying’s many efforts are below par.

What Mr Vampire and Encounter Of The Spooky Kind get right is balance. The action, comedy and supernatural story telling are just right, whereas, especially in the case of Mr Vampire 2 (1986), which is unwisely set in contemporary Hong Kong, the slapstick comedy overpowers the other elements. There’s simply too much prolonged silliness that detracts from everything else. Consequently, there’s less action and less mythology.

The characters are, of course, important. Uncle Kau is a great protagonist. He’s wise in the Taoist arts as well as a skilled martial artist, and he’s also a respected member of the community who tires of his student’s recklessness.

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So, you would assume, as did the Hong Kong film industry, that you could place him in any film and it would prevail. This doesn’t work, as he needs to be surrounded by good characters as well.

Supporting characters, Man Choi and Chou have their faults, but ultimately help their master and always have good intentions.

In Mr Vampire 3 (1987) Kau’s student is a horrible, unlikeable character, who is constantly engaged in slapstick foolery that would drive Charlie Chaplin to tears of frustration. The film has some exciting moments ,but it lacks any vampires!

The reason for the decline in standard appears to be a decision to have less horror and more comedy, which appeals to a wider audience. The budget and the creativity also dropped significantly, as studios became lazy, hastily trying to recreate the formula that worked so well before.

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Hollywood did eventually adopt the martial artist vampire hunter. Traditionally, in Western vampire stories, you would be lucky to have a fistfight with a vampire. Van Helsing used to sneak into Dracula’s chamber while he was sleeping, but never physically fight him. Blade broke the mould in 1998 and Van Helsing was subsequently turned into an action character in 2004.

Sadly, after Lam Ching-Ying died in 1997, Hong Kong cinema moved away from the genre, focusing on wuxia and contemporary action films instead.

Is a resurgence supernatural king fu films likely? This is certainly possible. Many classic titles are being reimagined for the twenty-first century, from Shaolin Temple, originally famous for being Jet Li’s first film, to The One-Armed Swordsman, with workaholic Donnie Yen becoming the titular disabled hero in a film called Swordsmen, out later this year. Storm Warriors (2009) proves the effects have reached a new level and there’s certainly a wealth of mystical stories yet to be committed to celluloid.

It’s up to the audience to show their enthusiasm for this unique genre and to pressure the studios into an almighty revival. (Sammo as a Taoist priest, anyone?)

In the unlikely event you haven’t seen Mr. Vampire, try watching it after you have exhausted the genre, so you can revel in one of the best examples of Hong Kong cinema. If only all vampires could hop.