What elements do you need to create a genuinely entertaining film? Action? Comedy? Horror? Great characters? An unnerving air of unpredictability? The 1980 Hong Kong movie, Encounters Of The Spooky Kind, has all those elements and more. It’s a strange, supernatural brew of mild gore, frequently hilarious comedy, and some of the most extraordinary kung fu sequences ever committed to film.
Following Jacob Walker’s excellent article on the world of supernatural kung fu movies earlier this month (linked at the bottom), I was inspired to return to Encounters Of The Spooky Kind (also known as Gui da Gui, which means Ghost Fights Ghost), the film that popularised an entire subgenre of Jiang Shi (or stiff corpse) Hong Kong action cinema. Even after a fourth or fifth viewing, Encounters remains a genuinely exciting, unusual movie, and even after several years of CG- and wire-filled Hollywood action films, its fight scenes are still filled with maniacal energy.Encounters was written, directed and choreographed by its star, Sammo Hung, who famously fought against Bruce Lee in the opening sequence of Enter The Dragon, and had enjoyed moderate success in 1979 with Magnificent Butcher, which he co-directed with the legendary Yuen Woo-Ping.
In fact, Hung had been involved in over a hundred films between 1961 and Encounters‘ release in December 1980, either as an actor (he’d begun making movie appearances when he was just nine years old), co-writer, producer or action director.
It was undoubtedly Encounters Of The Spooky Kind that made Hung’s name in Asia, however, and even more than thirty years on, it’s not difficult to see why. Its energy, humour and charisma really is infectious. Where else could you hope to see talking funeral urns, hopping zombies, fighting warriors possessed by monkey gods, or supernatural fire fights held some thirty feet above the ground on telescopic altars?
Set in turn of the century Hong Kong, Hung stars as Courageous Cheung (or Bold Cheung, depending on the translator), a simple pedicab driver whose constant claims of bravery get him into all kinds of trouble. Cheung is too dim to realise that his cuckolding wife is having an affair with wealthy, evil squire, Master Tam (Ha Huang), nor does he realise that said squire has also hired an equally evil necromancer called Chin Hoi (Lung Chan) to assassinate him.
Duped into spending the night in an abandoned, haunted temple by one of Chin’s cronies, Cheung’s fortunes take a turn for the better when he meets a priest called Tsui (Fat Chung) who provides Cheung with the tactics he needs to survive an evening with a hopping zombie.
So begins a 90-minute onslaught of supernatural chills, kung fu and horror. To describe much more of the plot would do the film a disservice, partially because it deserves to be experienced without preconceptions, but also because it rattles so insanely from one spooky encounter to another that it almost defies adequate explanation.
Lam Ching-Ying, who would score a supernatural hit of his own with Mr Vampire in 1985, memorably shows up as a dogged police inspector with some startling fighting skills, and Chung Fat displays genuine charisma as Cheung’s mentor and guardian angel.
Encounters truly belongs to Sammo Hung, though, whose capacity for both comedy and athletic kung fu are showcased extraordinarily well here. Few movies, in Hong Kong or without, have mixed action, horror and comedy as well as this one, and much of that is down to Hung’s expert direction and acting. In an era when kung fu movies were made at breakneck speed (Hung was involved in the making of no fewer than four films in 1980 alone), Encounters is beautifully shot at times, with great framing from cinematographers Yu-tang Li and Cho-Hua Wu.
Diehard kung fu fans may be a little concerned at how long it takes for the kung fu sequences to appear, but Hung rewards their patience with some of the most imaginatively choreographed fighting sequences of the 80s. Several minutes of almost unbearable stillness, where Cheung cowers as a zombie hunts for him in a dusty, darkened temple, is brought to a close with a superb fight scene, in which Cheung attempts to return the reanimated corpse back to its stone coffin. It’s a sequence of events that demonstrates how well Hung mixes genres, with moments of genuine suspense contrasted with hectic combat and splashes of physical comedy.
Hung makes imaginative use of Chinese mythology and Taoist principles, too. Hopping corpses may seem incongruous to western eyes, but Hung manages to invest them with humour and menace. Thanks to Encounters, we also learn that chicken eggs (but not duck eggs) have a devastating impact on the undead, that corpses can imbibe the life force from the living to reanimate themselves, and that the presence of a black cat will also bring a dead body violently to life.
Some things about Encounters haven’t aged too well. The depiction and treatment of Cheung’s wife is more than a little misogynistic (though her eventual comeuppance may provoke uneasy laughs from some), and a chicken suffers an unfortunate fate that may upset some viewers of a delicate disposition. (Encounters Of The Spooky Kind isn’t alone in this latter point. Jackie Chan’s 1978 film, Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow, contained an unpleasant sequence in which a cat fights and kills a serpent, a scene wisely trimmed out by the BBFC.)
There are far more aspects of Encounters Of The Spooky Kind, however, that are utterly timeless. The 20-minute kung fu scene at the back end of the film, in which a possessed Cheung fights and vanquishes his enemies using a variety of weapons and styles, is then topped off with a remarkable high wire stunt involving copious amounts of fire, tumbling stunt men, and a final mishap that will surely have audiences gagging with unexpected laughter.Encounters Of The Spooky Kind would go on to inspire numerous other excellent Hong Kong martial arts/horror mash-ups, and some sequences even appear to have had an impact on Sam Raimi’s own horror comedy, Evil Dead, though this may well be a coincidence.
For me, though, Encounters Of The Spooky Kind remains the definitive Jiang Shi movie, and remains high up on my list of all-time favourite action movies.