31 (More) Days of Fright: Mr. Vampire

No need to hold your breath: Mr. Vampire doesn’t stink!

This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,500 (which, when matched by my employer, totals $3,000). As a result, I now have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies: one each night. Any donors who contributed over $30 were given the option to choose one of the horror movies I must subject myself to. After each viewing, I will write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers, and many of them will refer to unpleasant and potentially triggering situations. Today’s film came from my very supportive friend Liane Fong’s suggestion that I watch a movie featuring “hopping vampires.” So, I went with the film that launched a thousand hopping vampire flicks: Mr. Vampire (1985), directed by Ricky Lau (The Romance of the Vampires). I rented Mr. Vampire from Toronto’s Queen Video.

What happens:

For the uninitiated, the “hopping vampires” of Chinese folklore, or jiangshi can be a disorienting phenomenon. Aside from being undead, having long fangs, and operating by night, there’s not a lot that connects them with their Eastern European counterparts. They usually move by hopping around with their stiffened arms outstretched, and aren’t injured by things like wooden stakes or crucifixes (obvs). But they’ve been depicted in literature and film since the Qing Dynasty, and saw a real resurgence following Ricky Lau’s debut Hong Kong horror-comedy, Mr. Vampire.

A buffoonish Taoist student, Man-Choi (our director, Ricky Lau) is on night duty at the temple, making sure he “feeds” the corpses in the stone coffins their nightly incense, and that the candle that stands in front of eight inert vampires stays lit. The vampires (jiangshi) wear traditional Chinese dress and have paper ribbons inscribed with protective spells that hang from their foreheads. But while leaving incense at one stone coffin, something grabs Man-Choi. He re-counts the inactive vampires: eight. But another (ninth) vampire leaps at him, and Man-Choi must protect himself with a hexagonal mirror (one such protection against supernatural beings). The mirror doesn’t help for long, and the vampire bares his fangs, which promptly … fall out.

Three men and a coffin.

For this is no vampire; it’s fellow student Chau-Sang (Siu-ho Chin) playing a practical joke. However, all their tomfoolery has caused the candle to extinguish and the paper talismans (talismen?) to blow off the real vampires’ foreheads. The eight vampires begin to hop menacingly toward the two students, their sharp fingernails extending from their outstretched arms. Terrified, the students call for their master, Master Kau (Ching-Ying Lam), a powerful Taoist priest with a moustache and comically impressive unibrow. Together with fellow priest, Four-Eyes (Anthony Chan), they manage to subdue the eight vampires with a combination of kung fu and dotting the vampires’ foreheads with their own priest blood. In no time, the vampires are again deactivated, and Four-Eyes leads them hopping out into the night, like some sort of Pied Piper of the Undead. Master Kau, obviously, is disappointed in his two students.

Master Kau has a meeting with a wealthy Hong Kong businessman, Mr. Yam (Ha Huang), over English tea. Having never had English tea before, Kau and Man-Choi follow the lead of Yam and his beautiful daughter, Ting-Ting (Moon Lee), who has just returned from cosmetology school. Ting-Ting is apparently on her way to a costume party as Little Bo-Peep. (Man-Choi, obviously, is madly in love with Ting-Ting.) Their unfamiliarity with Western meals leads to a number of comical errors, in which Kau and Man-Choi believe the table cream to be a separate drink, and then – once realizing it and sugar are to be added to tea – begin to add sugar and cream to everything they’re served. Mr. Yam was told by a fortune teller that he needed to re-bury his father twenty years after his death, and that anniversary is coming up. Kau accepts the mission, and they decide the re-burial should happen in three days.

Once they arrive at the scenic burial plot, Kau realizes that Yam’s father has been buried vertically in the ground. He believes a fortune teller tricked him into doing so, bringing Yam years of bad financial luck. Kau and his assistants unearth the coffin, and the local birds go wild. (Not a good sign.) When the stone coffin is opened, the senior Mr. Yam looks incredibly well-preserved – as if he died only yesterday. Master Kau recommends cremation, but Mr. Yam refuses, noting his father hated fire. So Kau offers to store the body and coffin until they find a suitable new plot. (You’d think they’d have figured that out before digging up the body.) Kau instructs his students Man-Choi and Chau-Sang to light incense at every grave in the burial ground before they leave. Handsome Chau-Sang spots a tombstone for an unfortunate twenty-year-old woman and leaves some extra incense. Immediately after, he begins to hear an eerie female voice in his head.

The students return to the temple with bad news for Master Kau: Man-Choi was left with two short and one long incense stick. A bad omen. Kau believes the dead Mr. Yam to have died with anger in his heart, thus making him a vampire. He casts spells, mixing chicken blood, fire, and ink, and gives the mixture to his students. They are to crosshatch the coffin with the magic ink so the vampire can’t escape. (Only one problem: they forget about the underside of the coffin.)

While Chau-Sang is out cycling that night, he encounters (unbeknownst to him) a beautiful ghost lady – obviously the woman from the tombstone – being carried in a litter by four clown-faced servants. When she sees her crush pass, the leaps from the litter and alights onto the back of his bicycle. In a bit of slapstick, she doesn’t see him duck under a low branch and ends up being knocked off the seat. Soon after, she disappears … but I have a sneaking suspicion she’ll return.

Mr. Yam doesn’t look exactly like his mug shot.

Next, we’re introduced to Wai (Billy Lau), the self-important police inspector who (a) just happens to be Mr. Yam’s nephew, and (b) is also smitten with Ting-Ting (who is his cousin). When Man-Choi and Chau-Sang arrive at the Yams’ house, Wai is affronted they even look in Ting-Ting’s direction. He orders them to leave, which they do – but not before taking a hair from Wai’s head, which, when swallowed by Man-Choi, allows him to control Wai’s actions. The two have a lot of broad comic fun, making Wai slap himself and tear off all his clothes in front of Ting-Ting. When Master Kau arrives, he doesn’t see the inherent humour and punishes his students.

That night, the vampiric old Yam busts out of his coffin, makes short work of a couple goats, then hightails it to his son’s house. He smashes into the Yam house (I guess jiangshi don’t need to be invited in) and savagely murders his own middle-aged child. Wai is called to investigate the heinous murder of the influential Mr. Yam. Noting that Yam has puncture wounds in his neck – the kind caused by sharpened fingernails – he suspects the man with the longest nails in town: Master Kau. He promptly arrests Kau and tells his fellow police to lock him up with the corpse of Mr. Yam so he’s faced with the consequences of his actions.

As night falls, Chau-Sang arrives with the paper spells, chicken blood, and sticky rice that Kau requested: but he’s cooked the rice! (The rice needs to be raw to protect against the “vampire vapours,” which is what I imagine vampire Southern belles get.) However, there’s no time to pick up raw sticky rice, Mr. Yam on the other side of the jail, has already turned into a vampire and is on the move – staggering more than hopping at this point. (He did die pretty recently; give him a break.) A brief martial arts battle between Chau-Sang and the vampire ensues in the prison (which includes a bed of nails), with Chau-Sang finally subduing Mr. Yam with a forehead talisman. But Wai enters and Chau-Sang has to hide in the shadows. Wai, cleverly spotting the intruder, draws his pistol and pulls the paper from the corpse’s eyes so his uncle can “watch.”

Mr. Yam returns to undead life, and a comedic battle with Wai, Chau-Sang, Mr. Yam, and Master Kau (still behind bars) follows. During this epic battle, Wai nearly has his crotch chomped by the vampire, he is branded with the “villain” iron, and we learn that if you hold your breath, a vampire can’t sense where you are. (Handy hopping vampire tip!) Master Kau and Chau-Sang are finally able to defeat the vampire by clotheslining it with the ink-drenched thread, then driving a sword through his body, and lighting the corpse ablaze with a magic spell.

“And THAT … is why you always leave a note.”

Man-Choi, meanwhile, has been tasked with guarding Ting-Ting, armed only with his ninja-like stealth suit and a long wooden tube. (This comes in handier than you might think.) In no time, the elder vampiric Mr. Yam smashes in the front door and Man-Choi and Ting-Ting flee to hide in her bedroom closet. The vampire hops up to the closet entrance, and both Man-Choi and Ting-Ting desperately hold their breath. They realize, by breathing through the wooden tube, they can misdirect the vampire (who will think they are standing where the air is being expelled). This lasts for only so long, but luckily the cavalry of Kau and Chau-Sang arrive to wound the vampire with their inked thread. The police then arrive and fire upon the seemingly unstoppable senior Yam, who hops away.

Unfortunately, the attack has left Man-Choi wounded by the vampire’s sharp fingernails. Master Kau worries that he may turn into a vampire, so he’ll have to do a number of things to stop the vampirism from taking hold – things that include hopping and sleeping on a bed of sticky rice and dancing like a monkey so his limbs don’t stiffen. (Man-Choi’s dance is pretty excellent.) The anti-vampiric spell also involves gruesomely cutting out a live snake’s heart and mixing it into a poultice. The temple is running low on sticky rice, so Kau sends Chau-Sang to pick up more.

The rice vendors, however, are greedy … and also low on sticky rice. People from the next town over have been travelling to them to buy sticky rice. (Possibly because of some sort of vampire infestation.) Upon the suggestion of his wife, the rice vendor mixes the regular rice with sticky rice to save money. And that’s the kind of rice Chau-Sang purchases. The other thing that happens when Chau-Sang goes to purchase sticky rice is he encounters his ghost paramour again.

One perfect shot: Blue Velvet (1986).

The ghost woman, Jade (Siu-Fung Wong) seemingly unwilling to simply ask Chau-Sang out on a date, asks, then magically compels a bystander to molest her. Chau-Sang sees the attempted assault and intervenes, “rescuing” the ghost woman. (The whole scene is played for laughs and very uncomfortable.) Chau-Sang offers to walk the ghost woman home. Once there, Chau-Sang creepily suggests how great a dude he is for stopping the sexual predator and walking her home. The ghost agrees, and says she should probably marry him. Given the unusual reaction, Chau-Sang understands that this woman is a real-live ghost. He nervously says goodbye and makes his exit, but outside it begins to pour. He’s trapped! Chau-Sang agrees to one cup of wine. But the wine is drugged, and before you know it, somebody’s turned on the wind machine. Soon, his undead lover has taken advantage of Chau-Sang. (Again: very uncomfortable.)

Back at the temple. Ting-Ting wakes Man-Choi from sleep, and he discovers his nails have grown long and his skin has gone pale. He’s becoming a vampire! Wai and the police knock at the door, and Man-Choi figures he has to make it look like he’s still human. So he frantically clips his nails and uses Ting-Ting’s cosmetics to give himself a very rosy glow. (It’s possible he overdoes it a bit.) Chau-Sang arrives with the massive bag of rice, leading Master Kau to ask what took him so long. His student says a storm broke (not incorrect) and he had to take shelter. But as he naps in a chair, Kau notices the red marks on his neck and thinks he, too, has fallen victim to a vampire.

Wai and his squadron, meanwhile, search high and low for the fugitive vampire. They enter a cave and are nearly attacked by a gorilla (or a man in an unconvincing gorilla suit), but they don’t find the ancient vampire recuperating deeper in the cave. Master Kau eventually realizes that his student hooked up with a lady ghost. He follows him that night when he returns to his ghost booty-call’s secret house. But when Chau-Sang embraces the ghost, she’s repelled backward into the wall. Master Kau secretly painted a spell on Chau-Sang’s chest!

Chau-Sang and his ghost girlfriend, in better times.

As Chau-Sang tries to rub off the spell, Kau wipes his eyes with eucalyptus leaves and is then able to see the ghost’s true face, which is pretty gruesome. (One side of her face is partially melted.) Kau and the ghost engage in battle, with the ghost turning its hair into porcupine-like quills and using its head like a projectile. Losing the battle, the ghost causes her lover Chau-Sang to hallucinate that Kau is actually Wai. Student and master fight as the ghost flies away into the air. The ghost’s departure causes a series of explosions, and the two men are left in ruins of a house. The ghost’s sweet pad was just another illusion.

At the temple, Master Kau has tied Chau-Sang to a chair (so he doesn’t attempt to meet his ghost lover again). Man-Choi is still hiding his growing vampiric tendencies. Night arrives, as does the ghost, out for revenge. But Master Kau has booby-trapped the temple with ink markers and spells. Man-Choi also transforms into a full vampire, growing fangs. A chaotic four-way battle follows, with Chau-Sang bound to a chair for a good part of it. Master Kau finally gets the best of the ghost by tossing his yin-yang cloak upon her. Chau-Sang asks his master to take pity on the defeated ghost, and frees her to escape into the air. That leaves only one supernatural being to take care of left.

Master Kau realizes Man-Choi transformed because the sticky rice has been tainted with regular rice. While Chau-Sang files down Man-Choi’s fangs and Ting-Ting helps to segregate the rice, the evil old vampire gobbles down a rat and, revived, leaves hiding to begin his assault on the temple. Wai arrives and the resulting Götterdämmerung of vampire kung fu involves nearly every character in the film. The vampire, however, proves – like Steven Seagal – hard to kill. A blade to the skull has no effect and our heroes quickly run out of inked thread. Fistfuls of sticky rice thrown at the vampire prove slightly effective, but it’s when Kau’s old friend Four-Eyes returns with his eight docile vampires that things really get interesting.

Four-Eyes, using his trusty bell, is able to command the vampires to hop in unison after the other vampire, slowly surrounding him. But the old Mr. Yam eventually breaks free. So Kau, Four-Eyes, and Chau-Sang have to hold the vampire down while they instruct Wai to “suck the vampire vapour out” with his mouth. He hesitates, so Ting-Ting jumps in. But it’s too late. The vampire is free again. So it’s up to Four-Eyes, garishly dressed in canary yellow, to bring down a massive chandelier on the vampire, torching his body – but, also, the bodies of the eight vampires he was caring for. “My clients!” he moans, and the final credits roll.

“No Disqualification” matches haven’t been the same since vampires started wrestling.

Takeaway points:

  • Watching Mr. Vampire, which is more a kung fu action comedy than horror film, is great for a Western filmgoer with a limited knowledge of Chinese folklore, because all the vampire tropes seem brand-new: dying in anger creates a vampire! Sticky rice can stop a vampire, but so can a hexagonal mirror! And so can two dots of blood on the vampire’s forehead! And why not? It’s no odder than garlic or a crucifix or running water, but the rules – to me – were alien. And that’s not all we learn: holding your breath can prevent a vampire from finding you. And when you disturb a coffin, people born in certain years must not witness the lid’s opening. (That’s great!) Not only is Mr. Vampire a fun romp, it’s a crash course in Chinese superstition and folklore.
  • I love that dying in anger is the reason a corpse transforms into a vampire. Though the film is anything but tragic, there’s a real pathos to the idea of someone dying with a grudge, then being punished forever after with the curse of a vampire. And something even more tragic is that someone who died angry must now travel around by the jauntiest method ever: bunny-hopping. Though, given this prerequisite, there could be thousands if not millions of vampires roaming China at any given moment.
  • As improbable as it seems, this is the second film (of eight) that I’ve watched that make use of the coveted IMDB key phrase, “sex with ghost.” A full quarter of the films so far have included a sex scene with a ghost. Coincidence? Or something more sinister?
  • Four-Eyes appears to be employed as some sort of “vampire walker,” which leads us to the question: are we to believe that was historically a real job? Who employs him to care for these vampires (since he is always worried about his clients)? Their families? Is he employed by the city for performing some sort of public good? Furthermore, who is the “Mr. Vampire” of the film’s title? Is he Mr. Vampire? Is Mr. Yam? (They share the same first name.) And if so, which Mr. Yam?

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: Literally nothing about Mr. Vampire is scary. The comedy is broad, but some of it still works remarkably well.

Ting-Ting, shortly before sitting on a tuffet to enjoy some curds and whey.

Best outfit: I am a strong proponent of Ting-Ting’s unusual green, intricately designed top and her gray chequered outfit, though there’s also something to be said for Man-Choi’s clown-like rainbow-and-orange unitard.

Best line: “It’s good you found out so late. That way I got to enjoy her tender love.” – Chau-Sang on the impeccable timing of when Master Kau discovered the ghost lady

Best kill: The professionalism with which Master Kau and Chau-Sang dispatch the younger (more recently vampired) Mr. Yam is a thing of beauty: tether him with inked thread, shove a sword through him, light that paper talisman on fire and torch the guy.

Unexpected cameo: The older vampire Mr.Yam is portrayed by Wah Yuen, an accomplished stunt man and fight choreographer. Not only is he killed three separate times in Enter the Dragon, he also portrays the landlord in Kung Fu Hustle. Jackie Chan, one of his fellow Peking Opera students, often tells an anecdote of how Wah Yuen could sleep while maintaining a perfect hand stand.

Unexpected lesson learned:I learned that rice in China (as well as other food items) is measured in “catties.” One catty equals about 605 grams.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Yee Hung Garden.

Next up: A Bucket of Blood (1959).