Old Man, Your Kung Fu is Useless!
Walter Jon Williams Tackles Hong Kong Cinema
To begin with, there are a number of different genres within the Chinese action film. The oldest is the Wu Xia Pian ("hero films"), made in China since the Twenties. Often based on legends, popular fiction, or Chinese opera, they feature a strong supernatural element, with people flying, shooting death rays out of their hands, and displaying deadly mental powers. This style of film fell out of favor with the development of more realistic styles in the 1970s, but has recently been revived by, among others, Tsui Hark.
Next we have Gung-Fu Pian ("kung-fu films"). These are comparatively realistic action films of the sort popularized by Bruce Lee. Although the hero is often a kung-fu superman, he remains, however tenuously, within the realm of physical possibility. Nobody flies, and nobody uses magic powers. In the 1970s, Liu Chia Liang, financed by the Shaw Brothers, developed Guo Shu Pian ("neo-hero films"), which featured the more realistic action scenes of the gung-fu pian with the more exotic backgrounds of the old-style hero films.
In the 1980s we have Wu Da Pian ("fight films with martial arts").
Jackie Chan claims to have invented
this style, featuring incredible athleticism, martial arts, and highly
dangerous stunts, and if he didn't invent it, he certainly perfected it.
Before we get into Mr. Vampire [1984, directed by Ricky Lau], which is an example of the fantastic Wu Xia Pian genre, I should explain about Chinese vampires, which are different from the Transylvanian variety. Crosses and garlic will not stop a Chinese vampire, but glutinous rice will. Vampires may best be controlled by Yellow Paper Magic, in which a sutra or charm is written on yellow paper, then pasted on the vampire's forehead in a kind of spiritual Post-It note. Vampires locate the living by following their breath, so if a vampire is on your trail, you should try holding your breath as long as possible.
Like European vampires, Chinese vampires are the most stylish of the undead. They all wear full Manchu court dress, and instead of walking they hop, or bound, or sometimes fly. A bunch of Chinese vampires all hopping in unison is, well, eerier than you would think.
Mr. Vampire and its sequels were showcases for a character called the One-Eyebrow Priest, played by veteran actor Lam Ching-Ying. A Taoist magician who deals with vampires and other supernatural evil, the One-Eyebrow Priest moves from one series to the next and even though time, appearing both in modern and period films.
In this film, the One-Eyebrow Priest runs a mortuary, and is assisted by a pair of disciples, Handsome Apprentice Undertaker [Lu Nan-Chuang] and Homely Apprentice Undertaker [Yuen Biao]. Prior to the movie's opening, a wandering undertaker (!!) had stowed about a dozen of his vampires (who he referred to as his "clients") in the mortuary. Now a stray breeze blows off the yellow paper sutras from their foreheads, and chaos results, but in the end the Apprentii and the One-Eyebrow Priest manage to corral all the undead and return them to their owner.
The One-Eyebrow Priest is contacted by the local big shot, who is worried about his dad, buried in a place with bad feng shui at the instigation of a local necromancer, who it turns out that dad had cheated on a real estate deal. Dad is dug up, and sure enough, dad's in the process of becoming a vampire! His loyal son refuses to have him cremated, so Master Lam has to assemble his special Vampire Slaying Elixir, the preparation of which involves sacrificing a chicken and mixing its blood with black ink, glutinous rice, and other unappetizing ingredients.
Big Shot has a Gorgeous Daughter, as we all knew he would. She seems rather interested in Handsome Apprentice, but she's also being courted by her cousin, the Oafish Cop. There's a nifty bit of sympathetic magic in which the Apprentii magically hardwire Oafish Cop's body so that it will do whatever Homely Apprentice's body does. They wait for Oafish Cop to start courting Gorgeous Daughter, and then have him take off his clothes, hit himself in the face, and do exotic gymnastics.
Meanwhile, Handsome Apprentice pauses by one of the other graves in old dad's plot and offers it some incense. "Thank you," says an eerie female voice, and Handsome Apprentice decides to leave. Unfortunately, the Apprentii bungle the process of putting the Vampire Elixir on old dad, and he escapes and hops for home, where he kills Big Shot. Big Shot himself begins to turn into a vampire, but Master Mortician can't prevent it, because Oafish Cop puts him in the slams for killing Big Shot! But then Big Shot turns into a vampire and attacks Oafish Cop, who escapes, and Homely Apprentice, who gets punctured. Eventually Big Shot is staked-apparently stakes work on Oriental and Occidental vampires alike-but Homely Apprentice has been afflicted with the Curse of the Vampire!
Homely Apprentice is told to dance on a bed of glutinous rice while eating a lot of rice pudding, and Handsome Apprentice is told to bicycle off to the rice dealer to get a new supply. On the way, the Lovely Ghost from the earlier scene [Moon Lee] shows up, floats up to him, and lowers herself daintily onto the back of his bicycle-only to be swept off by a low limb! Apprentice gets the rice, but the local rice dealer cheated by mixing regular rice in with the glutinous rice. And on the way back, Lovely Ghost manages a more successful introduction and ends up spending the night with Handsome Apprentice at her enchanted pavilion, leaving him with a punctured neck!
Next night is rather confusing. Barricaded behind a door, Handsome Apprentice is tied to the chair so that he won't go off to the Lovely Ghost. Homely Apprentice, without a sufficient supply of glutinous rice, is turning into a vampire. Master Lam guards the outside of the building from grandpa vampire. Grandpa shows up simultaneously with Lovely Ghost, and Master Lam has his hands full. Homely Apprentice turns vampire and tries to attack Handsome Apprentice, who tries madly to make his escape while tied to an armchair. Eventually Lovely Ghost is captured and grandpa vampire is driven off. Lovely Ghost is set free with a warning after she promises not to pursue Handsome Apprentice. In the morning, Handsome Apprentice is detailed to file down Homely Apprentice's fangs...
From this point on, things just get bigger and more confusing, with everyone in the cast battling grandpa vampire, including the dozen hopping vampires from the first scene, who turn up just as inexplicably as they first appeared just in time for the final battle!
I won't go into how it ends, except that there are three sequels, and remakes under the Mr. Vampire '92 label.
Three and a half chops. Humor. Fantasy. Romance. Feng shui. More humor. Action. Not a whole lot of terror, but a few genuinely eerie moments. Ho Bob says, Check it out.
Wing Chun stars Michelle Khan (aka Michelle Yeo/Yeo Chu Kheng), the incredible action star who played opposite Jackie Chan in 1992's Supercop. This film is an extravagant example of what the Gung-Fu Pian has become in the 1990s.
Yim Wing Chun was a historical person, who learned kung fu from a Shaolin nun in order to thrash her bandit fiance and escape an arranged marriage. She subsequently founded the art of Wing Chun, the only kung fu style named after a woman.
The movie deals with none of this, preferring to substitute pure fantasy for whatever is known about the real person. Wing Chun is a kung fu master right at the start of this film, and getting to be something of an old maid, as her activities as a superheroine tend to intimidate the local swains. She dresses as a man and runs a bean curd emporium with her Aunt Yim, a sharp-tongued miser whose attitudes have also made her unmarriageable.
Wing Chun then rescues a comely young widow, Charmy, from a group of bandits headed by Number Two Fortress Lord. Charmy goes to work for Wing Chun at the bean curd emporium, becomes wildly popular, and earns the title Miss Soya Bean Curd, previously held by Wing Chun before she learned kung fu.
I swear I'm not making any of this up. Enter Leung Pak To, a young suitor who fell in love with Wing Chun when they were children, and who then went off to learn kung fu and become an official so that he would be worthy of her. But he thinks the beauteous Charmy is Wing Chun, and figures Wing Chun for a guy, and falls in love with Charmy.
Meanwhile, in order to preserve Charmy's honor, everyone's doing battle with Number Two Fortress Lord, whose personal name would seem to be Flying Monkey. Pak To does his best but loses, but Wing Chun has a duel with Flying Monkey in a flaming arena in which she flings a fireball at his crotch and burns off all his parts!
Aunt Yim and Wing Chun, while sitting around the collective foot bath one night, begin to regret having chosen virginity and ask Charmy what it's like to be married, and so she rubs their feet until they have orgasms! Aunt Yim is inspired by this to arrange a rendezvous with one of Charmy's suitors, Scholar Wong, drags him off to bed, and has her way with him. Enter Number One Fortress Lord (Anthony Wong), whose personal name would seem to be Flying Chimpanzee. He seems a jolly sort of fellow, but he's miffed with the explosive castration of his subordinate, and zooms into town to kidnap Charmy and forcibly marry her to his lieutenant. When Flying Monkey confesses his inability to consummate the marriage, he has to drive off the other bandits who offer to do his husbandly duty in his behalf. (I almost wrote "beat off," but that might give the wrong idea.) Charmy is rescued by Wing Chun and Pak To, but the fighting is desperate, and the Fortress Lord decides that he's going to marry Wing Chun himself unless she can beat him in a fight.
Meanwhile Pak To has figured out that Wing Chun is the girl he's been in love with all along, and they plight their troth. After which Wing Chun wallops the heck out of Number One Fortress Lord, all the bandits promise to reform, and Aunt Yim and Wing Chun marry in a double ceremony.
Three and a half chops. Action, romance, comedy, and Michelle Khan.