“People are divided into good and bad. The dead are divided into corpses and vampires… Old Master Yam is a corpse that’s on the verge of becoming a vampire. Corpses turn into vampires because they have one last breath. When a person dies with grievances…. they’ll have a single breath accumulated in the throat.”
Thus is the wisdom imparted in one of the lessons of Master Kau, a Taoist priest, which he attempts to impart to his unruly apprentices, Man-choi and Chau-Sang, more interested in playing practical jokes on each other and in Ting-ting, the beautiful beautician granddaughter of the late Old Master Yam whose corpse is in their care.
Recently disinterred in order to be reburied in the hopes that a new resting place will break the ill fortune which has plagued the Yam family and instead bring them prosperity, it is not to be, for Old Master Yam rises from the dead and attacks his son, leaving Master Kau to clean up the mess, hampered by the interference of Ting-ting’s cousin, the inept police officer Captain Wai who has no belief in the supernatural.
A mix of the traditional and (retro) modern, Mr. Vampire (暫時停止呼吸, “Hold Your Breath for a Moment“) was originally released in 1985 but is set earlier in the century, in the days of the Chinese Republic, but it draws from the deeper well of folklore and legend of the jiangshi, a recently deceased or undecomposed corpse which absorbs sufficient ch’i from a living being to reanimate, but due to the stiffness of its limbs can only jump rather than walk.
The “hopping vampire” able to spread its evil like a disease, Man-choi has been infected and is weakening, and nor is Chau-sang safe, having caught the eye of a lonely but attractive female ghost who floats through the forest in search of affection, another challenge for Master Kau to add to his list.
An overblown martial arts horror comedy restored for Eureka Classics, Mr. Vampire is the antithesis of their recently released Kwaidan, direct where that is ambiguous, self-aware and sending up its multiple genres, yet it is at times just as beautiful and entrancing as that classic ghost story anthology, composed of carefully observed ritual and tied to a specific time and place and performed by a dedicated ensemble.
The masterful wirework of Hong Kong cinema taking physical comedy to a higher level, the slapstick translates better than the linguistic humour despite the new translation of Eureka’s edition, but with much of the dialogue improvised on set by Ricky Hui and Chin Siu-hou playing foil to Lam Ching-ying’s reserved Master Kau it is clear who is having the most fun.
A crazed tale of burning incense and paper talismans, feng-shui and sticky rice, custard tarts and cotton buds, the new edition of Mr. Vampire also contains multiple audio options, a new commentary by the New York Asian Film Festival’s Frank Djeng and archive interviews with director Ricky Lau, Siu-hou and Moon Lee.