Sifu vs. Vampire

Hong Kong (2014) Dir. Daniel Chan

The geung si (hopping vampire) genre of Hong Kong cinema is played largely for laughs and with prolific multi-hyphenate Wong Jing behind it as writer and producer, one can almost predict how a film like Sifu vs. Vampire is going to turn out before even seeing it. And you’d be right.

An unnecessarily convoluted plot begins with two wannabe Triads Nicky (Ronald Cheng) and his afro sporting sidekick Boo (Philip Ng) being called to help their boss Brother Snake (Tony Ho) when his wife becomes is possessed by a demon during an intimate moment. Being useless it befalls to genuine Taoist priest and vampire hunter Master Charlie Chiang (Yuen Biao) and his butt-kicking disciple Lingxin (Jiang Luxia) to fulfil the task instead.

Impressed by this, Snake’s boss Ah Keung (Kelvin Kwan) asks Chiang to move his grandfather’s burial site which Chiang declines so Ah Keung finds another less reputable Taoist Leopard Man (Ricky Yi) to take on the job instead. However Chiang learns that Ah Keung’s grandfather was a powerful and evil vampire and if the movement goes wrong, the body could “turn” and escape, creating unimaginable havoc.

Admittedly it doesn’t sound too complex from the above summary but Wong Jing has thrown in two subplots seemingly designed with the sole purpose of bringing some pulchritude to the proceedings. Nicky saves a girl named Tomorrow (Michelle Hu) after she falls from a window, discovering she may be a wandering spirit. Her ashes have been taken away, preventing her from crossing over into the afterlife and they just so happens to be in Leopard Man’s possession.

Meanwhile the virgin Boo is lusting after struggling airhead actress Balla (Bella Law) who happens to be Ah Keung’s bit of fluff. Her contribution to the film, as you may have already surmised, is to provide some tame fan service be the target of the many boob jokes that make up a huge part of the already ribald script. While Tomorrow suffers a similar fate, she at least keeps her clothes on and has a valid – if tangential – connection to the main plot.

Hong Kong comedies are largely hit and miss with Western audiences, which is either due to the old “lost in translation” handicap or maybe our two senses of humour are incompatible. Whether by design or just a sense of habit, Jing has gone for fairly base, low brow gags here  which do successfully cross the borders of spoken language but that doesn’t mean they are particularly funny – unless of course this kind of humour appeals to you.

What this does, apart from cheapen the serious aspect when grandpa Keung does finally run amok and the body count begins to rise (not a spoiler, you knew it was coming otherwise would what be the point, right?), is put a question mark over the participation of the more noted veteran cast members who could surely do better than this. Whether Wong Jing is a smooth talker or they needed the money we may never know; maybe they actually thought this was a worthwhile project and gladly accepted the offer.

At least their presence offers something to cling on to as the story starts to trip over itself and the prurient and lavatorial humour begins to grate. While we may not be above it ourselves on this side of the world, the constant rating of the females on the size of their chests does little to endear the goofy leads Nicky and Boo to the audience. They’re a couple of horny losers – we get it, so maybe a bit more subtlety next time?

With the geung si genre having its own folklore and mythos about vampires we at least are treated to something different to what we can expect from the western interpretation, and in its own way can be quite terrifying. Unlike our version with the Dracula cape and pale skin, a traditional Chinese vampire is dressed in the plush Asian burial garb and is surrounded by an ominous black mist. They possess awesome strength and in this instance, are great martial artists too!

To that end we are forced to wait until late into the film before the action begins in earnest after too many “blink and you miss them” teases of the fighting, which is treated as secondary to the supernatural wizardry employed to counter the spooky enemy. With both the legendary Yuen Biao and the highly accomplished Jiang Luxia on board the fighting should have been given higher priority but it seems Jing and director Daniel Chan disagree. Luxia handles most of the action but Biao gets to remind us of what he is capable of.  

Aside from one scene where he is put under Chiang’s magical control to fight off a group of zombies, Boo and Nicky are the nominal comic relief and feature in most of the screen time. The material may be questionable but as the Asian work ethic dictates, Ronald Cheng and Philip Ng throw themselves into their roles and seem to have fun in the process. Cheng gets more to do and has more interaction with the ladies, who truth be told, are poorly drawn and ostensibly window dressing.

As Ah Keung, Kelvin Kwan is suitably smarmy while Ricky Yi’s turn as Leopard Man is a bit too comical for a counterpart for Chiang, making no attempt to be subtle about his character’s fraudulent credentials. While Asia is still a few steps behind Hollywood on the visual effects front this film’s SFX are rather good all told, especially the rendering of the vampires, while some good old fashioned wire work is employed in other areas.

If you set your expectations low enough Sifu vs. Vampire provides 95 minutes of silly, overcooked but sufficient mindless entertainment. It could and should have been much more given the talent involved but creating high art was never the intention here.

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