Vampire Cleanup Department (Gao geung jing dou fu)
Hong Kong (2017) Dirs. Yan Pak-wing and Chiu Sin-hang
Every country around the world has its own idea and mythos about vampires and China is no different. To them, vampires are not suave Bela Lugosi types able to transform into bats but hideous killing machines that hop everywhere. In the 1980’s the kyonshi movie was a huge deal in Hong Kong cinema and now, 30 years later, modern day filmmakers are trying to bring them back!
Tim Cheung (Babyjohn Choi), an ordinary teen, witnesses a vampire attack on an elderly neighbour and passes out after being bitten by the assailant. He wakes up the next morning at home with his grandmother (Siu Yam-yam) and uncles Chau (Chin Siu-ho) and Chung (Richard Ng), feeling perfectly fine. Chung invites Tim to visit the VCD, a secret operation of vampire hunters.
Following a harsh induction, during Tim’s first mission he drops his walkie-talkie in the lake and is pulled in when trying to retrieve it by a sinewy old hag of a woman. The woman swallows Tim’s mobile phone then sucks his blood, transforming into a cute girl (Lin Min Chen). Back at VCD HQ, they discover the girl is Summer, a rare human type vampire buried alive in 1840 as a tribute to the recently awakened landlord vampire!
It helps to have at least a passing knowledge of Chinese mythology regarding vampires, which can be a bit confusing, to prevent films like Vampire Cleanup Department not making much sense. Unfortunately, there isn’t much consideration for western viewers in that respect, so seeing the fanged brutes frightening their victims by hopping towards them instead of walking normally will be viewed as comic rather than terrifying.
Not that the comedic capital hasn’t already been explored in Hong Kong cinema with the famed Mr. Vampire series from the 80’s putting the genre on the map. The star of this franchise was Lam Ching-Ying, and this film was designed by co-directors Yan Pak-wing and Chiu Sin-hang as a tribute to Lam and mark the 20th anniversary of his passing from liver cancer aged just 44.
To achieve this and to reinvigorate the kyonshi genre Yan and Chui assembled a cast featuring legendary faces from the 80’s to make up the VCD team looking to pass the torch to the next generation of vampire slayers. Alongside venerated senior Chung and surly Chau is Taoist priest Ginger (Yuen Cheung-yan), weapons expert Tai Gau Keoi (Lo Mang) and the boss Madame M (Bondy Chiu).
Much to his surprise Tim learns that his parents were also vampire hunters and because his mother was bitten whilst pregnant with him, Tim is neither human nor vampire as a result, thus is immune to their bites. Presumably, it is this unique mixed blood that helped return Summer to her 20 year-old self, making it easy to gradually wean her off her vampiric habits and behave more human like.
Summer was actually supposed to have been cremated but Tim couldn’t bring himself to it, not to mention his mobile phone was still in her stomach in a running gag that writes itself, as well as allowing Summer to communicate via the Siri-like app on the phone. Knowing the others will be angry, Tim takes Summer back home and one makeover later, she is receptive to learning to walk properly and not trying to bite people.
Whilst this cutesy romance is integral to the plot it doesn’t dominate it, and on occasion feels like their scenes have been spliced in to appeal to the younger audience whilst the oldies relive their youth from seeing the odd guard still kicking butt. Similarly, the reawakening of the landlord vampire and the incompetent authorities, their clumsy “shoot everything” approach creates more havoc, bookend the film giving them little agency in the drama stakes.
At just 93 minutes, there is a lot of background information and world building that has been scrimped on to help cram as much into this film as possible which puts up a barrier preventing the audience from being fully immersed with the world of vampire hunting. Any exposition proffered is brief and presented in a “matter of factly” way, or simply thrown out because the scenario requires it. This applies a much to the VCD as it does the vampires, Sunny, Tim’s lineage, and the feud with the authorities.
But the film never ceases to be fun, and not only delivers what the title promises but also remains firmly in the throwaway escapist category to supply those who just want silly entertainment. It’s hard to be critical of a film that fulfils its remit in that respect so the best approach is to take this film as it comes and don’t take it so seriously.
It’s not like the filmmakers do, and neither do the cast yet they throw themselves into the action and occasional drama with the same commitment. The old timers pretty much steal the show, bringing more than just gravitas but a cheeky energy the youngsters can’t match – look out for the odd cameo from the likes of Eric Tsang too.
Quite how a 32 year-old has the name “Babyjohn” but Choi is earnest as Tim and able to play much younger than his age; Malaysian pop singer and “Instagram star” Lin Min Chen has great comic poise but does spend a lot of time just looking cute, which she is with her expressive wide eyes and bright smile, but unlike her famed Instagram pics she keeps her clothes on here.
Special effects are competent enough with only the odd CGI clip not being as convincing as it should be, but where it matters, the production specs are strong. Fights are brief but a fun mix of old school martial arts with fantasy augmentations for that extra bit of modern dazzle.
Vampire Cleanup Department is too frothy and whimsical to be considered a horror film but serves the kyonshi genre well in modernising for a new generation. Silly, far-fetched, but great fun!