|Ricky Lau’s horror-comedy Mr. Vampire is a seminal film in the uniquely Chinese “hopping vampire” genre and a Hong Kong cinema classic in its own right. Upon release in 1985, the film was a box office hit and even garnered a slew of Hong Kong Film Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director - if you can believe that. In light of Mr. Vampire’s commercial and critical success, a sequel for the following year was perhaps inevitable. It’s difficult to imagine what Hong Kong audiences were expecting when Mr. Vampire II hit theatres in 1986, but I don’t think anything could have prepared them for the film that Ricky Lau opted to make.
Rather than make a direct follow-up, Lau moves the setting from China’s past to modern Hong Kong, circa 1986. Although original star Lam Ching-Ying returns and the filmmakers add Yuen Biao to the mix, they don’t make their joint appearance until well into the picture. In their place, we have Chung Fat playing a college professor, who's apparently leading an archaeological dig with two of his assistants. I should point out that I’m using the term “archaeological dig” very loosely, since – despite the professor’s academic pedigree and respectable dress – his assistants act more like grave robbers than diligent grad students. These two bumblers only seem interesting in looting the place, and in some ways, the professor does too, although he’s a bit more subtle about it.
During their excavation, they stumble upon two coffins in a cave. Inside one is the preserved body of a woman and her son, the latter dressed in a mini-Qing Dynasty robe and hat. The second coffin is empty, but they soon find two more bodies hidden behind cobwebs. The two corpses seemed to be locked in fierce combat. The first is a rotting skeleton dressed in yellow Taoist robes, while the other combatant shows no sign of decay and, like the child, is also dressed in a Qing Dynasty get-up. Is the skeleton dressed in yellow meant to be Master Kou (Lam Ching-Ying) from the original Mr. Vampire? The film never says and that’s not how the original ended, but the image gives the opening of Mr. Vampire II a real Universal/Hammer Horror feel, as if the modern-day grave robbers have discovered the Chinese Van Helsing and Dracula locked in immortal combat. It’s a promising start.
It seems all of the bodies, save for the Taoist priest, have scraps of yellow paper affixed to their foreheads. For fans of the original film, these red-inked Taoist charms will be immediately recognizable, as they are the very things stopping these corpses from springing to life. The professor and his idiot assistants don’t seem to know or care; they just see dollar signs. What they don’t realize is those Taoist charms are a dead giveaway that they aren’t dealing with ordinary corpses – they’re kyonsi, a whole damn family of hopping vampires. Ignorant of the enormity of their discovery, the trio takes the bodies back to their base of operations, and the charms are either accidentally or purposely removed. In the confusion that follows, an assistant named Chicken (Billy Lau) gets bitten and the child vampire escapes.
Now, up until this point in the movie, the film has devoted a great deal of screen time to these three characters. The chaos that ensues marks a good time to bring new characters into the fold. But rather than bring Yuen Biao and Lam Ching-Ying into the mix, director Ricky Lau pulls a fast one on the audience. In what is perhaps Mr. Vampire II’s solitary claim to fame, the kid vampire wanders into suburbia and befriends a chubby little girl, commencing a subplot strongly reminiscent of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
Initially believing the vampire to be an illegal immigrant from mainland China, the little girl introduces her newfound friend to her chubbier older brother. What commences hence is so god-awful and ridiculous that it has to be seen to be believed. The siblings introduce their vampire pal to their friends, and they all decide to spend a day out on the town. The children slap a headscarf on the vampire (to protect him from the sun!), name him “OK Boy,” and take him to the park to ride see-saws, play on the slide, and engage in all sort of precocious, wacky behavior. That’s right – it’s cheesy montage time. Exactly how all these kids were able to run around metropolitan Hong Kong by themselves is an issue the film discreetly sidesteps.
While watching these events unfold, I couldn’t help but think of the excellent Swedish film, Let the Right One In which explores the relationship between a young boy and a “child” vampire to great dramatic effect. To be clear, Mr. Vampire II is not that kind of movie. Heck, this isn’t even Twilight. For whatever reason, “OK Boy” doesn’t snack on his new friends, although he does, quite disturbingly, cheerfully raid a blood bank during the all-too-cheerful montage sequence.
Meanwhile, Chicken seeks treatment for his nasty wound and meets a Chinese physician (Lam Ching-Ying finally!). The man knows a vampire bite when he sees one, despite Chicken’s protestations to the contrary. After treating Chicken’s wound, the doc decides to tail the professor’s hapless assistant and find out where the vampire nest is. Backing him up are his daughter Gigi (Moon Lee) and her boyfriend, a reporter named Jen (Yuen Biao). Eventually, all the characters from these separate factions – the professor’s people, the kids, and the medicine shop group – end up crossing paths as the vampires run wild on Hong Kong, and all hell breaks loose – with goofy results.
It would be easy to dismiss Mr. Vampire II as yet another crappy sequel, but the film does have its charms. Is it scary? No, but what Chinese vampire films are? The Mr. Vampire movies are for people who like to see horrific situations, but don’t really want to be scared, and for the most part, this movie delivers that experience. Mr. Vampire II has its tongue placed firmly in its cheek. After all, this is a movie that not only has Lam Ching-Ying momentarily don his familiar Taoist robe just to reference the first film, but actually has him break the fourth wall. Although he doesn’t directly address the audience, he does draw attention to the fact that he knows he’s in a film. When asked by a panicked cop (James Tien) what qualifies him to intervene in this dangerous vampire business, Lam Ching-Ying proceeds to name-drop his “mentor” Sammo Hung, their experiences in Encounters of the Spooky Kind (1980) and The Dead and the Deadly (1983), and his own appearance “last year” in the original Mr. Vampire! The real capper is when he reveals his name as “Lam Ching-Ying.” The cops have no idea who that is or why they should be impressed.
Although it’s a shame that Yuen Biao isn’t given more to do, one standout scene involves his character’s accidental reawakening of the vampire couple when he breaks into the professor’s hideout. He sees two bottles labeled “retarder” (I’m not kidding), and in the ensuing melee, the vials shatter, causing everyone, including the vampires, to move and talk in slow-motion - and not by over-cranking the camera. Instead, the actors just move and talk reeeallly slowly, just like a group of friends might do when they’re pretending to do something in slow-motion. It’s a silly scene that’s admittedly hit-or-miss, but for me, it worked pretty well.
Curiously enough, what many critics deride as the worst part of the film - the kiddie vampire segment - is probably the principal reason to watch the movie. It’s so over-the-top that it begs at least one viewing by any Hong Kong cinema fan worth his/her salt. And believe it or not, this tangential section of the film actually tries to comment, albeit quite weakly, on specific social issues in the contemporary culture. In a thread that is never followed up on, the kids are shown to be jealous of their father’s potential love interest, a woman who never appears, remaining solely a voice on the phone. And at one point, the father of the two young children is washing the dishes with his son, and they proceed to talk about single parenting and mixed-up gender roles in a surprisingly funny interchange.
But perhaps the most interesting social issue that the film tries to tackle is the question of what to do with illegal immigrants from China. I’m assuming the TV report that the children watch involving this topic is meant to be a “ripped from the headlines” reference, and one can’t help but wonder exactly what the symbolism of two chubby, overindulged, and undisciplined Hong Kong brats befriending a benevolent bloodsucker who is coded as a Mainlander is supposed to mean. It truth, it probably wasn’t thought out enough to mean a damn thing, but the reference sure seems like a stab at some kind of relevancy in what was meant to be an otherwise cheap, disposable thrill – a comic vampire sequel.
Despite singling out certain elements that I enjoyed, I will admit that Mr. Vampire II is by no means as good as the original. To be honest, it probably isn’t even “good.” But what it does have going for it is something I can only call “the Hong Kong spirit.” That is to say, while staying within the parameters of what constitutes a sequel, Ricky Lau and company make all kinds of interesting, if somewhat bizarre decisions with the plot and characters of Mr. Vampire II, and in many ways, it’s that kind of devil-may-care wackiness - that feeling that absolutely anything could happen - that got a lot of Western viewers hooked on Hong Kong cinema in the first place. And while Mr. Vampire II isn’t high art, it is a time capsule of sorts, not only in terms of the historical era it represents, but as the adventurous filmmaking spirit of that era - one which has, alas, long since passed on to the other side. (Calvin McMillin 2009)