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MOVIE REVIEW

Martial arts with a kick -- and a few bites too

May 23, 2003|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

"Tsui Hark's Vampire Hunters," written and produced by the Hong Kong martial arts maestro, was directed by Wellson Chin so successfully in Tsui's bravura, breathtaking style that it would surely be difficult if not impossible to guess that Tsui had not directed it himself.

The result is a swift and amusing martial-action, adventure-horror picture with a bold, larger-than-life comic-book sensibility and richly atmospheric production design.

Somewhere in rural China in the 17th century, an evil monk awakens a nest of zombies that arise from the grave to feed on human flesh -- in effect, vampires creating more vampires with each bite. Luckily for mankind, Master Mao Shan (Ji Chun Hua) has trained four monks not only in the martial arts but also in the Taoist school of magic. They are named Lightning (Chan Kwok Kwan), Wind (Ken Chang), Rain (Lam Suet) and Thunder (Michael Chow) after each of the elements they have learned to harness. They are going to need all these amazing skills to destroy the Vampire King and his coven of the undead.

The Vampire King has emerged from a forest marshland not far from the ancient and vast ancestral estate of the House of Jiang. There, in the dark of night, the beautiful Sasa (Anya) has arrived by sedan chair to be wed to the young Master Jiang (Wang Shen Lin), a roly-poly, babbling, all-but-drooling creature whose half-dozen previous brides have died shortly after marrying him. Sasa's sinister, ruthless brother, Dragon Tang (Horace Lee Wai Shing), has married off Sasa so as to have access to the cache of gold accrued by the shrewd and ominous elder Master Jiang (Yu Rong Guang).

Steeped in gambling debts, Dragon Tang is taking no chances: With the help of a Jiang family servant, he has assembled a gang to break in and grab the ingots. There's a catch, however: The catacombs beneath the Jiang compound contain not only the golden hoard but numerous departed Jiangs, their corpses preserved by a secret embalming elixir and then coated with wax. Should the Vampire King and his zombie minions get hold of the dead Jiangs, a veritable Madame Tussaud's, they would have a platoon of vampires at their disposal.

Of course, all this is preposterous but deliciously so, because Chin plays everything with just the right degree of tongue-in-cheekiness. When our four heroes sign on as house servants, Master Jiang exclaims, "What kind of names are Rain, Wind, Thunder and Lightning? You'll be called 'Kung, Hei, Fat, Choi' "-- i.e., happy new year. The film's action sequences have been staged with a dazzling finesse, and the look of the film is splendid.

"Tsui Hark's Vampire Hunters" is a kick, and it deserves better than a couple of midnight bookings, which will be repeated if opening-weekend business is good.

*

'Vampire Hunters'

MPAA rating: R for violence and gore

Times guidelines: Violence and gore are cartoonish and standard for the genre.

Michael Chow...Fat (Thunder)

Chan Kwok Kwan... Choi (Lightning)

Ken Chang...Hei (Wind)

Lam Suet...Kung (Rain)

Anya...Sasa

A Destination Films release of a Film Workshop Co. Ltd., Hark & Company and Fortissimo Film Sales production. Director Wellson Chin. Executive producers Satoru Iseki, Nansun Shi, Wouter Barendrecht, Michael J. Werner. Writer-producer Tsui Hark. Cinematographers Joe Chan Kwong Hung, Sunny Tsang Tat-Sze, Herman Yau Lai To. Editor Marco Mak Chi Sin. Music J. M. Logan. Costumes Choi King Ping. Production designer Vincent Chow. In Cantonese, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

Exclusively at the Sunset 5, Sunset at Crescent Heights, Friday and Saturday at midnight, (323) 848-3500; and the Rialto, 1023 Fair Oaks at Oxley, South Pasadena, Saturday at midnight, (626) 799-9567.

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