Friday, April 21, 2017

Genre Run-Through - Jiangshi: The Hopping Vampire

Well, it’s time now for another write-up, and this time we’re going to tackle a topic that’s one of the best reasons for what the purpose of this blog is about. We’re going around the world to a special subset of horror films most might not have seen but has a thriving subset of films deep in the history of this particular country.

So, what is this mystery horror set of films I’m referring to? Well, by random chance this weeks’ discussion is a specific Chinese legend called the Jiangshi. A jiangshi, also known as a Chinese "hopping" vampire, ghost or zombie, is a type of reanimated corpse in Chinese legends and folklore. "Jiangshi" is read goeng-si in Cantonese, cương thi in Vietnamese, gangshi in Korean, and kyonshī in Japanese. It is typically depicted as a stiff corpse dressed in official garments from the Qing Dynasty, and it moves around by hopping, with its arms outstretched. It kills living creatures to absorb their qi, or "life force" which usually occurs at night, while during the day it rests in a coffin or hides in dark places such as caves. Jiangshi legends have inspired a genre of jiangshi films and literature in Hong Kong and East Asia which we'll get to in just a bit.

Now, being that this is a creature that is based on actual Chinese folklore, there is the need for a brief history of where the creature came from. A supposed source of the jiangshi stories came from the folk practice of "transporting a corpse over a thousand li." The relatives of a person who died far away from home could not afford vehicles to have the deceased person's body transported home for a burial, so they would hire a Taoist priest to conduct a ritual to reanimate the dead person and teach him/her to "hop" their way home. The priests would transport the corpses only at night and would ring bells to notify others in the vicinity of their presence because it was considered bad luck for a living person to set eyes upon a jiangshi. This practice, also called Xiangxi ganshi, was popular in Xiangxi, China where many people left their hometown to work elsewhere. After they died, their bodies were transported back to their hometown because it was believed that their souls would feel homesick if they were buried somewhere unfamiliar to them. The corpses would be arranged upright in single file and be tied to long bamboo rods on the sides, while two men (one at the front and one at the back) would carry the ends of the rods on their shoulders and walk. When the bamboo flexed up and down, the corpses appeared to be "hopping" in unison when viewed from a distance away.

Once it came to the movies themselves, the films were quite adept at featuring elements in common with the films at the time. Adopting these visual elements for the creature, it plays more in line with the American idea of zombie films from the 30s and 40s which were mindless slaves unconcerned with more familiar tropes as in flesh-eating or even the vampiric sense of blood-drinking. Rather, they were presented as relics of a bye-gone era in visual appearance that were extremely proficient martial artists that used those skills to carry out the deeds of their supernatural controllers. This concept provided the films with not only extremely fun and fluid action scenes in the martial arts battles between the vampires and those that it comes into contact with but the concept of this mindless denizen looking like a relic from the past hopping around like a kangaroo is the source of really awesome comedy. Still, being a horror film the threat is taken with utter seriousness and the situation is given plenty of room to be threatening as well, giving it some solid horror workouts in the end.

Well, now that we’ve taken a quick look at the origins of the creature, let’s take a look at some of the films in the genre here. The earliest concerning vampires is Midnight Vampire, directed in 1936 by Yeung Kung-Leung although not much information about the film is available beyond the fact that it was made but it nevertheless remains the first one until the 70s where the genre picked up a little more. Starting with the Shaw Brothers/Hammer Studios crossover The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires which was a cross between traditional Gothic melodrama as only Hammer could do with the mixture of chop-socky martial arts courtesy of some of the finest kung-fu performers on the Shaw Brothers roster, the film brought a reintroduction of vampires into the Hong Kong cinema and resulted in several other releases in the genre although none of them contained any connection to the Chinese variant on the style. Ranging from efforts like The Spiritual Boxer to Fake Ghost Catchers and Those Merry Souls, these efforts are more line with treating the spirits as more ghost-like and Western-leaning in their behavior rather than the more traditional Chinese variations.

It would take one of Hong Kong martial arts cinema's favorite sons, Sammo Hung, to be the one to exploit these more traditional tropes. In the classic Encounters of the Spooky Kind, about a young man who is continually forced to spend the night in haunted temples where a demonic witch brings out all sorts of ghouls and creatures to defeat him so that it's employer can finally get with the man's wife, one of the main creatures raised by the witch is the jiangshi as a hopping vampire who sets out to kill him. The casting of a real martial artist in the role, Sammo's long-time friend, and fellow Kung Fu-tier Yuen Biao, allowed for a series of fantastic martial arts to be displayed which are jaw-dropping in their physical prowess while also containing some of the finest physical comedy in the scene.

A bonafide tour-de-force and one of the country's finest movies ever regardless of genre, the film was naturally a box-office smash in its native Hong Kong and laid the groundwork for a slew of ripe and vicious horror to emerge from the country. While not necessarily inclusion into the topic covered here, the mix of black magic, sorcery and utterly inclusive Taoist teachings present in Spooky Encounters can be seen as the precursor to fare like the Shaw Brothers' Black Magic series of films, popularized by BewitchedThe Boxer's Omen and Seeding of a Ghost among others. Other knockoffs, as Devil Fetus and Black Magic with Buddha also emerged in that time and helped to cement the newfound relaxed censorship in the country by offering far more gruesome exploitation than the kind-hearted Spooky Encounters reveled in, dropping the slapstick comedy for revolting scenes of live animals and insects being vomited up or crawling over oozing wounds to varying effect which all nonetheless come across as the kind of work influenced by this success. As well, Revenge of the Zombies, The Miracle Fighters and Dreadnaught also emerged within a relatively quick time after that initial success and further the Hong Kong cinema's increasing use of period settings, religious mysticism, bone-chilling thrills and side-splitting comedy that were all in grand display and served as fine links in the line to the later efforts.

Alongside these releases, several other big films emerged to help spread several of the themes featured in the emerging hopping-vampire genre. First up was Kung Fu from Beyond the Grave, which features a young man who employs hopping ghost assassins to avenge his father's murder. Continuing to exploit the evil wizard character whose magic powers are complemented by considerable kung-fu skills, the film is mostly notable for having the Taoist priest summons Count Dracula to fight for him which makes for a rather interesting turn-around of the earlier Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires where the vampire instead possesses the body of a Chinese priest in that film. Other efforts, including the stand-out The Spooky Bunch which brings the genre out of the period setting and uses a more modern setting in its tale of a group of incompetent Chinese Opera company called out to a remote island for a performance only to find themselves beset by vengeful ghosts. Other fine efforts from that time period, including The Trail and Sammo Hung's follow-up film The Dead and the Deadly all manage to further the exploits of the genre.

However, no other film in the genre looms higher or more intensely than the legendary Mr. Vampire. One of the few legitimate rivals to the throne of finest Hong Kong horror film ever made, this gut-busting effort features the efforts of a Taoist priest and his bumbling assistants to try to curb the exploits of a hopping vampire accidentally released in a small village. With plenty of jaw-dropping martial arts courtesy of the late-great star Lam Ching-ying and supporters Chin Siu-ho, Billy Lau and Yuen Wah as well as exceptionally hilarious physical comedy from the two students who are completely overmatched by the ghosts and vampires suddenly in their midst, this one also manages to feature many of the usual tropes to be found in the genre to come in the form of a wise, benevolent Taoist priest that's adorned with a unibrow, proficient in the practice of spell-casting and martial arts who sets out to rid the town of the influence of the wandering ghosts and would become the standard-bearer for the genre henceforth.

The effect this film had on the industry as a whole is quite profound. Three loosely-connected sequels immediately followed in the late 80s, while officially-accepted sequel Mr. Vampire 1992/New Mr. Vampire arrived several years later in the early 90s. By then, the genre had bloomed into a fruitful enterprise with another effort titled New Mr. Vampire but a whole slew of films capitalizing on the success of the original which includes the efforts Vampire vs. Vampire, Magic Cop, Crazy Safari which itself is a second spin-off capitalizing on the success of The Gods Must Be Crazy, The Ultimate Vampire, The Musical Vampire and finally Exorcist Master all of varying quality but all still loosely connected to the same central themes established for the series.

Now, this form of gluttony cannot possibly be expected to continue on, and indeed that was the case here as this rabid onslaught of films forced the genre to die up. Not even an American attempt to cash in on the craze, The Jitters, brought out any kind of special attention to the genre after the glory years and managed to strike the rotting corpse back into the grave, seemingly forever.

In the new millennium, however, it did come crawling out for a tentative first few steps with a small handful of throwback efforts to the genre's heyday. The first effort, Vampire Controller is a rather straightforward and by-the-numbers affair that throws in the strong action and comedy that was prevalent in the style, even casting a few leading actors from these original group of films. The next two efforts, The Era of Vampires and The Twins Effect both tried some new elements into the mythos with Era going for a straight film without any comedy at all even with the throwback nature of the plot and special effects while Twins goes to more European vampire influences with the Dracula stand-in and behavior rules alongside the Hong Kong style previously utilized throughout here.

More recently, though, it hasn’t lead to much else for the genre. The most recent offerings, a postmodern take on the subject titled Rigor Mortis which goes so far as to recast most of the surviving cast members of Mr. Vampire but to make it take place in a world where they’re actors who must take out the creatures they did in the movies and a final traditional offering in the genre, Sifu vs. Vampire which goes back to the traditionally established norms of the genre. It’s the most recent effort in the genre and really does seem like it should kickstart the genre once again but nothing else has emerged in the time since, and thus we leave it here in terms of the genre.

Thanks for reading, and we’ll see you next time.