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Tsui Hark's Vampire Hunters

The opening titles of Tsui Hark's Vampire Hunters offer the brief hope that something irresistibly stupid is about to unfold — it turns out that rural China had quite the zombie problem in the 17th century. What's more, feeding off of human flesh for a while would turn these zombies into powerful vampires, leaving it up to a brave band of magic warriors to stop them. "This is their story." If there's any reason to believe this film can deliver on such an irredeemably silly premise, it's because writer-director-producer Tsui Hark has turned this mystical horror trick many times in the past, most notably with his groundbreaking Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain and the Chinese Ghost Story series. But ever since returning to Hong Kong after his bizarre Van Damme experiment in the U.S. — his Double Team and Knock Off, while reviled by critics, are so imaginatively preposterous as to border on brilliant — Hark has been curiously off of his game, and, sadly, Vampire Hunters represents the nadir of his most recent work. Though Wellson Chin is billed as the film's director, writer-producer Hark's fingerprints are all over this movie, particularly in the manic pacing, which speeds from set-piece to set-piece with little regard for narrative coherence. The opening sequence finds our titular heroes — known as Wind, Thunder, Lightning, and Rain — stumbling upon the disturbed grave of a dead general. On the off-chance that the corpse might not be "at peace" (i.e. gone zombie), the hunters and their master decide to dynamite the grave. Alas, they're too late; the general has not only gone from flesh-eater to bloodsucker (and there is a difference), he's the almighty Vampire King. A big, poorly choreographed battle ensues that concludes in a big CG fireball and separates the boys from their master. Three months later, the quartet is still tracking down their nasty, all-powerful nemesis with the use of a compass that apparently picks up zombie activity. (Never mind that it's frequently inoperative, they consult it anyway.) This leads them to the house of the wealthy Master Jiang, a wax baron who's made his fortune thanks to his uncanny ability to preserve corpses. Jiang is attempting to marry off his son for the sixth time — all five prior attempts have resulted in an untimely death for the brides — and all goes well until, this time, his boy turns up dead the next morning from a snake bite. The hunters, hiding undercover as laborers in the House of Jiang, are therefore charged with the task of hunting down the elusive snake, which inevitably leads to one of the boys falling in love with the young widow, Sasa, who it turns out was promised to Jiang's son by her debt-ridden brother who's got on eye on stealing the old man's gold. Since Jiang's got an immobile army of waxed corpses hanging out in his basement, Sasa's brother hires a zombie wrangler to re-animate the dead, which will then cause a distraction allowing him to pilfer the gold. Meanwhile, the boys wait around for the Vampire King to show up again, which he does, and all incoherent hell breaks loose. In the hands of a less ambitious filmmaker, Vampire Hunters might've been an acceptably ludicrous diversion, but Hark, at his hyperactive worst, keeps stacking up the subplots to the point of sheer annoyance. He appears to be making it up as he goes along, and, indeed, it often feels like the cinematic equivalent of listening to a little kid spin a whopper of a lie. Call it "and then..." storytelling. The film's only semi-redeeming quality: the hopping dead. Columbia TriStar presents Tsui Hark's Vampire Hunters in a so-so anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) , with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Extras are limited to a few theatrical trailers. Keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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