Director: Chiu Sin Hang, Anthony Yan
Cast: Babyjohn Choi, Lin Min-Chen, Chin Siu Ho, Richard Ng, Susan Shaw, Lo Mang, Bondy Chiu, Yuen Cheung-Yan
Runtime: 1 hr 34 mins
Rating: PG13 (Some Disturbing Scenes)
Released By: mm2 Entertainment and Shaw
Opening Day: 16 March 2017
Synopsis: Vampire has been haunting in Hong Kong for centuries. Hiding in thiscity, there is an official special action unit coping with the vampire -Vampire Cleanup Department (VCD). The street cleaners in midnight are the vampire hunters. Giant garbage bins contain the captured vampire. The ordinary garbage station is their secret headquarter! A nerdy geek Tim Cheung (BabyJohn Choi) is accidentally rescued by VCD. The department advisor Uncle Chung (Ng Yiu-Hon) discovers his immunity against the vampire toxin. Owing to his unlimited potential, Team Captain Chau (Chin Siu-Ho), Magic Maoshan-taoist Ginger (Yuen Cheung-Yan), technical support specialist M (Bondy Chiu), weapon expert Kui (Law Mon) teach him all their knowledge and skills, in order to turn him into the next Vampire Hunter! However, in an action, Tim feels sympathy for a pretty lady vampire called Summer, he violates the command and lives with her, which trigger the attack from the Vampire King…
Any discussion of Chinese vampire movies would be incomplete without at least a mention of 1985’s seminal Mr. Vampire, whose roaring success single-handedly defined the genre and would go on to spawn a series of successful spin-offs through the 80s and 90s, such as New Mr. Vampire, Ultimate Mr. Vampire and Mr. Vampire 2. Those who were weaned on Hong Kong cinema during that period of its heyday will be well-acquainted with the misadventures of Maoshan-taoist exorcist, played by Lam Ching Ying, as well as his bumbling but loveable protégés, played by Ricky Hui and Chin Siu-Ho.
Sadly of course, Lam and Hui have passed on, just as the fortunes of the genre and Hong Kong cinema in general have since declined. Worth noting also is the fact that the mainland Chinese government bans all movies depicting superstitions and the occult, further hammering what seems to be the proverbial final nail in the vampire genre’s coffin as filmmakers succumb to commercial pressures of catering to the huge mainland market and placating its motherland’s authorities, especially in post-handover Hong Kong.
So how sanitised is this latest reboot and does it offer enough to satiate older fans nostalgic for the vampirical conventions that made this category of movies so memorable? After all, don’t we all miss the curious exorcism rituals involving cinnabar-scrawled talismans, glutinous rice and peach wood swords, not to mention seeing how the amusingly simple way of throwing a hopping, Qing Dynasty-garbed vampire off one’s scent is by holding one’s breath? Well, the quick answer to the questions is both yes and no.
First of all, long-time fans will be pleased to see the return of several stalwarts in this film, not least Chin, as he continues his run as one of the last surviving actor-torchbearers of the geung-si (vampire) category. Last seen in a similar vein of movies (but totally unrelated to this standalone film) in Juno Mak’s audaciously refreshing Rigor Mortis (2013), here he plays the gruff captain Chau, who is hugely sceptical of latest squad inductee Tim Cheung (a baby-faced BabyJohn Choi, best known for 2013’s The Way We Dance). Richard Ng Yiu-Hon (Mr. Vampire Part 3; Rigor Mortis) is also a welcome sight, as the veteran thespian plays the benevolent Uncle Chung, senior counterpart to the seemingly abrasive, straight-talking, yet righteous Chau.
Other faces that audiences may recognise include Susan Yam-yam Shaw, who plays Cheung’s senile grandmother, suitably decked out in hip-hop gear to comedic effect and supplying a fair number of laughs in the film. Bondy Chiu (best known for her role in TVB drama Virtues of Harmony and Yuen Cheung-Yan (famous for directing, choreographing fight scenes and his work as calefare in a number of kungfu comedies) take on roles as the other members in the vampire-slaying team, but they also take a backseat to the other aforementioned characters and are, unfortunately, relatively unmemorable here.
Vampire Cleanup Department marks the biggest directorial effort yet by young filmmakers Yan Pak-Wing and Chiu Sin-Hang, who obviously take great pains in paying tribute to what made the genre so great in the first place (the former director is also credited as screenwriter). Unlike its geung-si predecessor Rigor Mortis, there are nods to both the quintessential elements of kungfu and comedy that used to be the hallmark of many classic Hong Kong vampire-action movies.
For example, under the watchful eye of Chau, Cheung earns his stripes in the VCD by being forced to sweep with a broom, which later turns out to be a weapon of choice and part of his kungfu training. Also, with a title like Vampire Cleanup Department, one expects this to be light-hearted fare from the outset – and it is. There is even the self-referential joke about VCDs, or DVDs, Blu-rays that Cheung makes when he meets the secretive department for the first time in their base – even if we’ve seen the joke coming from a mile away. In an homage to the superstitious folklore of the genre, Magic Maoshan-taoist Ginger (Yuen Cheung-Yan) contributes some trivia about different types of vampires and what makes talismans effective.
At the same time, the filmmakers spare no effort to remind audiences that this is a vampire flick set in the modern day. In a particularly comical scene, when tasked to copy and draw talismans from a manual, Cheung opts to take photos with his smartphone instead. Cheung’s love interest, Summer (played by Taiwan-based Malaysian starlet Lin Min-Chen), who as a vampire is incapable of verbalizing herself, finds herself vicariously voiced by Siri after swallowing Cheung’s iPhone.
Gone as well are the old-school Manchu-robed vampires of yore (except being fleetingly represented by the Vampire King); with the help of the latest make-up techniques, here they mostly resemble Resident Evil-esque zombies. Taoist inscriptions on ritual swords also light up in spectacular CGI fashion, as do vampires when they are impaled with an exorcism sword.
It’s a pity therefore that overall the film feels like a slightly half-baked exercise in trying to tell a coherent story while melding action, comedy and romance. Tried-and-tested formulas and genre clichés need not necessarily be tiresome if they are well executed, but the film crosses that gossamer-fine line into uninspired territory on one too many occasions. There is an underdeveloped sub-plot about another credit-stealing police department constantly in conflict with the VCD, which feels rather unnecessary to the main story. One also wishes the film had dialled up more on classic mou lei tau humour; scenes that are truly laugh-out-loud funny are few and far between. Even a cameo appearance by Eric Tsang as a confused police officer feels unamusing and forgettable.
The film also spends quite a lot of time developing the unlikely relationship arc between Cheung and Summer, who here is less mojo-draining succubus than guileless phantom. It is hard enough to feel for the unlikely puppy love story when one half of the couple is a cutesy vampire constrained by speech and range of physical motions, and Lin’s best efforts at wide-eyed, pouty-lipped posturing aid little in preventing the romance from feeling flat. Consequently, between juggling Cheung’s character development from bookworm to heroic vampire slayer and furthering the human-vampire love story, the plot is spread too thinly and fails to build up sufficient dread for the final scene involving the Vampire King. The result – a climax that feels slightly unsatisfying and overall, a film that feels a lot less engaging than it should have been.
To compare this film to Mak’s Rigor Mortis would be unfair of course, since they are wholly different treatments of the genre, with the former being a much more sombre, darker affair. But Mak’s film is a prime example of how new life can be breathed into an undead genre built on age-old superstitious beliefs. This genre’s longevity will be predicated on the ability of filmmakers to attract new, younger audiences beyond superficial effects based on cinematic technology updates. For all its shortcomings, though, it is difficult to hate on Vampire Cleanup Department for the heart it brings to the table. Older fans may find themselves missing the authentic earthiness of the pantheon’s classics, but they should still find something in the film that speaks to why they loved those classics in the first place.
(A hark back to the Chinese vampire films of the 80’s and 90’s, the film feels uneven and banal at times, but should still win some hearts with its earnestness in paying tribute to the genre)
Review by Tan Yong Chia Gabriel