Exorcist Master
Hong Kong 1993
Directed by Wu Ma.


Sifu extraordinaire Lam Ching-Ying faces his most challenging opponent ever: the Catholic Church. Ghosts, hopping vampires, and communion all threaten to unbalance the feng-shui of an entire village. Sifu to the rescue!

This film came out after the Lam Ching-Ying Mr. Vampire phenomenon had long since lost its excitement. Ching-Ying had played the role of Taoist sifu so many times, no one was particularly interested in seeing it again. So, Exorcist Master is often dismissed as a latecomer, and not particularly successful. But you know, ANY film that starts out with Ching-Ying taking a whiz on the door of a church deserves at least a little bit of attention.

And your attention is in this case rewarded. Director Wu Ma puts a new spin on an old trick by adding the conflict between villagers and Catholic converts in Republican-era China on top of the usual old hopping vampires and taoist priests. The result takes the form of a series of contests between Uncle (Lam Ching-Ying), resident Taoist priest, and Priest Wu (Wu Ma), recently dispatched from the Vatican, for the hearts and minds of the villagers.

When Priest Wu arrives in town, he immediately sets about reopening the abandoned church. Uncle immediately intervenes, preventing the opening of the church, because of its inauspicious feng-shui. It should never be opened, he says, or everyone will suffer. But of course, he is outvoted by the villagers and the mayor of the town, all of whom are enamoured of western civilization, clothing, technology, and by extension, religion.

The church opens, but Uncle is down, not out. When he hears the organ music gathering villagers for mass, he combats it with traditional Chinese pipes and drums. The Catholic and the Taoist refuse to see eye to eye on anything. But even his own students try on Western-style clothing and attend mass behind his back.

When Uncle disguises himself as a woman and attends mass as well, he has the opportunity to harass Priest Wu during communion. Shortly afterwords he becomes sick, and Priest Wu attempts to help him with Western medicine. But again, he is rejected.

The conflict between the two continues while another Taoist priest appears, driving corpses (hopping vampires) along with him. They camp for the night near the old church, and Uncle's students find them, and become suspicious as to whether they are real hopping vampires or not. Before they can find out, trouble finally emerges from the Church in the form of the undead Western Missionary who was sealed in the old church years before. He becomes a Western-style vampire and terrorizes the town. It is up to the Taoist and the Catholic together to defeat both the Eastern and Western vampires and restore peace to the community.

Lam Ching-Ying is excellent as usual in this role he has spent a decade refining. Wu Ma puts in a really fine performance as well as the Catholic priest, a very different role from the rambunctious Taoist warrior-monk he is best known for from the Chinese Ghost Story trilogy.

As light hearted and fun as the film is, it is as far as I have found the only Hong Kong picture that seems to represent attitudes and opinions toward Christianity at a local village level accurately. Far from being the reviled, alien religion that Chinese propaganda so often likes to pretend it is, in actuality the religion appealed to the people for a wide variety of reasons, not the least of which the western knowledge and technology that seemed always to accompany it. The opening of the Church symbolizes the opening of trade with the west, an opening to new ideas, though one frought with potential dangers. This opening to western ideas is not inherently a bad idea. The bad idea is when all traditional Chinese morals and values are thrown out to make room for the new. Instead, the movie seems to advocate that there can be a middle ground, where Western ideas can be incorporated into a traditional Chinese framework. In other words, if driving a wooden stake through the heart of a vampire doesn't work, try a mahogany sword and some dog's blood.

Rating: Marginally Recommended (Marginally Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on April 20, 2004.


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