Ultimate Vampire
Hong Kong 1991
Directed by Andrew Lau Wai-Keung.

Just when you thought the series was going to lay down and die, it jumps right back up and starts hopping around! Ultimate Vampire is really more of a series of vignettes than a film, following the adventures of the Taoist sifu (Lam Ching-Ying) and his two students (Chin Siu-Ho and Wong Pan), but it holds together well because of the strength of its ideas. Of course, the presence of Lam Ching-Ying doesn't hurt, either.

Our story begins when Wanchi (Wong Pan, a poor substitute for Ricky Hui) goes out to watch the opera. Only problem is, the evenings' performance is not for humans, but for ghosts. This might seem odd, but in fact theater performances are an integral part of Taoist festivals like the chiao, which is a festival of renewal and spiritual appeasement. It is performed for the gods, as an offering, rather than for the spectator. The ritual repertoire of Chinese opera includes plays such as the Banquet of Peaches, the Eight Drunken Immortals, and the Heavenly Maiden sends a Child. In each of these, the theme is somehow tied to the Otherworld and the deities and spirits that inhabit there.

Wanchi thinks he's all by himself in the theater, but actually the dead spirits have crowded around him, and they're all having a pretty good time, watching the opera, swaying back and forth, decomposing. Sifu and his other student, Hsi (Chin Siu-Ho, student extraordinaire), must rescue Wanchi from the theater, something incidentally that I wish someone would do for me on occasion, especially when I'm suffering through a musical. But instead of releasing Wanchi, they manage to release all of the ghosts from their eternal wardens, the Hell Police. The Hell Police wear clown makeup but dress in black and never smile, so it's difficult to know how to take them. It is this release of the spirits that leads to all of the troubles that are to follow.

Lam Ching-Ying calls a council of Taoist Priests to help him round up all of the ghosts. The council is presided over by the powerful and authoritative Dark Lord of the Sith. Oh, no, wait, that's not quite right. But he does shoot lightning from his fingers, so there's that, at least. This guy is a bad character. How do we know? When it comes to recapturing the ghosts, he takes pleasure instead in destroying them utterly. The other priests are a bit alarmed at that. After all, one man's ghost is another man's ancestor.

The sifu in this film performs more priestly duties than we have seen him perform in the past. In addition to a restaurant scene where he advises on feng-shui (building off of the humor from the similar scene in Mr. Vampire), he spends a lot of time printing 'ghost money' and negotiating with the dead for proper sacrifices. In many respects, the Taoist priest must perform as a negotiator between the forces of the otherworld and the village, making sure that the spirits are satisfied.

The sifu and his students, after gathering most of the ghosts, must still contend with the evil priest and his son. Hsi and Wanchi decide they can take care of the son themselves, with the aid of a beautiful ghost (Carrie Ng). A practical joke goes somewhat awry, however, and they have to answer to the evil priest, who demands that they fetch him a 'coffin mushroom,' which is not a fungus that grows under a coffin. In Mr. Vampire, the sifu explained that a dead body that still has a breath stuck inside of it will become a walking corpse. The breath stuck inside a vampire, then, is known as a coffin mushroom. Or at least, it is now. In order to get the coffin mushroom, they must battle through an entire hoard of vampires.

Not long afterwards, townsfolk start getting murdered. As is inevitable by now, the local police immediately suspect the sifu. He realizes that in order to discover who the real killer is, he must whip up a batch of 100 Precious Things Stew. Now that I know what the ingredients are, I'll be extra careful not to order it if I ever see it in a Chinese restaurant.

If only the sifu had even marginally intelligent students, none of this would have happened. But instead, he teaches a couple of fools. It relflects on him as a teacher, too, and I was happy to see in fact the movie showed him to be not a particularly good teacher, although he is an excellent priest. At one point, the sifu can't take it anymore and sends them both packing, with nothing but a dead chicken on a stick. Of course it's part of the sifu's plan -- but whether that plan was to get the things that were trying to kill them as far away from him as possible, or to get his students to stall the creatures long enough for him to prepare to confront them, he doesn't say. You get the feeling throughout Ultimate Vampire that the sifu makes his students do everything, not so that they will learn, but because he is often too afraid to do it himself. When finally called upon to fight, however, he of course pulls it off well.

Ultimate Vampire is an entertaining continuation of the saga of the sifu and his students, one that is well worth watching. Like any typical sequel, it contains a lot that we have seen before, only bigger and badder (better not usually being within reach for a sequel). But it redeems itself by adding a lot of new ideas to the series, even while staying within the conventional framework.

Rating: Recommended (Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on March 29, 2004.

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