Tsui Hark’s Vampire Hunters

Tsui Hark’s Vampire Hunters (2002)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Extras: Bonus Trailers

In case you haven’t heard yet, Hong Kong horror films are in many aspects very different from American fare. As a result they require a very different mindset, and sadly, consequently these films are often misunderstood if not ridiculed. The same basically happened with Tsui Hark’s "Vampire Hunters." While it is certainly not the cult-director/producer’s most impressive piece of work, it is still evident in every frame that he remains the Godfather of Hong Kong Fantasia movies. From crimson wedding gowns, sylvan fogs, backlit low-angle camera shots and furious action, this film contains everything Hong Kong cineasts love… and more.

A group of vampire hunters in the 17th century following the trail of a vampire find the grave of a General to be the source of all evil. The General turns out to be a master vampire, turning everyone around him into undead creatures.
During the same time, zombies have appeared in the countryside and a small delegation of the vampire hunters, is investigating the case. When they notice undead activity in an area, they take on jobs as house servants for one of the richest families around and attend to a wedding. During the same night, bandits who planned to rob the splendorous wedding are torn to pieces by undead only feet from the house, and soon the vampire hunters know that they are in the right place. While some signs point towards Jiang (Yu Rong Guang), the patriarch of the estate, who has a menagerie of preserved dead bodies in his basement, there is also the bride’s brother, a debt-ridden gambler, who is dead-set on obtaining Jiang’s riches. Or is it maybe an entirely different force that controls the undead?

As I mentioned in opening, Hong Kong horror films are very different from their American counterparts and may require some explanation. Vampires and zombies in Asian cinema are not nearly the same as they are in Western cultures. There are no groomed, aristocratic ladykilling neckbiters in Hong Kong horror movies, for example. Vampires are typically rotten beasts that are more reminiscent of Lucio Fulci’s decayed zombies, equipped with some of the most amazing supernatural and martial arts powers. Zombies on the other hand are not your slouching Romero-esque undead either. They are typically hopping servants of a higher being without sight but enhanced secondary senses and martial arts skills that can kill people in an instant. The dissimilarities of the genres continue progressively, but for this review this brief explanation shall suffice.
Hong Kong horror films are usually also very gory and graphic in their very own way. "Vampire Hunters" is no different and it has some very graphic scenes. Thanks to Tsui Hark’s inimitable style however, they are always countered by mesmerizing images of a lyrical quality. The vampire feasting on his victims comes to mind immediately here, which are scenes in which the vampire drains the blood from the victim in an almost ethereal, but nonetheless violent way.
Apart from its solid horror elements, "Vampire Hunters" also contains plenty of martial arts, of course. Plenty of swordplay and high-flying kicks, combined with furious editing and mesmerizing stunts fills a good portion of the film, while the trademark humor of Hong Kong films is also not missing.

Though Tsui Hark did not take credit for directing the film – Wellson Chin did – it is very evident that Hark has had a lot of input and influence on this picture, and I wouldn’t be surprised that indeed he did direct large portions of the film. Hark has often been accused of "style over substance" and "Vampire Hunters" is another example where his vision is taking the front seat over a really deep story. It is anyone’s guess however, whether that is a good or bad thing. To me, ultimately "Vampire Hunters" was a fun movie that fulfilled my every hope. Characters may be flat and insignificant at best, and the story may be a tad too furious for its won sake at times, but in the end, "Vampire Hunters" is a racy horror film that delivers the goods.

Now, if someone at Columbia TriStar would actually have watched the movie they would have realized that the artwork for this DVD with its fanged skull is completely out of place, but at least for once in their Hong Kong movie line-up they did get the technical side of the release right. The <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> transfer of the movie is a beauty to behold. The print is entirely free of speckles or blemishes and not a hint of grain is visible. The transfer shows a very high level of detail and even the most subtle gradients are rendered marvelously. Color reproduction is faithful with strong and vibrant hues that bring out the best of the movie’s enchanting cinematography. Black levels are rock solid and never break up, creating deep shadows that never lose definition. As a result the image looks incredibly deep and rich with a wide contrast range. Edge-enhancement is virtually non-existent, creating a sharp image with bold lines that are never exaggerated. The compression has been handled equally well and not compression artifacts distract from the viewing experience.

On the sonic end, the DVD also convinces. Featuring the original <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> mix in Cantonese, the audio is making good use of the surround channels. The spatial integration is good and directional effects are used frequently and to great effect, creating a wide and immersive sound field. The frequency response of the track is good with clear high ends and solid basses. Dialogues are well integrated and never drowned out. Also found on the DVD is a <$5.1,5.1 channel> Dolby Digital mix in a English, and a French <$DS,Dolby Surround> track, but no real fan will ever touch these dubs. The DVD is also subtitled in English and French.

Not a single extra graces this release, which is a disappointment given the film’s very recent production year.

It is evident that Columbia TriStar is entirely clueless when it comes to the Hong Kong movies in their library, and the cover byline "In the vein of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" adds further proof to that. It’s like comparing "Gone With The Wind" to "Dawn Of The Dead" – after all there are dead people in both, right?

That aside, Tsui Hark dishes out a solid, furious spectacle once again that carries his signature all over. It is a very atmospheric film once again, though not without shortcomings. Nonetheless, fans of Hong Kong horror movies will undoubtedly savor this little action-packed gem despite its formulaic story.