Director: Chiu Sin-Hang, Yan Pak-Wing
Cast: BabyJohn Choi, Chin Siu-Ho, Lin Min-Chen, Richard Ng, Lo Meng, Yuen Cheung-Yan, Siu Yam-Yam, Bonnie Chiu, Jiro Lee, Eric Tsang, Jim Chim Sui-Man, Stephen Au Kam-Tong, Hana Tam Hang-Lam
Running Time: 93 min.
By Paul Bramhall
In 2017 the hopping vampire genre continues to hang on by a thread. After being a mainstay of Hong Kong cinema during the 80’s, when you never had to look too far to find a Taoist priest (usually Lam Ching-Ying) dealing with a member of the undead, by the time the 90’s came around it was a genre in the process of fading away. Like the hopping vampires themselves though, it didn’t stay dead forever, with director Juno Mak’s 2013 movie Rigor Mortis providing a surprisingly effective more serious approach to proceedings. It wasn’t an approach that would catch on though, and only a year later the genre was dragged back to the realms of banal comedy, with the release of the Yuen Biao starring Sifu vs. Vampire.
Which brings us to the latest entry, that comes in the form of Vampire Cleanup Department, the directorial debut of screenwriters Chiu Sin-Hang and Yan Pak-Wing. The pair deserve credit for crafting a tale which at least offers a new slant on the usual hopping vampire shenanigans, as we learn that Hong Kong has a secret government department who are solely responsible for removing vampires from society. The guide for our journey is a character played by BabyJohn Choi (who I’m assured is no relation to AngelaBaby), here in his first starring role after supporting turns in the likes of Shock Wave and SPL 2: A Time for Consequences. After surviving being bitten by a vampire, his apparent immunity leads him to being recruited by the VCD.
Much like Rigor Mortis used its casting choices to trade on the nostalgia of hopping vampire movies gone by, Vampire Cleanup Department opts for the same approach. Both Chin Siu-Ho and Richard Ng are brought back, this time as members of the same team, accompanied by the likes of Lo Meng, Yuen Cheung-Yan, and Bonnie Chiu. When you have a vampire busting team that contains members of the Venoms crew, the Yuen clan, the Lucky Stars gang, and Lam Ching-Ying’s apprentice, then the expectation for some old school yellow talisman paper waving goodness is understandably set high. However it soon becomes clear that Sin-Hang and Pak-Wing have other ideas in mind, and while the threat of a super vampire (who thought Sifu vs. Vampire would be influential!?) acts as a reason for Vampire Cleanup Department to exist, the reality is that it’s a love story.
The love story in question forms between Choi and a rare species of human vampire, played by Malaysian pop idol Lin Min-Chen, here making her movie debut. Human vampires, it’s explained, have the ability in some instances to still display human characteristics, but more importantly for the sake of aesthetics, also resemble their human form rather than a rotting corpse. After a series of events culminate in Choi secretly taking Min-Chen into his care, soon he’s teaching her how to walk instead of hop, and indulging in that old HK cinema trope of bringing her along for a family dinner. For many this will most likely seem like an insipid proposition, however onscreen the relationship, as manufactured as it is, maintains a degree of charm thanks to the pair having a likable chemistry between them.
There’s a running joke throughout involving the fact Min-Chen has swallowed Choi’s smart phone, which works even when it shouldn’t (both the joke and the smart phone), and watching Choi’s grandmother, played by Shaw Brothers starlet Siu Yam-Yam, interrogate the pair over their love life draws the desire laughs. In between scenes of the budding relationship is Choi’s training regime to become a member of the VCD, which sees him being taken under the wing of each respective member of the team. Apart from seeing Lo Meng prancing about in vampire makeup, and Yuen Cheung-Yan’s lectures on talisman use, the highlight of these are the sparring sessions he has with Chin Siu-Ho. Or as they’re referred to in the movie, vampire defence training. These scenes give some brief but welcome flashes of Siu-Ho’s kung fu skills, and are enough to make one wish he’d be given more of an opportunity to show them off.
However the influence of several Hollywood movies tends to intrude rather than entertain, with the whole VCD setup being reminiscent of Ghostbusters, right down to the sassy secretary. The introduction of a potion which also wipes people’s memories of the immediate past is also blatantly derived from Men in Black, even if it has been given a distinctly Chinese slant. The most obvious one though is the parallel between Choi’s character and Blade. It’s revealed that his mother died shortly after giving birth, having been attacked by a vampire, which is the result of his immunity to vampire bites, and also gives his blood the power to give life. While it’s true to say Choi’s personality is a world away from the brooding tax evader’s vampire hunter, the character traits are ripped straight from the same page.
Despite these similarities, Sin-Hang and Pak-Wing deserve credit for the variation they come up with in regards to the origin of the vampires. Both the super vampire and Min-Chen are resurrected from the bottom of a lake, and the belief is explained that in Chinese mythology water always conquers earth, so the fact that our villainous blood sucker came from the water to begin with doesn’t bode well. Choi’s stereotypical millennial laziness is also utilised in a comedic manner, such as instead of following his order to copy the vampire talismans, he takes photos of them with his smart phone. When the team suddenly find themselves in short supply during a confrontation, his failure to put brush to paper results in him asking if it’s possible to send them to the team via an app, with understandably disastrous results.
The lack of imagination on display in the super vampire’s design though is a disappointment, essentially looking no different to the one from Sifu vs. Vampire. Once more CGI black swirls are the order of the day, and while its appearance is suitably gruesome, the fact that it’s mostly achieved via CG makes me long for the days when being covered in factor 100 sun cream was considered a suitably vampiric look (Mr. Vampire 2, I’m looking at you). It’s a shame, as Vampire Cleanup Department heads towards a finale that pits some of the favorite faces from HK cinemas golden days against a member of the undead, but its generic appearance fails to generate any excitement for the showdown.
The action in Vampire Cleanup Department is handled by Tang Shui-Wa, and while he’s worked in the capacity of assistant action director on several movies, this is only the fifth time for him to go it solo, with none of his previous credits being particularly action orientated. The lack of experience sadly shows, as while the one-on-one sparring sessions between Choi and Siu-Ho are mildly diverting, the final confrontation that pits the whole gang against the super vampire is a distinctly uninspiring affair. To top it all off, one part of it is lifted wholesale from Blade 2, which only serves as a reminder that the finale of Guillermo del Toro’s sequel delivered a much more satisfying throwdown. I never thought I’d say a Hollywood movie is superior to a Hong Kong one when it comes to action, but it seems that day is here.
With that being said, it’s perhaps not a surprise that the most enjoyable aspects of Vampire Cleanup Department don’t involve the villainous vampire at all. A special appearance by Eric Tsang, playing a police officer, leads to a hilarious conversation with Richard Ng as they argue over who has the biggest head, and simply seeing the likes of Ng, Lo Meng, and Cheung-Yan share the screen together is a welcome sight. However coasting along on the good will of Hong Kong cinema fans can only get you so far, and clocking in at just over 90 minutes, the end product is ultimately so slight that it’s impossible to be too negative (or positive) towards it. Simply put, as a directorial debut Vampire Cleanup Department is equal parts pleasant and instantly forgettable, which probably explains why it was so difficult to review.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 5/10