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Tsui Hark's Vampire Hunters (The Era of Vampire)

(2003) * 1/2 R
90 min. distributer. Director: Wellson Chin. Cast: Michael Chow, Chan Kwok Kwan, Ken Chang, Lam Suet, Ji Chun-hua.

Discriminating moviegoers, take note. Though Tsui Hark's Vampire Hunters (a.k.a. The Era of Vampire) opens in Bay Area theatres this week, it hits video shelves only eleven days later from Columbia-Tristar Home Entertainment. This hit-and-run release suggests a cash-grab for a few midnight-movie bucks, but if you set your sights low, you can squeeze a few chuckles out of this chintzy Ghostbusters-meets-Crouching Tiger cheesefest.

For some time now, Tsui Hark has tended to be short on plot and character, and long on wire fu and whistling projectiles, but Tsui Hark's Vampire Hunters doesn't compare favorably to his best work (the Once Upon a Time in China series). This no doubt accounts for Tsui's Luc Besson-esque decision to produce his script but hand over the directorial "honors" to Wellson Chin. Audiences, too, are likely to consider this horror outing a throwaway.

Four slightly goofy warriors, led by a scowlingly efficient master, patrol 17th Century rural China for zombies and their vampire progeny. You see, negative energy builds up in troubled corpses, which begin to move, then hop around--like potato-sack racers--as zombies. These zombies feed on human flesh and eventually become vampires (did I mention they can both burrow beneath the dirt and fly?). The beastly gyonshi, then, play like a cross between Universal's modern Mummy (the vampire's rotting face can suck a person's blood from across a room) and the unwieldy old Frankenstein lurchers of horror cinema past. Bizarrely, in the face of such a threat, the characters become sidetracked by a deadly snake on the loose.

The plot is full of such silliness, sometimes self-aware and sometimes just plain thick-headed. The characters are the barest of sketches, with cartoony emotions and shorthand lives. In a running gag, the vampire hunters--named Wind, Thunder, Rain, and Lightning--rapidly pick up on each scared, helpless woman they meet. They do this by singing their 1975 hit "Shining Star"...actually, I may have made up that last part.

Tsui Hark's Vampire Hunters is unavoidably slack, but in brief bursts, musters some coherent action or an amusing gesture among the hunters. But a comic book movie like this one should, simply, offer distinctive heroes and villains. Here, the heroes can't decide whether they're more interested in plundering gold, scoring with women, or slaying vampires, and the villains are bland or literally faceless. Watching this movie is the couch potato's version of mountain climbing. Why would anyone watch this movie? Because it's there.

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