Comedy and horror are two genres that perfectly go hand-in-hand. Both genres create absurd, heightened scenarios that can either elicit a laugh, a scream, or sometimes both. From 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein to more recent films such as Freaky, horror comedies have always been popular throughout cinema history. But what if you also threw martial arts and Chinese mythology into the mix?
Back in the 80’s and 90’s, Hong Kong cinema saw a boom in jiangshi films: horror comedies starring martial artists fighting off the undead who, quite literally, hop around and suck the life force from living creatures. Jiangshi films managed to make their way to western audiences through home releases, and garnered a cult following across the globe. The concept of these creatures was perfect for entertaining audiences with equal doses of action, scares and laughs, so why has the genre all but faded into obscurity? Hold your breath as we dive into the history of the jiangshi and wade through the cinematic landmarks of the genre.
First, let’s take a quick introductory class on what exactly a jiangshi is. Jiangshi is commonly known as a hopping vampire in Chinese and other Asian folklore. The name jiangshi literally translates to “stiff corpse”, with the undead only able to move by hopping around with their arms outstretched. Its origins can be traced back to the Qing Dynasty, where famous scholar Ji Yun wrote supernatural literature in his later years around the late 1700’s. He explains the numerous reasons why a corpse would reanimate: if a supernatural force brings it back to life, if a person died from suicide, if the deceased is not properly buried, and more. Thankfully Taoist priests can control these undead creatures and guide the bodies to a proper resting place. Their main method of subduing a jiangshi is by placing a piece of paper with a spell written in chicken blood firmly on their forehead. Other ways of combating or avoiding jiangshi include holding one’s breath, fire, glutinous rice, a handbell, even dropping a bag of coins will do.
Unsurprisingly, this particular piece of fiction eventually made its way into the world of film. Jiangshi first appeared on film not in the 80’s but near the dawn of cinema, in 1936’s Midnight Vampire. It was directed by Kung-Leung Yeung and… that’s all we really know. There isn’t a shred of information, or even a single still image, on the film, apart from the fact that it was produced. Jiangshi rarely featured in Hong Kong cinema from that point on. The Western vampire, popularised by a particular novel written by Bram Stoker, made its way into kung fu films, particularly in the 70’s. It wasn’t until 1980 that jiangshi would make a reappearance in Hong Kong cinema, all thanks to “big, big brother” Sammo Hung.
Sammo Hung is a legendary martial artist, actor, director and producer. Over decades he has contributed so much to Hong Kong and international cinema: introducing megastars to mainstream film, revitalising martial arts flicks, and of course introducing jiangshi to the world. Hung was taught at the China Drama Academy and earned his way to become a part of the Seven Little Fortunes performance troupe. It was here where his friendship with a fellow performer formed, who would be known to the world years later as Jackie Chan. Hung would later work closely with Chan and help make him a mainstream success, but before that was busy making countless martial arts films.
One of those films was 1980’s Encounter of the Spooky Kind. Hung starred in, wrote, directed, and produced the project – a wild action horror comedy unlike anything else at the time. Hung plays Bold Cheung, a rickshaw driver known in his local village for his lack of fear. Unfortunately for Cheung, his wife (Leung Suet-mei) is having an affair with his boss Master Tam (Huang Ha). Out of fear that Cheung would find out about the affair, Tam hires Priest Chin Hoi (Chan Lung) to dispose of him. Even with the aid of Priest Tsui (Chung Fat), Cheung is constantly tricked into spending a night in a nearby temple haunted with spirits and of course jiangshi. What ensues is a delicate balance of slapstick comedy, genuine frights, and top-tier action choreography.
Encounters of the Spooky Kind sets the rules of jiangshi cinema through the merging of each genre but also through the many on screen and narrative elements. Hung somehow perfectly balances the comedy, horror and action throughout the entire runtime; and sometimes even within a single moment. When the jiangshi rises from its coffin, the thunderous stomp of each hop is nearly as terrifying as the creature’s solidified face. What follows is a brilliant example of old-school physical comedy, as Cheung attempts to evade the vampire in increasingly more ridiculous situations. Of course, it isn’t long before Cheung must face the jiangshi head on, and Hung shows off his incredible martial arts skill and masterful choreography that flows between comical moves and lightning fast strikes. The film’s historical setting helps to introduce the folklore of jiangshi to audiences. Many of the details written by scholar Ji Yun on jiangshi legend can be seen here – from using the blood of a black dog and utilising an eight-sided mirror to repel jiangshi – and helps bring the world of hopping vampires to modern audiences.
Hung’s jiangshi cinema breakthrough grossed around HK$5.6 million at the domestic box office after its theatrical run ended in January 1981. For comparison, the highest grossing film of that year earned nearly HK$18 million. Its modest box office success led to a sequel being produced ten years later, but it didn’t make a mark on international audiences until it had numerous home releases. Hung continued to work on different projects, including the ghostly kung-fu comedy The Dead and The Deadly, but eventually worked on Mr. Vampire as a producer. Directed by Ricky Lau, who was a sort of protege of Hung, Mr. Vampire built on the foundation that Encounters of the Spooky Kind laid. It featured a lot of the same conventions set within a historical backdrop, but the budget and scope was considerably larger. When it released in 1985, Mr. Vampire scored a big domestic box office haul, as well as releases in international markets. The jiangshi genre was finally recognised internationally.
Set in the early 1900’s, Taoist priest Master Kau (Lam Ching-ying) takes on an assignment with the help of his two inept assistants: to move and rebury the deceased father of a wealthy businessman. Of course, the corpse turns into a jiangshi and chaos ensues. Compared to its predecessor, Mr. Vampire places a bigger emphasis on comedy compared to the horror and martial arts aspects. Thankfully the jokes land throughout the entire runtime. The physical comedy from the entire cast is superb, but there are more subtle laughs at play too. An early scene sees Kau and assistant Man-choi (Ricky Hui) meet with their client Master Yam (Huang Ha), along with his daughter Ting-ting (Moon Lee). They meet in a westernised coffee house, where the more traditional Kau and Man-choi have never set foot in. The clash of western and eastern traditions is used for maximum comedic effect, with Kau and Man-choi struggling to order a drink and Ting-ting making a fool out of the pair by incorrectly showing them how to drink coffee. It’s a welcome sight to see the comedy within the genre evolve into something more subdued and rooted in the character’s personalities and the situations they’re put in.
That’s not to say there isn’t any silliness to be found here. Far from it. So many moments, even entire scenes, have no effect on the narrative but are included because they’re that hilarious. Particularly from the viewpoint of looking back nearly 40 years, Mr. Vampire has a far more camp and loose feeling. It does mean that it isn’t scary, not even in the slightest. The jiangshi and spirits are merely props to provide more laughs and push the story along. On the action front, there are still particular sequences that stand out. Lam Ching-ying gets to display his masterful martial arts as seen in Encounters of the Spooky Kind, but arguably Chin Siu-ho (as Kau’s other assistant Chau-sang) steals the spotlight. He pulls off an array of acrobatic moves, including backflips off walls, and manages to act as the terrified and useless student whilst doing so.
Mr. Vampire took HK$20 million at the box office, which was considered a huge success. Actor Moon Lee recalls in an interview how the film was well-received in places such as Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and in particular Japan. It spawned a vampire craze with toys, merchandising, and even video games based on jiangshi, becoming a hot new trend. Like any surprise hit, the film received multiple sequels and led to an increase in vampire and jiangshi films. It was only a year later until Mr. Vampire II was released. It featured much of the same cast and crew, but told a completely different story. Ricky Lau sets the sequel in the modern day and although you’ll still find many jiangshi conventions within the plot, he tells a much wilder and unpredictable story. You’ll find a whole family of jiangshi (including an adorable vampire kid), police blowing stuff up and Lam Ching-ying breaking the fourth wall. It didn’t make as much money as its predecessor, but Lau still managed to direct Mr. Vampire III in 1987, Mr. Vampire IV in 1988, and an actual canonical sequel to the first film in 1992 titled… Mr. Vampire 1992. As the Mr. Vampire franchise took off, many of the original cast members would star in, and even direct, their own jiangshi flicks. Most notably, Lam Ching-ying directed and starred in Vampire vs. Vampire: a 1989 release that centred on a jiangshi doing battle with a classic European vampire.
The 90’s saw a decline in jiangshi film and media, but that drought didn’t last too long. The early 2000’s saw a couple of feature films that played with conventions and questioned what a jiangshi film could be. First up was 2002’s The Era of Vampires. The only western release was an edited version titled Tsui Hark’s Vampire Hunters, and unfortunately only had a dubbed version available. What makes this film particularly interesting is the total lack of comedy. This was a serious, violent piece of jiangshi cinema that leaned heavily into horror. Thanks to technological advancements and probably a bigger budget, The Era of Vampires does feature some great effects and designs that bring something fresh to the genre – like how the jiangshi here suck the blood of a victim from afar in gruesome fashion to gain their qi. Although the charm and wit of earlier jiangshi films is gone, it still feels very much a part of the genre. The historical time period certainly helps, as does the cast of Taoist priests and their students, the use of particular tools to fend off the undead, and of course the sight of hopping vampires.
A year later The Twins Effect exploded onto Hong Kong cinema screens, but it’s very much debatable whether this really is in fact a jiangshi film. This martial arts comedy horror stars Charlene Choi and Gillian Chung, otherwise known as Cantopop stars Twins, as the sister of a vampire hunter and the vampire hunter’s new assistant who eventually team up and become vampire slayers in their own right. It’s a blast to watch back purely because it is very much a product of an early 00’s film: flip phones, terrible fashion and edgy characters. The Twins Effect does manage to pull off a more cohesive balance between the action, horror and comedy unlike classics such as Mr. Vampire, but it does skip out on a core convention: the hopping vampires themselves. The vampires featured here are based on western vampire fiction, and there isn’t a Taoist priest in sight. Strangely though there are some very specific scenes that borrow from earlier jiangshi cinema, including a scene where vampire hunter Reeve (Ekin Cheng) turns into a vampire himself and leans into physical comedy as his assistant Gypsy (Gillian Chung) attempts to calm him down. Whether it is truly a jiangshi film or not, The Twins Effect was a huge box office success in Hong Kong; earning four times the opening week gross of Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle and grossed more than The Matrix Reloaded in their first ten days of release.
For a while jiangshi cinema was all but dead, but we all know by now that the jiangshi eventually rise again from their coffins. We wouldn’t see a notable jiangshi release until 2013, but this was a special project. Director Juno Mak managed to gather together several cast members from Mr. Vampire, alongside some veteran Hong Kong stars, for his dark and dramatic jiangshi feature Rigor Mortis. Siu-ho Chin – who played one of Master Kau’s students in Mr. Vampire – stars as a suicidal actor who moves into a dilapidated apartment block after his career fizzles out and his wife and son leave him. As Chin attempts to hang himself, two spirits invade his body but neighbour Chan Yau (played by Anthony Chan, another alumni from Mr. Vampire) comes to the rescue. It turns out that Yau is a jiangshi hunter, and the apartment block is home to other spirits, ghouls and black magicians. Like The Era of Vampires this doesn’t feature any comedy in the slightest, but it also doesn’t really incorporate much martial arts either. Rigor Mortis is by far the most horrific jiangshi film to date but it is also the most emotional too. At times it feels like a drama, filled with a great cast of characters that have their own lives and unique personalities. The obvious standout is Aunt Mui (Hee Ching Paw), who delivers a devastating monologue within a simple but effective long take.
There are other modern developments that enhance the jiangshi genre too: sweeping crane shots and tilted angles add to the sense of uneasiness, and the sound design is frighteningly effective. Viewers will want to keep an eye out in the background of each frame too, as you’ll often find a ghostly figure standing there momentarily without drawing much attention to itself. Unlike other jiangshi classics, the story is genuinely engaging thanks to the cast of weird and wonderful tenants. Just skip the last scene of the film, which will ruin the experience for most people watching. Rigor Mortis again calls into question how much of a jiangshi film this is, however. There are Taiost priests, hopping vampires and flashes of action set-pieces, but there is a distinct lack of laughs and martial arts choreography.
Eight years later, and there hasn’t been a notable jiangshi film since. There was a ten year gap between The Twins Effect and Rigor Mortis, so maybe a new jiangshi flick will hit screens sooner than later. The genre has clung on to relevancy throughout the decades, but it is still shrouded in obscurity. The reason may be found by answering a simple question: what exactly is a jiangshi film? From afar it seems that jiangshi cinema is all about that fusion of action, comedy and horror, but look closer and you’ll find far more conventions to adhere to. There needs to be a Taoist priest, particular rituals and props, human adversaries, and of course actual jiangshi. Maybe the reason that jiangshi cinema hasn’t reached the heights of popularity that it deserves is because there are too many conventions at play to replicate or stick to.
It would be too easy to label a film under the jiangshi genre just because it features a hopping vampire, even though that is technically the case. Sammo Hung created something so special all those years ago that he redefined the jiangshi genre specifically for the medium of film. Even with some great jiangshi films released since Encounters of the Spooky Kind, none of them feel like true jiangshi cinema. Not one perfectly balanced martial arts with equal measures of comedy and horror, and when a particular character archetype or plot point is not included, that absence is sorely felt. Maybe jiangshi cinema didn’t fall because it never truly rose from the grave in the first place.