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Capsule Reviews

Exorcist Master    (1992)
Drawing upon a set of seemingly incompatible influences, Wu Maís Exorcist Master was released in 1992. Belonging to that eccentric group of films that Mr. Vampire previously popularised, this film aims to build upon the foundation that these earlier films established. On paper Exorcist Master seems promising, but could this film, released seven years after Mr Vampire, provide viewers with something special?

Wu Maís film was released during the waning years of the supernatural-horror/kung fu/comedy subgenre. The 1980s may have given birth to this genre, but it found itself somewhat extended into the next decade, with the late, great Lam Ching-Ying still so honourably and persistently willing to reprise what has to be his most common role. The vampire-buster (or one-eye browed priest) character makes a return here, but the film makes an attempt to differentiate itself somewhat by incorporating some East-Meets-West elements - for the film puts Chinese mythology, Taosim up against Catholicism and Dracula!

Those unfamiliar with the Chinese depiction of vampirism may be surprised to learn that the typical un-dead in Hong Kong cinema are soulless, zombified, superhuman and cursed with chronic stiff-joints and muscles Ė this rigor mortis effect explains their hypnotic and relentless hopping towards their horrified victims. Their personalities are gone, their human desires are absent, and they are interested in nothing but securing more victims. They can mix equal parts of horror and comedy at will, with a dedication to slapstick that might make Buster Keaton look like a casual dabbler. To see that ĎExorcist Masterí (for a good deal of time) puts these conventional ingredients aside in favour of a more Western, or even Hammer film style of vampirism, is quite unusual, if not at times confounding. Gone is the stiffened, superhuman living corpse Ė heís replaced by a caped Westerner with a widowís peak and overgrown canines (a la Christopher Lee).

The script is fairly simplified, and at times seems to almost stall. Chao Lu Chiang (responsible for some of Jackie Chanís earliest scripts), injects a light-heartedness and comedic tone throughout the film, but these distractions while humorous, really only give a hunger for some core story and action. And so the lightweight plot mostly finds our characters dropping in and out of the newly refurbished village church (til now believed to be haunted or cursed) more than anywhere else, and director Wu Ma certainly gets the mileage out of this dimly lit, quasi-Catholic house of worship. Most of the films action takes place here (or similar locales), but it is a slightly different style of choreography to other films in this category. Technical martial arts is mostly absent from the film, rather we are given a more acrobatic, brawling choreography reminiscent of Chin Siu Hoís performance in the original Mr Vampire, employed rather skilfully by Collin Chou. Secondary action is supplied by the surprisingly apt performance of Yue Hong, who has a surprisingly blank filmography. But those looking for big hits or clever prop-play may be let down, for the action while competent, is not really all that memorable or special. Neither are the locations incorporated into the action sequences cleverly, and so they lack the sense of urgency and desperation required to portray a real threat in the power of vampirism.

Visually speaking, the film is shot well enough, with a reasonable attention to the rhythm of the action. Wide, generous shots are absent though, except for the odd exterior establishing shots. But it is certainly visually that the film makes its most lasting impression, for it is soaked in a blue wash of artificial light for most of the running time. As a matter of Hong Kong cinema convention, this is not an unusual choice in films dealing with the supernatural. Indeed blue and/or green lighting may be the equivalent of the West's impossibly dark and blood-red imagery in their horror scenes, and is used to indicate the paranormal or supernatural. Where Mr Vampire applied this technique cunningly, it was Mr. Vampire 3 that previously set a limit to this viewer's eyes for the overuse of that surreal, otherworldly lighting technique. It's obvious that Exorcist Master is now the reigning championÖ

There are only a handful of exterior shot scenes, and a fraction of those are shot in daylight; this gives the film both a reason and an excuse to dress its sets in such a deep colourisation. This choice harms the film more than it improves it though, and it has an effect every director fears for: a lack of distinction between key scenes, and a kind of homogenisation of locations and sets between most scenes. The atmospheric lighting eclipses the content of the scenes at times, and action sequences are often described as a black and blue montage of flips and falls, with choreography detail and continuity paying the price.

If these ingredients weren't odd enough, we are treated to some truly bizarre behaviour from the ghost hunter throughout the film. Less and less does he confront his problems and enemies head-on, and maybe the idea was to expand the character's repertoire of skills beyond 'mere' physicality, but it's somehow sad to see the poor man resorting to disguising himself as an old woman, feigning a feeble mind and body. Sure, it is to an end, but the awkwardness outweighs the laughs. Could the step back from action be due to Lam Ching-Ying's illness - something he never revealed until it was in its final stage?

Wu Maís greatest failure in this film is that the villains show no real menace, and if they do, itís only fleetingly. With no suitable power to balance the exorcist masterís and students abilities, the film virtually crawls towards its finale, where the cultural clashes hinted at above are only briefly touched upon, never mind explored thoroughly. This means the film never really strays from where previous films have been, and the promise of some sort of showdown of incompatible beliefs indicated early in the film never really materialises. References to William Friedkinís masterpiece (The Exorcist) are tossed in for good measure, but the terror that originally accompanied them has been lost in Wu Maís fleeting application of them.

Exorcist Master is a hard film to complain too much of though, for how many films have tried to incorporate such a list of bizarre themes, all why balancing physical comedy and martial artistry? Itís clear that some of the earlier efforts made with similar material are far superior, but without the direction or at least passing influence of Sammo Hung, most supernatural kung-fu comedies tend to wear themselves out under the demanding act of balancing the eclectic elements required. It is worth seeing the film for its exoticness (as well as Lam Ching-Yingís typically solid performance), but it canít be savoured, moment-to-moment like Mr. Vampire or Encounters of the Spooky Kind can. Like one of its own victims, Exorcist Master may very well be the walking dead of the genre.
Ryan Gobbe 12/14/2010 - top

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