Saturday, September 4, 2010

THE EAST IS RED #15: Zombie Fighters and Sparkly Vamps

by Lisa Morton

Let’s play a game and see if you can name these movies:
Movie #1: Woody, the star, is a hunky guy who’s always been a loser in the past; but after a zombie outbreak, he teams up with a charmingly gawky kid and a couple of spunky gals to at last become a true hero. The movie is fast and funny, directed with great visual panache (including fantastic use of graphics overlaid on images), has a witty movie-star in-joke*, and was a surprise hit.
Movie #2: Based on an existing mega-hit, this one tells the story of a handsome young vampire who falls in love with a cute young human girl, despite the warnings of his vampire clan. After a chaste, sweet courtship, things fall apart when a bunch of ancient Eurotrash vamps come after them, and the climax is the big fight scene.
If you identified movie #1 as ZOMBIELAND and movie #2 as TWILIGHT…well, you’re both right and wrong.
Because for the purposes of this column, movie #1 is a 1998 gem from Hong Kong called BIO-ZOMBIE, and #2 is a Hong Kong mega-hit from 2003 called THE TWINS EFFECT (also known as THE VAMPIRE EFFECT). Now, mind you, my intention in comparing these films is not to suggest that the later American pictures borrowed anything from their Hong Kong antecedents – I doubt if any of the people involved with, say, TWILIGHT, have ever even heard of THE TWINS EFFECT. But if you’ve ever held off from exploring Hong Kong’s cinema because you figured it was either kung fu action, bullet ballets, or ghostly girls with long black hair, these two should prove to you that the Asians can not only mix it up thematically with their western counterparts, they can beat us to it – and maybe even do it better.

Wilson Yip’s BIO-ZOMBIE (1998) is – despite its obvious micro-budget – probably the better of the two, and is certainly a must-see for any fan of zombie cinema. This Woody isn’t the lead actor, but the lead character – Woody Invincible (Jordan Chan), a low-level thug who runs a Hong Kong video store with his buddy Crazy Bee (Sam Lee). The movie’s first half is largely concerned with the antics of these two bumblers, who unwittingly set the zombie apocalypse in motion when they run over a guy who’s just purchased a serum that produces zombies. Fortunately, Woody and Bee are played by two of the best young actors of late ‘90s Hong Kong: Chan already had a large following thanks to the wildly successful YOUNG AND DANGEROUS movies, and Lee had garnered critical acclaim for his debut appearance in 1997’s triad drama MADE IN HONG KONG. Their comic interplay is genuinely hilarious, making the first half of BIO-ZOMBIE breezy and amusing.

But when the zombies really stagger into the picture, BIO-ZOMBIE can generate gore and tension with the best of ‘em (despite the obviously silly make-up effects). Woody develops a relationship with Rolls, a pretty young salon worker, while Bee lusts after Mrs. Kui, the put-upon wife of a berating phone store owner. There’s also the sushi chef, who adores Rolls and remains her defender even after his zombification (the scene in which the chef passes out finger sushi to hungry zombies is classic!). As Woody, Bee, and the rest barricade themselves in a Hong Kong shopping mall and fight off the burgeoning hordes, they end up becoming the video game heroes they’ve played for years. *=And in BIO-ZOMBIE’s movie-star in-joke, when each character is displayed as a video game action star, complete with stats and points, Mrs. Kui’s idol is identified as none other than…Jordan Chan.
BIO-ZOMBIE was an early feature for Yip, who went on to become one of Hong Kong’s most interesting directors. His later films include the weird science fiction outing 2002, the touching drama JULIET IN LOVE, a funky kids’ horror movie called THE MUMMY, AGED 19, and the superb historical epic IP MAN, which won Best Picture in the 2008 Hong Kong Film Awards.

Dante Lam, director of THE TWINS EFFECT (2003), has occupied a somewhat similar place in Hong Kong’s film industry. Prior to THE TWINS EFFECT, he had co-directed the brilliant triad drama BEAST COPS, and possibly the best triad comedy ever, 2000’s JIANG HU: THE TRIAD ZONE. His 2008 film BEAST STALKER won lead actor Nick Cheung a bevy of acting awards for his performance as a one-eyed sympathetic villain. Like Yip, Lam has a hyperkinetic style that lends great visual glee and humor to THE TWINS EFFECT.
The mega-hot property behind the film was, in this case, not a book, but a singing duo – the Twins, who in 2003 were the hottest singers in Asia. Comprised of Gillian Chung and Charlene Choi, the Twins (who aren’t related and look nothing alike) were obvious choices to star in a movie, and the Hong Kong producers threw a lot of money at this production, surrounding the fresh actresses with a bevy of established stars (Jackie Chan, Ekin Cheng, Karen Mok, Anthony Wong) and tailoring a script that made use of their plentiful cutes. Well, happily enough, the Twins could actually act, too, and their first big movie together (both had acted in smaller parts previously) is a fluffy but infectious outing filled with equal parts action, comedy, and romance. Edison Chen is the cute Robert Pattinson stand-in here, playing a vampire prince who has come to Hong Kong to escape his stultifying European upbringing (yes, of course it’s preposterous that we’re asked to accept the obviously Chinese Chen as a European prince named Kazaf!). Unfortunately for Kazaf, the girl (Choi) he’s fallen in love with is the sister of a famous vampire hunter (studly superstar Ekin Cheng). The movie gets off to an action-filled bang as Cheng and his first partner – played by awesome tough girl Josie Ho – fight off a cadre of vampires in an abandoned train station (you might wonder if TRUE BLOOD’s writers saw this movie, though, as our heroes down vials of vampire blood to pump themselves up for the fights); after Josie dies, Cheng’s new partner turns out to be Gillian Chung, the Audrey Hepburn-lookalike member of the Twins. THE TWINS EFFECT is filled with incredible fights, thanks to co-director Donnie Yen; of course Jackie Chan, playing an ambulance driver, gets a terrific scene with some motorcycle vamps. The ending does a superb job of combining Yen’s fight choreography with the Twins’ personas and some solid CGI.

Despite its frequent lapses into Disney FLUBBER-era comedy, THE TWINS EFFECT boasts one huge plus over its kin, TWILIGHT: The girls are never passive. In fact, part of the movie’s (slender) plot involves the bickering girls joining forces at the end to battle hordes of vamps and their creepy Eurotrash leader, while the male characters have no involvement at all. Unlike TWILIGHT’s helpless, sulky Bella, Ah-Gil and Ah-Choi (as they were known to their legions of fans) aren’t about to take shit from any vampire, boyfriend or not.
(Side note: Gillian Chung is especially good in the film’s climax, handling some complicated moves with flair and grace; a year later she gave a superb performance in the low-budget black comedy BEYOND OUR KEN, and in 2005 she kicked even more ass in the martial arts action film HOUSE OF FURY, almost living up to her stated intention of becoming Hong Kong’s next female martial arts star. Unfortunately, her career was derailed by a sex scandal in 2008 which also involved Edison Chen and several other female Hong Kong stars. Here’s hoping she makes a comeback and soon.)
BIO-ZOMBIE and THE TWINS EFFECT (under the title THE VAMPIRE EFFECT) have both had stateside releases. However (and if you’ve read this column before, you know what I’m gonna say now, don’t you?)…beware the English dubbed versions. BIO-ZOMBIE especially needs to be seen in its original Cantonese soundtrack with the real actors’ voices, and besides – you’ll get the additional enjoyment of reading some of my favorite bizarre sub-titles (“I am stooling!”).



--Lisa Morton