Guanxi, the Chinese vampire genre specific to Hong Kong culture, was hugely popular in the '70s and '80s. Its pinnacle was the Mr. Vampire movies, which featured more slapstick than horror as the slightly hapless heroes used both ingenuity and traditional Taoist artefacts to stop the hopping undead. But after the handover to China in 1997, the movies had run their course and the genre was pretty much mothballed.
Vampire Cleanup Department, released only a few months ago in Hong Kong, is the first proper new movie in the genre for over a decade, filtered through a post-Buffy lens and a savvy postmodern awareness.
This is directors Yan Pak-Wing and Chiu Sin-Hang's first movie, and they bring the last 20 years of American genre TV and movies to an update of the traditional Hong Kong vampire genre. It's a light, likeable action-comedy about a geeky twentysomething reconnecting with a hidden Hong Kong tradition when he discovers his late parents were vampire hunters and finds romance in the form of a docile vampire girl who imprints on him.
Young Tim is a young man so conscientious that he even thanks the digital assistant in his phone for giving him directions, when he discovers that 1) vampires exist, 2) he's immune to vampire bites, 3) there's actually a secret government organisation called the Vampire Cleanup Department that hunts them, and 4) it's the family business. He decides to join the department to continue the tradition, since it's in need of new blood lest it die out altogether. So Tim undergoes the rigourous training of becoming a vampire hunter under the tutelage of his uncle and his parents' former colleagues and best friends.
However, he's so earnest that on his first mission, he inadvertently frees a female vampire and, sensing she still has a soul and memories, can't bring himself to kill her. He instead hides her in his home and teaches her how to be human again. Puppy love ensues, even as Tim has to hide her from the department as they hunt for the head vampire responsible for the recent outbreak of vampires and butting heads with a new, more modern department that's out to replace the VCD.
There are subtexts close to Hong Kong's heart all the movie, including a lament for dying Hong Kong traditions — symbolized by the VCD — as Chinese rule and modernization threatens to drown them out. There's also class conflict in the way the VCD patrol the streets disguised as street cleaners and sanitation workers to keep vampires a secret from the public, and the heroes are working-class underdogs. There are lots of local Hong Kong in-jokes, and it's nice to see the original stars of the Mr. Vampire movies Richard Ng and Chin Siu-Ho, and veteran actors Yuen Cheung-yan, Lo Mang, and Susan Siu Yam-yam again.
Vampire Cleanup Department is defiantly Hong Kong. The supernatural element guarantees it won't be shown in Mainland China, and it wears that like a badge of honour.
Like Zombiology: Enjoy Yourself Tonight, which opened a few months later in Hong Kong, it shares the themes of lamenting the impending loss of old Hong Kong. It also shares the theme of "validating the geek manchild" in the romantic subplot where the nerdy nice-guy hero falls in love and is affirmed by a female character who only exists to fall in love with him. That bit of bland sexism aside, this is actually a fun, likeable movie, like an eager puppy that wants you to love it, and it's funnier, more coherent, and more consistent than Zombiology.
Vampire Cleanup Department will be shown on July 15th at the SVA Theater. Tickets are available here.
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