The Vampire Effect (Chin gei bin) (2003)

There’s one new gimmick in Hong Kong’s The Vampire Effect. To transcend their human frailty, vampire hunters Reeves (Ekin Cheng) and Gypsy (Gillian Chung) drink vampire blood extract. The catch is they must also drink an antidote within an hour or become vampires themselves. This makes them different from that most recently famous of vampire slayers, Buffy Summers, who was of a supernatural strain herself. Reeves and Gypsy’s practice involves regular flirtation with the very thing they are attempting to destroy. This device aptly serves as metaphor for the risk currently facing Hong Kong cinema, namely, the pursuit of the global mainstream.

The Vampire Effect‘s plot concerns a centuries-old vampire, Prince Kazaf (Edison Chen), who falls in love with Reeves’ kid sister Helen (Charlene Choi). At the same time, Gypsy falls for Reeves, but he’s too busy brooding over their bloody, thankless job to take notice. The villains of the piece are a vampire group from the West, making their way around the world, sucking up all the blood energy of the old vampire royalty to create a new world order.

The group’s leader, Duke Dekotes (Mickey Hardt), has a metal hand and looks like a taller, broader version of Tom Cruise in Interview with a Vampire (1994). Viewers may also be reminded of Cruise’s most recent film, The Last Samurai (2003), in which he plays an iconic American hero whose immersion in Japanese feudal culture teaches him to value samurai ways. In The Vampire Effect, the imperialist purpose is less disguised. The Duke’s yen to soak up the blood of ancient traditions leads to one bland mash of cheesy blue special effects.

Hong Kong and the West have long exchanged monsters and movies. TV’s Xena and Buffy both borrowed freely from Hong Kong cinema, which in turn borrowed from them. But, as Hong Kong struggles to reach a mainstream U.S. audience, it is in danger of losing touch with what made it special in the first place.

The Vampire Effect manages to sustain its “special” identity for the most part, deploying a madcap surrealism familiar to H.K.’s horror/comedy/action genre. Gypsy and Helen battle over a teddy bear on a rooftop, and when the toy is tossed high overhead, we are treated to “bear’s eye view” shots and mid-air, Matrix-like freezes. The goofy romantic chemistry between Kazaf and Helen is also amusing: when he works up the nerve to confess his vampirism, she is relieved he’s not breaking up with her.

While Choi and Chung are fantastic (they’re actually a pop music duo called The Twins, famous in Hong Kong), the same cannot be said of Jackie Chan, who seems shoehorned into the picture to draw Western audiences (this point is made obvious in the different promotional art choices: Jackie Chan is front and center on the British and American DVD covers, and nowhere to be found in the Asian poster). As a bug-eyed ambulance driver, Chan plays the comedy far too broadly; whenever he’s on screen, the film’s tone shifts to something along the lines of Abbot & Costello Meet the Mummy (1955).

The big climax recalls some Sci-Fi channel cheapie, with shimmering spells and anime-style bursts of power. (The church setting recalls John Woo.) The vampire hunters engage in dazzling displays of martial arts against the countless undead minions, but one can’t help but feel, after Buffy, Blade, Underworld, and Kill Bill Vol. 1, that stylized blood baths are getting old. The vampires take their sword thrusts, Xena-style, in some bloodless region of their midsections, then dissolve into sanitary CGI-ed dust, as they do in Buffy.

This eclipsing of Hong Kong cinema’s quirky, homegrown (and often blood-drenched) weirdness by Western digital magic is tragic. The last thing our beleaguered global action cinema needs is for the source to begin imitating its own imitation. Hong Kong actors no longer have to dangle out of helicopters like Jackie Chan did in Supercop (1996); now they can just dangle in front of a blue screen. It might be safer for the actors and stunt men, but it’s not as exhilarating for viewers.

Nonetheless, The Vampire Effect features enough oddball humor to keep it jumping, as well as a seeming anti-globalization subtext in the demonized American vampires. No moment is more telling (if you are watching the DVD’s original Cantonese version) than when Duke Dekotes speaks English and the Chinese characters abandon their native language to answer him in kind. The effect is startling, as if the Duke has already infected the whole cast with his virus.

The moment also recalls worries associated with Hong Kong’s 1997 return to Chinese government, that action films would lose their beloved sensationalism, contained by national censorship and perhaps even Communist morality. Instead, Western influences are doing the damage, with The Vampire Effect as Exhibit A. Catering to Western tastes doesn’t pay off in this case. The Vampire Effect arrives on U.S. shores with little fanfare, dumped straight to video.