Thursday, January 01, 2009

Movies: Master of (near) disaster.

Director Ma Wu's 1993 Exorcist Master, a kung fu action horror slapstick comedy mystery blowout, has no right to be as entertaining as it is. The sense of impending cinematic disaster hovers over every broad joke, every not so special effect, and every music motif that is rendered by the synthesized sound of dogs barking. And yet, somehow, when the last shot freeze-frames and the credits roll, you weigh the demands the movie made of you against the entertainment-value it returned and you have to conclude that you, lucky viewer, have actually come out in the black.

As small scale, goofy, and sometimes downright embarrassing as Exorcist Master (for the language title purists, that's Kui moh do jeung in Cantonese, Qu mo dao zhang in Mandarin, Exorcist Meester in Dutch and racist impersonations of Mexicans, Mestre do Exorcist em português, and Orcistexa Asterma in Pig Latin) can be, it boasts a clever plot, some deftly breakneck tonal changes, and an almost desperate determination to please any audience member that might stumble into the way of its non-stop spray of gags, kung fu stunts, plot twists, and pratfalls.

The plot breaks down thusly: The small Chinese town of Wine Spring, in the early half of the Twentieth Century, is home to "Uncle," a humorless Taoist monk and kung fu master who is the titular master at exorcism. Put out of your mind the relentlessly dour and ostentatiously semireligious witch-doctory of American exorcism films. As it is practiced in this flick, exorcism is a contact sport that's part spiritual ceremony, part kung fu showdown, part stage magic performance, and part Three Stooges routine. The movie opens with Uncle's two apprentices botching a routine exorcism. Uncle has to come in and put the boot to some ghost butt. Because the Internet is good and does truly love us, you can find a fine example of ghostbusting à la chinois on Youtube. It has to be seen to be believed:

Unfortunately, that short clip doesn't include the few seconds leading up to that slap fu battle, as the first appearance of the she-ghost is actually quite effective in building up some tension and producing some genuinely nice light-horror moments. If you had that added to the front, you'd basically get the film's entire MO in a single clip. With nearly manic speed, the film can shift from low humor to surreal absurdity to impressive action and well-handled horror several times a scene. Used extensively, these wild shifts would be more exhausting than exhilarating, but Wu saves his energy for a handful of key scenes. These rest he handles with a fairly heavy comedic touch. Even when restraining himself, there nothing subtle about Wu's sense of humor.

After this initial exorcism, akin to a Bond pre-title sequence, the plot proper begins. We learn that a Christian missionary is coming to re-open a long since boarded up church at that heart of Wine Spring. Uncle is against this, and not just because he lacks the proper ecumenical attitude. Uncle believes that a great evil is contained within the church and re-opening it will free this malevolent force on the whole town.

In one of the more clever twists of the plot, the missionary – a well-meaning but clueless bumbler – is supported by several prominent local townspeople. Not because they're Christian, mind you. Rather, this cabal runs the local cathouses, opium dens, and gambling joints. Uncle, previously the only religious authority in town, was putting the kibosh on their ventures. With a successful rival church in town, Uncle's authority will diminish. Furthermore, the missionary's total linguistic and cultural ineptitude means that the head of the new church will basically be ignorant of their activities. By showing how different factions of the population resist or exploit the Western newcomers, the flick puts a nice spin on what might otherwise be a tired East = Good, West = Bad exercise.

Supported by the corrupt elite, the missionary pushes past Uncle's objectives and opens the church. Things go well for a while, but the lid comes off when Uncle's assistants uncover a drug smuggling pipeline that operates under the guise of a vampire herding operation.

I kid you not.

In Chinese mythology, you can control vampires by attaching strips of paper bearing the correct magical words to their foreheads. A vampire shepherd is a guy who goes around from town to town gathering up the pacified vampires. He then takes them to the nearest church and destroys them. It's quite a sight. Chinese vampires don't walk but rather fly or bound about through a series of standing broad jumps. (I read once that this is because their bodies are supposed to be stiff with rigor mortis, though this explanation sounds apocryphal to me.) The vampire shepherd stands at the front of a long line of jumping guys, ringing a bell to warn travelers that he's coming through with a string of fresh vampires and throwing magic strips of paper over his shoulders to keep all the bloodsuckers sedated. It one of the film's neatest images.

However, the vampire shepherd and his flock are actually drug mules. Knowing that everybody will stay the heck away from a line of leaping undead, they use the bit as a cover for opium smuggling. Uncle goes to put the hurt on this scofflaws when the previously mentioned evil from the church – a vampire with abilities and costuming that will be familiar to Western viewers, but throw Uncle for a loop – makes himself known in a spectacular manner.

Which leads to all manner of kung fu exorcism wackiness. Flying crucified vampires, neon crosses used as weapons, ass-biting undead, and more. You won't be disappointed.

Not that there isn't plenty to be disappointed in. There's a lot of crap in Exorcist Master that viewers could do without. When Wu's firing on all cylinders, his broad humor has an almost Raimi-ish quality to it. And that's great, for the 60 percent of the time that Wu's firing on all cylinders. The rest of the time, the humor is more energetic than talented, more noisy than funny. The comedic strategy behind Exorcist Master is quantity over quality. A ton of wasted effort is the predictable result.

Worse than the dud gags is the soundtrack. Consisting almost entirely of songs that sound suspiciously like pre-programmed demo routines from a civilian-grade keyboard, the film's music is distractingly monotonous and pointlessly anachronistic. Occasionally it does lapse into unintentional humor – such as an extended bit that I think is synth-only version of Tone Lōc's "Funky Cold Medina" and something that we ended up called the Canine Love Theme, a repeated motif that is played with the synth's "dog bark" sound effect on – but these moments are too few and far between to redeem the film's score.

Finally, Wu is capable of producing some great shots that reveal a real sense of style and narrative technique. Unfortunately, he's also prone to underlighting his sets, losing the flow of action, or just flubbing his compositions.

These are real flaws and the pleasures of the movie aren't strong enough to make the viewer just forget them. However, the film's aims are so modest that stakes feel low and it makes you feel generous. It works hard to land every joke, slam home every punch. It wears its goal – to keep you smiling along for an hour and a half – on its sleeve and there's something infectious about its freewheeling spirit. I don't know if it is quite gonzo enough for the post-Psychotronic set of so-bad-it's-good fanciers, but for folks who have the necessary goofiness tolerance threshold to enjoy, say, Santo vs. [something that is about to get its butt whipped] films, this isn't a bad way to spend 90 minutes.

1 comment:

houseinrlyeh said...

I think this should be satisfying enough for everyone who can take the humor (I have my problems with slapsticky humor in general).

If you enjoyed this one, I'd recommend the first Mister Vampire. If you haven't seen it, that is. It's responsible for a whole army of hopping vampire films, all of them also related to Exorcist Master.

It's great how the cover promises more "from the Director of TRAGIC HEROES & ALL MEN ARE BROTHERS" - some people could feel cheated by the completely different tone and style...