Wednesday, February 25, 2009


"We defy traditions of moviemaking." the trailer announces, promising an unprecedented combination of terror, comedy and kung fu. Quantitatively, at least, Sammo Hung's milestone film delivers the goods. Here's the preview.

A decade or so before his "Marshall Law" days in America, Hung is "Bold Cheung," whose bravery, he claims, "is known far and wide." He suffers from scary nightmares in which undead spirits chew on his flesh. These fail to impress his wife, who says, "Being chased by ghosts is better than sleeping with you." He seems happier hanging out with his cronies, who challenge him to the Peel Apple game, which is just an excuse for his pal Ah Dooh to scare him. As it happens, Ah Dooh is pulled into another world through a mirror by a real ghost who nearly gets Cheung before his house falls apart. This outburst of supernatural horror has nothing to do with the rest of the movie.

Sometime around the turn of the 20th century, Cheung is a carriage driver for Mr. Tam, a rich mayoral candidate whom our hero comes to suspect of sleeping with his wife. He doesn't manage to catch Tam red-handed, but his suspicions could complicate Tam's political ambitions. Cheung must die, and "it has to be a clean job," but the target's kung fu skills may make things difficult. How about witchcraft, then? As Tam's flunky suggests, "If it didn't work it wouldn't be so popular here." So the flunky hires out a shaman, Master Chin, who figures that he's saved so many lives with his talents that there wouldn't be anything wrong with taking a life if the pay was good. His colleague Tsui disagrees, putting the mystics on a collision course, with poor Cheung in the middle.

No synopsis can do justice to the escalating absurdity that follows. Chin piles on the rituals, muttering gibberish all the while, in a way that I presume Chinese audiences found as ridiculous as I did. It seems like a parody in advance of the more straight-faced supernatural movies like The Boxer's Omen that were appearing around the same time. For every spell Chin perpetrates, Tsui has some equally outlandish remedy to offer Cheung. Hopping vampires, for instance, can be repelled if you throw eggs into their coffins when they try to get out -- but only chicken eggs will work. Doing this actually does more damage to Chin, who operates the undead by remote control, than to the hapless vampires. If you find that your lazy grocer has given you duck eggs when chicken eggs are essential, you can always throw dog's blood on the monster to really hurt his shaman master.

You'd think we had material enough for an exploitation epic here, but on top of this, Cheung gets framed for the murder of his wife and pursued by a dogged inspector. He takes refuge in yet another haunted house where the resident corpse has a habit of imitating the motions of the living, even when Cheung has to relieve himself against a wall. Cheung tries to trick the dead thing into braining itself with a brick, but gets it in the head himself and concludes that the corpse is too smart for him.

Zombie see, zombie do. Sammo Hung (right) and friend in SPOOKY ENCOUNTERS.
(screencap from

Later, in a precursor of Evil Dead II, Chin takes control of one of Cheung's arms, making him do kung fu on himself before Tsui can save the day by wrecking Chin's latest altar. Tsui then takes over the inspector's guards and makes them fight him while Cheung escapes from a restaurant known for its ribs and rice. Everything is building toward a double showdown, as Cheung tracks down the owner of an incriminating shoe found in his house, while Chin and Tsui get into the ultimate shamanistic pissing contest of whose altar is bigger. Chin's newest model is several stories high, but Tsui's is mobile and can be cranked upwards to match Chin's in height. From their elevated positions they wage mystic combat while infusing Cheung and Tam with the spirits of ancient warrior deities and spirits. This makes Cheung fight and talk like a monkey, or like an alien baby, depending on what's possessing him at the time. The climax extends to a man-on-fire high dive and an attempt at reconciliation by Mrs. Cheung, who did not die but gets a well-deserved but still shocking comeuppance to end the film.

To be honest, I felt that Spooky Encounters (also known as Encounters of the Spooky Kind) was a little longer than it needed to be, though it definitely picked up the pace once it really got going. The hopping vampire scenes seem to drag at first glance, but in retrospect their slow pacing is a good way to gradually acclimate the audience into the realm of the spooky. A film like this needs an over-the-top finish, and got it, though it's perhaps too brutal a finale for a comedy, at least to modern American tastes. But you have to laugh when the hero tells a dying man that his must have been a nasty fall, and is told, "Why don't you try it?" before the victim expires.

The movie never gets more gory than its initial dream sequence, when a ghost takes a realistic divot out of Cheung's leg. From that point, the violence is slapstick in nature, even though the players are playing for keeps. For the first half-hour or so, the film isn't that funny, but once the business with Cheung's cronies is put out of the way and the real story begins, you'll probably feel vindicated for sitting through the the slow start. Kung fu vs. the undead should be a winning combination, especially with voodoo kung fu (we may as well call it that) on the side, and if Spooky Encounters doesn't quite hit the jackpot, it's at least partially rewarding to the right kind of viewer.

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