Those of you unfamiliar with the industry changing works of Sammo Hung outside of that late 90’s show Martial Law is missing a treat. Hung (aka. moves well for a chunky boi) is a pivotal figure in the Hong Kong New Wave movement of the 1980s (think what Scorsese, Coppola and Spielberg did with American cinema in the 70’s and then add more kicks) which helped reinvent the martial arts genre and started the vampire-like jiangshi genre with it’s most notable entry being 1985’s awesome Mr. Vampire. Also known for for several stunning team ups with such peers as Jackie Chan and Bio Yuen, it’s suprising that he didn’t achieve the worldwide household name familiarity afforded to other eastern stars such as Chan and Jet Li, but as it stands, changing the face of martial arts cinema will have to suffice, I guess….
Bold Cheung is a boorish man about town who plays up to his reputation of being completely and utterly fearless by testing his nerve with reckless bets. Certainly containing more bravery than smarts, Cheung narrowly escapes a practical joke that accidently invokes an actual ghost and goes back to his life working for his employer Master Tam and enduring his shrewish wife. However, when it turns out that Tam and Cheung’s wife are having an affair, the former employs Chin Hoi, a Mao Shan witch, to assassinate Cheung before he eventually catches on (it’ll admittedly take a while but he’ll get there eventually). Thankfully, junior disciple Tsui strongly disagrees with his colleague’s immoral practices and continues to give Cheung advice to survive the many supernatural attempts on his life. Dodging such spooky scenarios as a hopping, reanimated corpse and numerous possession attempts, Cheung also has to contend with being pursued by a stubbornly egotistical inspector after being framed for his wife’s aparrent murder just for good measure. After joining up with Tsui as his pupil, the two set out to stop Chin Hoi’s murderous activities once and for all which leads to an insane showdown that involves the hapless players fighting to the death after having their bodies manipulated by powerful deities in order to settle this matter once and for all…
A kung-fu horror comedy of extraordinary innovation and energy, Encounters Of The Spooky Kind (aka. Spooky Encounters in the US) somehow feels incredibly fresh even today, taking the kind of environments seen in numerous Shaw Brothers style epics and then frantically pumping it full of the kind of ghoulish slapstick zaniness that predates Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead by a whole year. The result is easily one of my favorite martial arts movies of all time; a film that zig zags expertly with a dizzying ability to dance between action, horror and comedy genres on a dime that gives us scenes that at times are genuinely creepy (the silent yanking of a poor bastard by a taffy-armed apparition into a mirror dimention raises actual goose bumps), legitimately hilarious and features kung fu action that is nothing short of world class. Most impressive is the fact that all the difference types of ghoul or creature fight with their on particular styles. A hopping zombie suddenly doesn’t become an agile stuntman just because he’s now in a scene that requires him to throw some hands – no, he fights in the style of a supernatural zombie – stiff limbed and utterly impervious to a good healthy roundhouse to the face. Similarly this concept achieves it’s final form in the truly magnificent and utterly beserk climax where the feuding magician brothers possess both Cheung and his boss and have them fight it out in the manner of the spirits that currently inhabit their bodies. Cue Hung’s character, fully juiced with the abilities of a monkey god, whipping serious ass while fighting like a screeching simian (thankfully one of his special moves isn’t flinging his poop); it’s quite unlike anything you’ve seen before or since and it’s remained one of my favourite martial arts sequences to this day.
On top of this Hung also manages to pull of an impressive possessed hand sequence that pre-dates Bruce Campbell’s epic prat falling in Evil Dead 2 by seven years and in another, frankly amazing scene, manages to avoid the swinging swords of four policemen attacking him at the same time while armed only with a stool. It’s nothing short of a stunning performance that will leave your jaw hanging on the floor and the fact that he managed to also direct the thing is a booming testament to his talents.
Even when people aren’t whipping around the set with their limbs moving at lightning speed, Hung stages visually stunning set pieces: watch as Cheung has to negotiate a sweat inducing game of hide and seek with a rotting zombie while locked in a dilapidated crypt or his numerous run ins with the law lead by actor Lam Ching-ying, a man who’s steely jaw lead him to become Hong Kong cinema’s answer to Peter Cushing.
Directly responsible for Ricky Lau’s Mr Vampire franchise that followed in it’s wake that also doubled down on the hopping dead and overly complicated methods to counteract spooky shit, Encounters isn’t as overtly comic booky as it’s fanged counterpart, but it’s mischievous (and oddly casual) cruelty puts it just over the top. Despite it’s goofy nature, the films ends with almost all of it’s cast dead or horribly maimed and Cheung “triumphantly” beating the crap out of his cheating wife before the movie freeze frames with him hurling her through the air for comedy value. This may legitimately horrify some but all part of the film’s deranged cult aesthetic that means it aggressively treats all of it’s characters like crap just to make you laugh.
A slice of kung fu genius that every bit as vital as other game changing epics such as Police Story and Drunken Master, it’s as a remarkable sight as it is to witness the director/star as he hauls his trademark, yet hugely deceptive bulk across the screen at the speed of someone half his size.
It’s spooky and most definitely kooky, but this is an encounter that fans of insanely gonzo cinema definitely need to experience.