Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Trail (1983)

Warning: Spoilers ahead!

aka The Trial (which has as little to do with the movie as the other English language title)

Original title: 追鬼七雄

Revolutionary era China. A guy going by the nickname of Captain (Kent Cheng Jak-Si) and his cohorts are using a most excellent opium smuggling technique: Captain and his second Ying (Ricky Hui Koon-Ying) dress up as Buddhist monks while the rest of the gang pack the loot into belts, straps those on and dress up as jiang shi (also known as hopping vampires, or in the case of these subtitles, zombies, though they are not exactly either) the supposed monks are herding around. It’s a rather brilliant plan, truly.

However, one local evil potentate (Miao Tian) pays our heroes to take the corpse of what he tells them is his brother with them, for his brother, his main henchman explains, has died of leprosy, and getting his remains away as stealthily as possible is absolutely necessary to protect the village’s good reputation. It’s a lie, of course, and the old bastard is trying to cover up a murder. This lie and their own greed will cost our dubious heroes dearly after they have dumped the body in a sulphur pit.

For because the corpse has a score to the settle with the potentate, it returns to life right quick as a real jiang shi (not doing any hopping but all the more rotting) and starts killing animals and opium smugglers alike. Captain and his gang decide to destroy the thing (his whole-sale slaughter of the local population and one of their own is bad for business, or something), arming themselves with the urine of virgin boys and the traditional yellow charms. Things are not going to go well for them.

The style of Ronny Yu’s The Trail has much less to do with the later jiang shi classic Mr Vampire than I had expected, apart from this too being a horror comedy. The depiction of the monster is much more gruesome than the pale hopping gentlemen in traditional garb other films about its kind have made me accustomed to (and, as far as I know, it’s much closer to the depiction of the creatures in much Chinese folklore about them). It’s a rotting, shambling monstrosity that is pretty close to a zombie, just stronger, meaner, sometimes cleverer and definitely harder to kill – probably even when its enemies were more competent than our protagonists are.

As a comedy, this is a pretty dark one, with a group of morally suspect protagonists mostly doomed to die pretty horrible deaths and two survivors who will learn exactly nothing from what happened to them, the film’s epilogue showing them disguised as catholic priests selling fake possessions but of course stumbling into a pretty hilarious The Exorcist situation. The humour is Hong Kong standard, though pleasantly avoiding the greatest extremes of slapstick and random nonsense, keeping most of the jokes integrated into the actual plot. In a really surprising turn of events, I even found myself laughing about a lot of the funny business, certainly thanks to the chipper casts of guys we know and love from dozens of other Hong Kong films, but also because Yu as a director always was rather fantastic at the timing aspect of things, be it in comedy, action, or suspense.

The suspense scenes here in particular turn out very nicely, with many highly effective sequences of our hapless heroes trying to first catch, then avoid the jiang shi only to see things getting worse and worse with every well timed bad turn. Yu escalates their troubles with a rhythm one could probably dance to, sometimes building tension out of comedic elements (there’s some excellent business concerning the monster and frog voice imitations), at other times ending the tension with a laugh that actually does work as comic relief for once.

If that’s not enough for you, there’s also a nice underground tomb set, some adorable miniature work and the mandatory blue light to gawk at and enjoy, as well as a bit of decent kung fu and an absurdly unsubtle yet curiously effective synthesizer score.

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