Sunday, October 7, 2018

The Haunted Cop Shop (1987)

Original title: 猛鬼差館

Macky Kim (Jacky Cheung Hok-Yau) and Man Chiu (Ricky Hui Koon-Ying) are your typical Hong Kong comedy cops, which is to say, they are of dubious mental capacity, morals, and work ethics, like a couple of nasty little boys somebody thought it to be a good idea to arm. Not that anyone else we meet in their station is any better, of course.

As it happens, the titular cop shop our protagonists are based in was a Japanese officer’s club during World War II, where quite a few suicides took place once the Japanese side lost their part of the war. So clearly, there’s going to be no problem at all when the high point of ghost month comes around.

Well, except for the part where the excellently named Sneaky Ming (Billy Lau Nam-Kwong), brought to confession by our heroes by pretending to be ghosts in one of the film’s best scenes, loses a rigged Mah-jongg game against some of the place’s ghosts and is tasked with bringing Japanese general Issei (Rico Chu Tak-On) back to the world of the living. Issei, it will turn out, is a Western style vampire for no reason the film ever explains, complete with awesome/ridiculous and definitely snazzy high-collared cape, and Sneaky is going to be his first victim. When Sneaky attempts to explain the situation to our cop heroes, they don’t believe him until contact with the sun turns him to dust. Their boss is so displeased with this turn of events – and certainly doesn’t believe any of their talk about the supernatural – he calls in Chief Superintendent Fanny Ho (Kitty Chan Ga-Chai) to exclusively supervise Macky Kim and Man Chiu. Eventually, these three incompetents will team up to fight the vampires running round Hong Kong.

Jeff Lau Chun-Wai’s The Haunted Cop Shop is pretty much exactly what you assume a Hong Kong horror comedy made in 1987 to be. As in many a comedy from the city, its heroes would be absolutely vile if they weren’t as ridiculous as they are, and still the film manages to make their misadventures entertaining for other reasons than mere Schadenfreude. Having as a film’s – comedy or not – protagonists police personal that’s quite this hilariously incompetent wouldn’t fly at all in contemporary Hong Kong – not to even speak of mainland China – anymore, so viewed from today, Macky Kim’s and Man Chiu’s personalities even look a bit like social criticism. I am pretty sure it wasn’t actively meant that way in 1987. These are just standard Hong Kong comedy characters who look like something a bit different in hindsight.

Anyway, nobody’s going to watch this because of hard hitting social criticism but for the series of often actually funny, usually weird, and plentifully absurd things our supposed heroes encounter. Lau, working from a script by himself and a young Wong Kar-Wai – who is the last guy you’d expect to have written any of this – is very good at giving a film that’s actually mostly a series of loosely connected episodes a feeling of directed movement, making the whole affair much more satisfying than you’d expect. It does of course help rather heavily that many of the episodes are really rather funny, from time to time even playing with audience expectations of its genre.

My favourite bit of this sort of business comes when our heroes, looking for the vampires randomly stumble into the convenience store of Chung Fat Pak (indeed played by Chung Fat). Chung Fat Pak, it turns out, was once a successful Taoist exorcist. So successful there wasn’t anything left for him to exorcise, therefore the convenience store. Which he at once proves by having a short yet wonderful kung fu fight against two vampires, demonstrating the most awesome staking technique ever put to celluloid. Chung Fat, the audience will probably assume, is going to be the film’s Lam Ching-Ying type character (see the Mr Vampire films), the ultra competent master to the bumbling idiot protagonists. Then the boss vampire appears, rips off one of his arms, and Chung Fat sacrifices himself so that said bumbling protagonists can get away.

As in practically all Hong Kong comedies of this style, there are scenes of inspired slapstick – the bit early on where Sneaky Ming is ghost-bullied into confession is a perfect example –, scenes of wonderful surrealism, as well a couple of scenes that bring home this isn’t a film made anywhere but in Hong Kong. How about that bit where our heroes decide their new boss is going to believe their tales about ghosts and ghoulies when they ruin her luck by getting her to eat dog meat? Or several scenes that teach the importance of wearing one’s panties on one’s head when trying to fend off ghosts? I never got any of that reading M.R. James, that much’s for sure.

Lau does some rather fine work not only with the film’s pacing but also when it comes to staging the supernatural encounters in the right – often blue as you might imagine – light. When the film’s not laugh out loud funny, it is very moody indeed, never making the mistake of turning its supernatural threats into slapstick characters too. That’s after all what the protagonists are for, so large parts of the film consist of the three idiots stumbling through sets, set pieces and situations that would be rather fine straightforward horror if The Haunted Cop Shop weren’t populated by the kind of guys who dress up like their big antagonist just to teach their friends some pithy lesson.

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