Wednesday 15 February 2017

Zombies vs. The Lucky Exorcist (2015)

Director: Jaguar Lim
Writer: Jaguar Lim
Stars: Jaguar Lim, Bobby Yip, Kieran, Hidy Yu, Henry Thia, Jaguar Lim, Jaguar Lim, Jaguar Lim, Jaguar Lim and Jaguar Lim

Index: Weird Wednesdays.

If you haven’t heard of the name Jaguar Lim before now, be warned: you’re going to be repeating it in your sleep after this review because the man is like a human meme. His Facebook page is a research rabbit hole from which I may never escape and, you know what? I’m OK with that. I have no idea what planet he’s from but he seems to spend his time in Malaysia, where he runs a nostalgic chain of candy shops of all things. It’s Country’s Tid-Bits & Candies Cottage, which apparently made him a large amount of money, and I mention it here because its name is the first thing we see in the movie after the ident of the production company, Jaguar Lim Films & Productions (M) SDN BHD, and the crediting of Jaguar Lim as producer on a dedicated screen. We get no less than fourteen such dedicated screens before the title card, detailing the key members of the cast and crew, and Jaguar Lim himself has, get this, ten of them, each with a different photo. No, I’m not kidding. Sorry, Tommy Wiseau, you’re clearly not egotistical enough.

He’s less a credit and more a drum beat. Producer: Jaguar Lim. Executive Producer: Jaguar Lim. Director: Jaguar Lim. Scriptwriter: Jaguar Lim. Starring Jaguar Lim. Then we take a brief break to introduce some other folk who appeared in the film, highlighting in the process how Jaguar Lim has connections. Credited with special appearances are Bobby Yip, a prolific Hong Kong actor who has worked for Wong Jing, Tsui Hark and Stephen Chow; and Kieran, a DJ on Hot FM in Bandar Utama, Malaysia. In shorter cameo roles are Hidy Yu, a model, actress and martial artist from Hong Kong; and Henry Thia, a comedian and actor from Singapore. Then it’s back to Jaguar Lim because he has no less than five cameo appearances too, three of them in drag. By the time we get to the end of the movie, we find ourselves in the forest with our hero, played by Jaguar Lim, watching his grandparents, both played by Jaguar Lim, fly away on a giant banana. Originally called Red Haired Priest, I’m unsure as to why this wasn’t simply renamed to Jaguar Lim.

You’ll be shocked, of course, to discover that we begin the film with, it’s that man again, Jaguar Lim, here the red haired priest of the original title and the lucky exorcist of the new one. Judging from his Facebook page, his hairstyles are creatures of legend, but he’s in a relatively routine red mohawk here as a Taoist priest named Hong Mao. This scene sums up the movie: it has other actors in it and their characters come to his, but he’s the one who drives the conversation, identifies the problem and then becomes the one and only solution. Here, he determines that there’s something wrong with their ancestor’s grave, though they never explain why they ever thought there was an issue, so he puts on his saffron robes and goes to work. It’s like he’s isn’t the star of the movie but the actual movie itself and these actors are just props like the paper money that they burn around the grave site, the spade he uses to dig up their grandfather and the white shirt he’s wearing that stays miraculously clean throughout.

And, sure enough, gramps hasn’t rotted and promptly leaps out of his grave to hop after them. Now, if that sounds strange to you, then let me blow your mind. While the subtitles refer to him as a zombie, he’s really what the Chinese call a jiangshi, a creature of the night usually translated as ‘hopping vampire’. Jiangshi are corpses who are so stiff that they can’t move their joints. Originally, they were reanimated by Taoist priests and taught to hop so that they could be led back home, especially those who died far away. Kept under control by sealing spells attached to their foreheads, they have a habit of running wild and attacking people whenever those spells come loose, hence the abundant sub-genre of hopping vampire movies in Asia, led by the amazing Mr. Vampire series. Like any creature of folklore, there are weapons to fight them: mirrors, sticky rice, ritually stained threads and, as we see here, the neat little trick of simply holding your breath. I believe every movie would be improved by a hopping vampire: like, say, Titanic.
Now, jiangshi are Asian monsters, so it’s not surprising to see one in an Asian monster movie. But, as they say, wait, there’s more! This particular jiangshi promptly finds himself battling what the subtitles call a dracula, apparently a generic term for a traditional western vampire. He’s dressed in the routine outfit: a frilly shirt, a velvet waistcoat and a cape, not to mention a pair of prominent fangs. Frankly, I’m all for an east vs. west vampire battle and would buy tickets to any feature that existed entirely to explore that concept, but this particular east vs. west battle is phrased entirely through eastern style and technique, like kung fu and wirework, suggesting that this dracula is just another monster to Jaguar Lim and he doesn’t really care too much about exploring the culture behind it. Maybe it’s only in the movie to set up the next scene, in which Hong Mao inadvertently knocks the dracula unconscious with a gigantic fart; he’s been eating spring onion and garlic snacks, thus allowing product placement and fart jokes all at once.

Even if they’re only here to be punchlines in cheap jokes, surely the best thing about this movie is its profusion of monsters and it isn’t going to quit now. Next up is Madeline, a pretty young lady claiming to be a university student doing forest research. It’s the next morning and Hong Mao, having sent everyone else home while he searches for his ancestor’s compass, is hardly going to say no to the company, especially when the saxophone music hits. Of course, this lucky exorcist isn’t quite that lucky; she’s some sort of monster who can disguise her true, repulsive form with its corpse face and its long pointed purple nails. I’m not sure what she actually is, maybe a rakshasa, an energy vampire or a form of hungry ghost; maybe a combination of all the above. Anyway, their inadvisable necking sessions are consistently interrupted by a child jiangshi with a kawaii grin and, really, if there’s anything any movie needs more than a hopping vampire, it’s a child hopping vampire in its mini-mandarin outfit. Like I said, Titanic.
While the plot appears secondary to the showcasing of this myriad of monsters, at least we have one at this point. Hong Mao runs from the child jiangshi and, when he realises what he’s running with, he runs from the rakshasa too. Given that Jaguar Lim seems to have been over-indulging somewhat on his candy store stock, he doesn’t run too well and it’s a good thing that another Taoist monk shows up to save him. This is Bai Yi, a character Bobby Yip plays with cheesy comedic relish, but he also provides some real story here, mostly in flashback. Apparently Hong Mao’s ancestor battled a teleporting witch half a millennium ago in a battle that is depicted rather like a bout of Mortal Kombat. They stamp their feet and the earth shakes; they wave their staffs in a threatening manner to spark some gratuitous After Effects action. Eventually the witch is defeated but he (yes, it’s male) curses his opponent’s entire line of descendants, promising their eradication. And that’s why the Hong Mao family moved from China to Malaysia.

At this point, I have to say I was enjoying the film. Sure, it’s stupid. Sure, the acting ranks from cheesily bad on down. Sure, Jaguar Lim feels like the inevitable retarded character in throwaway Hong Kong comedies who’s somehow landed a lead role in Malaysia. However, there isn’t a dull moment and the jokes, as bad as they mostly are, are delivered with a knowing wink. Unfortunately, it goes rapidly downhill from here, wrapping up this plot with a big battle scene just under halfway through the movie. It’s the fight refought for a new generation. Hong Mao, backed up by Bai Yi, who has three child jiangshi in reserve, and a bomoh or Malaysian shaman called Osman, with a trio of toyol in his corner, battles ‘the witch’s next generation’ with her bloated ghost assistant. Cue the poor fight choreography, After Effects abuse and cheesy dialogue as battle commences! Toyol, I should add, are Malay spirits, usually kept as thieves, saboteurs or mischief makers. Here, they appear as three painted kids in similarly painted underwear.
Now, if the movie had ended here, with the gorgeous Hidy Yu, one of the stars of 2013’s Kick Ass Girls, being defeated by our inept heroes teaming up properly for the first time, then it wouldn’t have been too bad; not good, I emphasise, but interesting to those who get a kick out of monster movies from other cultures. After all, just think about what’s in this last battle. We have two Taoist priests and a bomoh, set up in thoroughly different ways to wield their respective sorceries. We have not one but three hopping vampire children and three toyol, which I don’t believe I’ve ever seen in a movie before. We have surely the best effects scene in the picture, as an effectively ominous black cloud arrives and transforms into the witch’s huge ghost. Finally, we have a beautiful kick-ass witch from Hong Kong, dressed up in uncompromising black like any serious movie villain should. I just wish this scene had played out longer and with better writing. This paragraph is the sort of thing to give me wet dreams.

On the flipside, we have the second half of the movie. The first half sounds a lot better than it is, just because so much cool stuff is crammed into it, but the second half is so bad that I don’t believe my words could ever do it justice. Let’s just say that we kick it off by having Hong Mao urinate from a great height on three lovely ladies who are bathing, fully clothed, in a river by a waterfall and for them to discuss how salty and sweet the water suddenly tastes. It sparked memories for me of my brief voice acting career in Damon Foster’s Shaolin vs. Frankenstein, in which my Thug #2 character gets pissed on while hiding in some bushes; the best line I delivered was surely, ‘Mmm. Salty!’ Here, it degenerates further, because the only way he can get them to leave (he’s supposedly here to find the three child jiangshi who have suddenly grown up and vanished) is to threaten to fling poo at them. High cultural art this really isn’t. And, trust me, it only gets worse from here. Wait for the bathroom break and the armpit odour attack and...
Most of the rest of the movie consists of multiple appearances by Jaguar Lim as a variety of characters, of both genders and maybe some in between (‘You have made my hormone imbalance’ says Jaguar Lim to Jaguar Lim after she gives him the superpower of big boobs); puerile humour, both sexual and otherwise; and a succession of characters who confuse us because we’ve lost track of who anyone not played by Jaguar Lim actually is and why they’re even in the movie. The high point has to be the Sikh zombie, as I can’t remember seeing one of those in a movie either (there may have been some in The Dead 2, but the handheld camera meant I saw most of that in my peripheral vision to avoid motion sickness). The next high point is surely... well, I can’t think of one. It isn’t the infamous flying banana, the severing of an umbilical cord with a machete, the flashback to Jaguar Lim with jumper cables on his nipples, his transformation into an orangutan, the... and now I’m just tormenting myself.

I have to admire Jaguar Lim. He’s a chubby dude who runs a chain of candy stores, but he found the balls to make a feature film on his own terms. The fact that he didn’t have a clue what he was doing didn’t turn out as badly as it could have done; we can see and hear everything that we should, for a start, and that’s something that I can’t say for a lot of films shot here in the States. Because I assume that he financed this out of his own pocket, it has to be close to what he wanted to make, which is a valuable freedom that many filmmakers never find. I salute Jaguar Lim for those achievements, even as I have to highlight that this movie is bad in ways I hadn’t previously thought were possible. It’s a 90 minute vanity film that jumps the shark halfway through, then decides to do it again. And again. And again. It doesn’t just jump the shark, it jumps the frickin’ sharknado. The message is that anything’s possible but probably shouldn’t see the light of day. ‘Don't ask where I come from and where to go,’ says Jaguar Lim. ‘I, just a legend.’

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