Hong Kong Flashback: Sammo Hung Strikes Box Office Gold With a 'Spooky' Comedy-Horror Mashup
Nearly 40 years ago, the martial arts giant pioneered the industry’s signature subgenre — the 'hopping' vampire thriller — and helped kick off the New Wave of the 1980s.
Anyone with even a passing interest in peak-era Hong Kong kung fu movies will recognize Sammo Hung for the titan he is. For a start, he’s the oldest of the so-called Seven Little Fortunes, students of the China Drama Academy, who went on to shape not only Hong Kong’s film industry but, to some degree, Hollywood’s, both directly and indirectly; other Fortunes include Jackie Chan and fight choreographer-director Corey Yuen, who applied his distinct kung fu touch to X-Men, The Transporter and choreographed all of Jet Li’s American action titles. Since beginning his career as a child actor, bit player, stuntman and action director in the early 1960s, Hung has racked up literally hundreds of credits. Just a few of his many highlights are King Hu’s 1966 classic Come Drink With Me, 1973’s touchstone Enter the Dragon, Jackie Chan’s Project A, Long Arm of the Law, Pedicab Driver, Wong Kar-wai’s wuxia art film Ashes of Time and Carlton Cuse’s inimitable, short-lived CBS series Martial Law, which really needs to be seen to be fully appreciated.
Along the way, the rotund Hung became an unlikely movie star and one of the key figures in the Hong Kong New Wave movement of the ’80s. With a physique that belied nimble precision and a round, jolly face, Hung was the cinematic opposite of the sexier, cooler Bruce Lee, but he was accessible in a way that Lee was not. Some crack comic timing helped. So it’s no surprise that 1980’s Encounter of the Spooky Kind, which Hung also directed and wrote, was a popular hit and Hong Kong cinema landmark for a host of reasons. In addition to making Hung a (bigger) household name, Encounter was one of the earliest in the then-surging Hong Kong industry’s budding kung fu-horror-comedy mashup subgenre and the inspiration for the geung-sih, hopping corpses or vampires from Chinese mythology — a trope that would dominate the decade.
In the pic, Hung, sporting one of his finest bowl cuts, stars as Bold Cheung, a bit of a dim bulb and a cursed, ghost-plagued cuckold. When his wife and her lover Tam are nearly caught red-handed by Bold, Tam hires the crooked Taoist priest Chin to bump Bold off via spooky pranks (because just stabbing him would be too easy). Fortunately, Bold has an ally in Tsui, another priest who’s offended by Chin’s abuse of magic power, and he helps Bold out. What it lacks in narrative cohesion (a lot), Encounter more than makes up for in creative set pieces, goofball comedy and ultra-physical fights, which Hung makes look effortless. The highlights: Chin possesses Bold’s right arm at one point, which Bold has to fight off at the same time as he fends off some undead attackers, and an acrobatic monkey-fu finale that plays out on bamboo scaffolding. Only Bruce Campbell in The Evil Dead II has battled his own body parts more gleefully than Hung does here.
Admittedly, Bold’s decision to punch his cheating wife in the face — several times (!) — probably wouldn’t make the cut today, and the scratchy ’80s production values look every one of their 39 years, but Encounter of the Spooky Kind still has its genuinely inspired charms, and as a harbinger of the hopping vampire genre to follow, it’s just about perfect. They just don’t make them like this anymore.