Taoist Priest (2021)

Directed by
It's the 21st century mainland friendly Mr. Vampire
Reviewed by Simon on 2021-03-08

A one-eyebrowed Taoist and his disciple encounter a corpse herder with an entourage of hopping gyonsi, then later come to the aid of the proprietor of a dye factory who believes her new business might be haunted.

Ricky Lau is famous primarily for directing the classic Mr. Vampire that kick-started the gyonsi genre in the 1980's, along with umpteen sequels and spin-offs. It was a decent career, but then the Hong Kong film industry shifted to target mainland audiences, and the strict Chinese censorship rules prohibit the portrayal of ghosts and vampires and other "feudal superstitions". What's a man to do?

20 years later Lau looks up and says "I've got it!" (yes, in my story Ricky Lau doesn't move for two decades), "the gyonsi are fake!". And so it came to pass.

Yes, in MR. VAMPIRE 2021 (fuck it, I'm calling it) the hopping corpses are recast as gangsters smuggling opium and the flying ghosts are tricksters in the employ of a business rival. Taoist priests Zhang Dicai and Chin Siu-Ho are in fact rationalists, using their knowledge of Taoist superstitions to expose trickery and fraud. Yay!

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As such the hopping vampires only make a brief appearance at the start of the film, and most of the time the fights are between human opponents, but human opponents with tricks up their sleeves which allow the film to choreograph action that is really very similar to the gyonsi films of the 1980's... even down to the detail of Chin Siu-Ho being the person doing a lot of it. The fights are staged and filmed in a very similar manner to the original, it's proper Hong Kong style action, and that is to be welcomed.

The film also features Chin Siu-Ho's son, Pang Jingfeng, in a role that's basically the same one his father played 35 years earlier. You might think this is a case of passing the baton on to the next generation, but Pang isn't really in the film all that much and his father gets most of the fight scenes, so I guess the baton isn't getting passed in that direction any time soon.

It's a pity that Lam Ching-Ying is no longer with us to reprise the role of the monobrowed priest once more, but Zhang Dicai offers a respectful homage. He doesn't have Lam's charisma but he does look the part, and carries himself well in the fights (which he also choreographed).

It was actually... bear with me... nice to see Billy Lau again. He's quite funny for once. He's only in the film briefly, a little easter egg for fans of the original. It's always a pleasure to see Norman Tsui, of course, and he is great as the film's big boss. I'm trying to think whether he ever fought Chin Siu-Ho before... statistically they surely must have, but I can't remember it ever happening. They've still got it, even if they do need doubles for shots where they're getting thrown through walls (presumably).

It's a shame there isn't more for the other younger members of the cast to do in the film. I will admit to developing an instant crush on Ann Wei Ling though, villainous as her character may be (and if I've identified her correctly).

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There's a lot to like in this film if you loved the gyonsi films of old, it effectively updates the MR. VAMPIRE formula with more modern equipment and a censor friendly ontology. It's not the most thrilling example of the genre but it's far from the worst example of it too.

It's a shame that the film ends with a little coda in which the heroes basically address the audience and state that "Those who believe in ghosts will always have ghosts in their heart" and that Chinese people must be united to resist feudal superstition and foreign enemies (none of whom are in the film, but can't be too careful)... it does rub in how strict the restrictions are that Hong Kong's filmmakers work under now, as long as they need to release and work in the mainland. Even with the compromises this entails, it's good to see they still remember the good old days when they made the most creative and exciting films in the world.


Action Director
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Literal name "One-eyebrow Priest"

Also known as

  • Mr. Yimei

See also