Big Guts Cheung (Hung) is well-known in his town for his nerves of steel – but not his brains. When his wife and her lover decide to get him out of the picture, they take a two-prong approach: set him up for murder and enlist the help of a black magician to raise the legions of the undead against him.
The murder frames Cheung competently, but the black magic turns into an epic conflict between the sorcerer and one of his mentors, who befriends Cheung.
Hung keeps things simple and affecting, folkloric rather than gothic. The play off between horror and comedy is especially strong here, with the martial arts displays themselves broadly comic.
Encounter of the Spooky Kind is surprisingly gruesome and surprisingly fear-free.
Perhaps this is a cultural thing: the supernatural is largely identified with the concrete rituals that raise the dead and get them to do the bidding of the living.
If there is fear, it is repulsive – a fear of putrefaction itself – rather than of any power of the undead. That power is worked through in the contest between sorcerers.
The first time Cheung is tempted to stay overnight in a haunted house, the ghoulish surprises are supplied by his mates, but the difference between these and the later sorcerers’ tricks doesn’t come across as major.
The fights with the dead are strange to watch: their robot-like chops contrast with their crumbling state and highlight the role of possession by powerful living beings. The level of doppelganger humour in these fights, with the dead mimicking Cheung’s moves, emphasises this point.
A defining film in Hong Kong genre cinema, Encounter of the Spooky Kind blends kung fu, special effects and Chinese folklore to invent a whole new sub-genre of Asian cinema, the Jiangshi film, including the hugely successful Mr. Vampire.
This seems a more balanced and likeable film, thanks to Hung’s calm and focused direction.
Encounter of the Spooky Kind is out on Blu-ray on 21 June 2021.