Saturday, October 11, 2014

BONUS REVIEW: The Gods Must Be Crazy 3 (aka Crazy Safari)


Despite being heavily into Hong Kong films of the 80s/early 90s during my teen years (there was a local theater that would double feature them every Friday at midnight), I don't recall ever before seeing anything from the Jiangashi subgenre, that of Chinese hopping vampires. Poking around a bit online, it really only seemed to become a thing when Sammo Hung made Encounters of the Spooky Kind in 1980 and Mr. Vampire in 1985, setting the trend of playing such vampires for comedic laughs amidst supernatural kung fu action. I really need to check both of these out. Anyways, it started a wave of sequels and spinoffs and ripoffs, and I see that Lam Ching-Ling, featured in the film I'm covering today, had became a well-established genre mainstay as the stern Taoist priest dealing with both the vampires and comical sidekicks who always get in his way.

As our film opens, Ching-Ying's priest, Master HiSing (I see what you did there!), has been hired by a young man named Sam or Leo depending on the version, I'll go with Sam as it's more amusing... anyway, Sam hires him to help recover the mummified body of his ancestor from an auction house in Europe, where HiSing resurrects the corpse as a hopping vampire right on the spot to settle an issue of ownership. The vampire is tamed into a controllable golem state through the usual means of an enchanted strip of paper stuck on its forehead, and led around by bells, creating some confusion as they leave the auction house into a costume party in the streets full of ringing and people dressed as ghouls. They manage to get the vampire on a plane bound for home, where Sam hopes to finally lay his ancestor to rest, but a broken compass sidetracks them over Africa where they're forced to bail when the plane runs out of fuel.

Guess which part of Africa.

I was very skeptical of how they'd blend this horror/action/comedy about hopping vampires with the adventures of N!xau in the Kalahari plains, but they do a pretty decent of job working those outside elements into the structure of the established Gods Must Be Crazy franchise. The vampire (Chan Lung, in a pantomime part that grew on me) is now himself the mysterious object who falls from the sky and, after discovering the paper is what keeps him from going on violent rampages and that he can be led around by a bell, N!xau (just referred to now by the actor's name instead of the character Xi) and his people put the vampire to use as a golem beast of burden, carrying heavy loads and having him smash head-first into trees so as to knock loose their fruit, and the children come to adore playing with him in the fields as they toss bells back and forth and watch him fly. As for HiSing and Sam, they're the couple wandering about the wilderness, initially dangling from their parachute over a tree full of thorns (which HiSing keeps pushing Sam into to keep himself from falling in), then losing all their food to a group of baboons, fully capable of opening cans with pull tabs, and running from that same two-person rubber rhino suit, which is filmed up close in slow motion for some reason, revealing all its folds and zippers.

They ultimately come across the native village where N!xau and his people save HiSing's leg from the massive python which has fully engulfed it, and then we get comical shenanigans of them trying to find the vampire without realizing it's in the same village they are. Another way to control the vampires is through an enchanted doll (yes, much like the traditional Voodoo doll), and there's an amusing scene where HiSing can't figure out why he's unable to get the doll to rise, and it's because he has it facing a different direction than the vampire, who's trying to rise down into the ground.

This all sounds really fun, but very little of it actually gets so much as a chuckle from me. There's neat ideas throughout the movie, but the actual execution is clumsy, and many of the sequences are poorly constructed. There's a play on the setup of the opening film where, forced to bail the plane, the passengers also dump a cargo of crates of Coke bottles and cans, and N!xau on the ground finds himself in the middle of a bottle shower as they all come down around him. But it doesn't go anywhere. There's a bit where he brings a can back to the village, unknowingly shaking the hell out of it while describing what happened until it pops open and sprays everywhere, but again, nothing more comes of it. There's also a potentially nice bit where HiSing is having his leg tended by to muds and native remedies, and asks for some water. N!xau proudly gives Sam a leaf with a single drop pooled in it. HiSing isn't pleased, but figures it's better than nothing, just as his foot is tickled and the drop pours into the crook of his eye. We never figure out if he retrieves it. And there's other bits that don't work, like HiSing and Sam thinking the native women want to sleep with them and arguing over who's going to "take that for the team", or a bit of HiSing looking for a place to take a shit, stealing food leaves and evading villagers, only to find himself in a cobra den. Or hooking Sam and their parachute up to a line as HiSing hops on a running ostrich and parasails Sam in an attempt to find the vampire. Or HiSing and N!xau having a ring-off to see who gets to keep the vampire. It's a very wacky, silly film, but very little of the humor hits in a significant way.

And then we get to the bad guys. Several times, we see this pair of blonde, sinister white people with heavy accents, probably supposed to be Dutch or German, who have allied themselves to another nearby tribe of the feathered-headdress, spear-throwing natives you typically see in 1930s adventure films, complete with a witch doctor chieftain. This group have constantly been harassing N!xau's tribe, first attempting to steal all their women, and ultimately return when they realize the stones being used for tools are full of diamonds. When they have to deal with the vampire, they break out their own massive black Voodoo zombie golem to take him on.

I will admit, this third act, as troubling and nonsensical as it is, is actually quite a lot of fun. The zombie is quite frightening, especially as he roars right into camera. The vampire has some nice moments as he acts independently of his control and chooses to protect the villagers who took him in. The effects of leaping and twirling are really well done, with some great action built around it. There's a nice bit where the milquetoast Sam finally gets to break into action as HiSing possesses him with the spirit of a slain baboon. And in the greatest bit of all, they summon the spirit of Bruce Lee himself to enter the body of N!xau, and we get to see our diminutive lead have a blast as he punches and kicks and chest stomps through the opposition, complete with Bruce's howls and nose flicks. It's the absolute highlight of the film.

I don't know, though, that it's enough to make the film worth watching. I enjoyed it both as a fan of the series and this style of Hong Kong action comedy (I may never have seen a Jiangashi film, but I love the Chinese Ghost Story series which has many similar elements), but even then, it's very rough and choppy, and lacks the level of skill and thoughtfulness of the official pair of The Gods Must Be Crazy films, especially the sequel. It's amusing, and the climax is crazy enough to entertain, but I don't recommend going out of your way to check it out.

It's also not the easiest film to watch, or at least not the only cut I was able to find in several places online. Many chunks of the film are in English, as Sam turns out bilingual, which helps them get through the international settings, but any time they're talking in Cantonese, the subtitles are a borderless white and disappear in some backgrounds. There's also a pair of narrators in the form of Stephen Chow and some other guy, but they haven't been translated at all. The scenes beneath them are visual enough that I can still tell what's going on, but any additional commentary or jokes they added have been completely lost.

I see also that Jamie Uys is indeed credited on the film as "consultant", but I wouldn't be surprised if that only extended as far as him telling them where that rhino suit could be found.


From everything I knew about the production of the movie, its unofficial status, and the insane decision to introduce, oh, HOPPING VAMPIRES into the generally reality-bound universe of the series, I was sure I would find it so bad that I would shut it off within the first fifteen minutes. After watching it, I feel like that may be the proper way to go into this movie, expecting a train wreck.

The series had always existed firmly in a zany universe, but was still grounded in the real world, and yet adding jiangshi, kung fu, and magic somehow doesn't completely alienate it from its previous entries like I was certain it would have to. It's unquestionably a different kind of movie by miles, but when we return to the Kalahari with our latest protagonist duo, the pedigree of the series is evident. Maybe it's our familiarity with N!xau and his consistency in his portrayal of Xi, even when possessed by the soul of Bruce Lee. Or maybe it's that the director, Billy Chan, seems to almost grasp the nuances of Jamie Uys's pacing and comedic setups from the first two pictures, but can't quite capture the timing and creativity necessary to move most of the moments from mediocre to great.

And to be fair, this is a movie whose parts average out to lackluster rather than existing there for its whole running time. There's a string of moments near the end that go completely over the top, including a brilliantly cut scene of the priest riding an ostrich, Xi riding on the hopping vampire's back, and Sam running after them, trying to keep up. That and what follows soon after, with the possessions of Sam by a baboon and Xi by Bruce Lee, and the jiangshi versus voodoo zombie battle, it all sounds precisely as stupid as it really is. The fact that it still worked for me elevates my opinion of the movie.

When it doesn't work, though, it's either awkward, confusing, or just merely boring. Admittedly, a moderate to large part of this may be because the version I watched, while subtitling the characters' relevant dialogue, did not subtitle the narrators' lines from Chinese and there were more than a few segments of extended narration. It was mostly clear what the characters were doing, but many times, the actions were either repetitive or understated, leading me to believe that much of the comedy of the situation was in the narrators' description, as we saw so many times in the first two films.

Overall, it comes off as a hackish tribute to both the jiangshi genre and the spirit of Jamie Uys's style (even if not the flair), and marries the two probably as well as they ever could be. It's not a pairing I imagine anybody outside of the production asked for, and not really one worth expecting anything particularly good out of, but it has enough moments to make it worth 92 minutes - provided you've absolutely nothing better to do with them.

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