As veteran choreographer Pun Siu-fai and rising composer Tang Lok-yin summon the dead for their musical dance theatre, they tell Edmund Lee about the motivations behind the peculiar venture.
The dead will walk the Earth over this Halloween weekend. Should you be looking for the culprit who made this all happen, meet Tang Lok-yin, who clearly has no qualms about unleashing her childhood demons on the stage of the Cultural Centre. “When I was a kid, I watched a lot of Lam Ching-ying’s movies with my younger brother. Lam played the Taoist priest in all those Mr. Vampire films,” says the music director and composer of the inspiration behind her contemporary musical dance theatre, Mr. Vampire, presented here as part of the New Vision Arts Festival. “We were more or less forced into watching them because our parents are big fans. The movies are extremely scary – and hilarious. It has developed into a complex for me.”
With the new work, Tang is paying homage to the eponymous Hong Kong cult movie – the 1985 horror comedy Mr. Vampire – and its many sequels, which made popular the myth of jiang shi, the Chinese hopping vampires who are said to be corpses reanimated because their last breaths, out of indignation, failed to leave their bodies. When Tang’s proposal for a dance theatre adaptation reached veteran choreographer Pun Siu-fai – artistic director of the current production and the Guangdong Modern Dance Company, whose last full-length performance in Hong Kong has to date back to July 1997 – a strong social relevance emerged from the otherwise very fantastical picture.
“It’s the kids…” Pun pauses and corrects himself. “It’s the post-80s generation [Tang Lok-yin and producer William Lane] who are having great fun with the movie Mr. Vampire. But I’m [from the] post 60s [generation]; the reason I’m interested in this is because the 1980s was a very strange time. It was before the Hong Kong Handover, and people were feeling very insecure, either emigrating or contemplating leaving. It was a chaotic time. That’s why the comedy movies and supernatural flicks then were filled with an unspeakable sense of fear, which was best encapsulated by jiang shi.”
Set on a stage decorated with six coffins and a huge moon on top, and divided into five loosely connected episodes, Mr. Vampire begins with a woman killing herself in grief. Named after a very Guangdong expression, “choking my middle air”, the episode demonstrates the popular understanding of qi (breath) and the mystical consequences if it fails to leave a person who dies in grudge, stylistically embodied here by several actors dancing with a dummy. The work then proceeds to portray the thin line between love and hate – with animalistic dancers alternately kissing and biting each other – in a chapter titled “The kiss of Mr. Vampire”. The show then morphs into a performance of exorcising – distantly echoing the imagery of Michael Jackson’s music videos Thriller and Beat It – before turning to resolve the anger of the grudging beings.
“We’re not just restaging the story [of the movie] through a dance performance,” says Pun, clarifying his conceptual framework. “Rather, we’re using the supernatural genre elements to evoke the hidden fear and the feeling of indignation in people, which we describe as ‘choking on breath’ [in Cantonese]. I saw a very strong social message in the movie. It’s been three decades [since it was released], but have we been breathing smoothly all this while? Turns out we’re far from that. We’re resentful, and we’re all turning into jiang shi. While [our production] is great fun, I also think that we need some sensible and thoughtful meaning behind it.” Tang says of Pun, giggling: “He is a radical member of the society. He feels deeply for the indignation of the Hong Kong people.”
For Tang, Mr. Vampire marks the first dance or theatre production for which she conducts and provides live music accompaniment – here with the Hong Kong New Music Ensemble, of which Tang and William Lane are founding members – since her days studying at the APA. Known for the contemporary touch in her works for both traditional Western and Chinese instruments, the composer is introducing a refreshing amount of electronic and heavy metal elements into the performance, at times utilising strong beats to reflect the stiffness of jiang shi’s body. “Sometimes I think music is such an abstract thing that you simply can’t dictate the audiences’ understanding [of your thoughts],” says Tang. “But in theatre, music guides your mood while the performance unfolds.” She then offers me a big, mischievous grin, no doubt a hint of the humorous music twist that she’s slipping behind the show’s scary imagery. “So with my music, I’m actually controlling the state of your mind.”
With a range of cultural references to death and decay making their ways into Pun’s conceptualisation – including Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride character, Salvador Dalí’s ants and Francis Bacon’s twisted human figures, to name a few – Mr. Vampire, amazingly, is actually meant as a jolly good time in the theatre. Not only will the audiences be given a set of fake fangs at the show, they’re welcome to turn up in Halloween costumes. “This is a lot of fun,” Tang laughs as she anticipates the end product resulting from this very strange pot of wacky ingredients. “And to tell you the truth, it has always been my dream to present ghost stories in the theatre. We’re not out to scare the audiences, but the theatrical impact is going to be amazing.”
Mr. Vampire is at Cultural Centre’s Studio Theatre from Fri 29 to Sun 31. Tickets: 2734 9009; www.urbtix.hk.