Lam Ching-Ying was a Peking Opera school graduate who found work as a stuntman in the Hong Kong film industry during the 1960’s. He served as Bruce Lee’s assistant from The Big Boss until the superstar’s death, and then became a key player in Sammo Hung’s repertory of stunt artists and supporting actors. After receiving acclaim for his performance in The Prodigal Son, Lam was tapped for the lead in Hung’s Mr. Vampire, a film that would not only change Lam’s life but Asian cinema as well.
In Mr. Vampire, Lam plays a Taoist priest who must deal with lovelorn ghosts, the stiff-limbed undead known as jiangshi, and two completely imbecilic apprentices. With its mix of horror, comedy, and incredible stuntwork, Mr. Vampire became a smash hit across Southeast Asia and spawned several sequels, innumerable imitators, and a mass of merchandising. (The Phantom Fighter game for the NES was inspired by the film.) Lam would essentially play this role for the rest of his life in several television series and films good (Mr. Vampire III), bad (The Musical Vampire) and bonkers (Crazy Safari).
One of the pleasures of watching Lam’s “One-Eyebrow Priest” is the causal aplomp with which he deploys countermeasures against the most bizarre forms of magic and monsters. He busts out the sticky rice and black dog’s blood as nonchalantly as Van Helsing dishes out the wooden stakes and holy water. I don’t know how much of the folklore presented in these films is authentic but Lam certainly sells them.
After defeating hordes of spirits, vampires, and witches, Lam Ching Ying finally succumbed to the one menace that could not be defeated through traditional means. He passed away from liver cancer in 1997 at the terribly young age of 49.
Interest in jiangshi films was revived by the success of Juno Mak’s melancholic Rigor Mortis starring Chin Siu-Ho, who played the first of Lam’s long line of ineffectual assistants. In what can be seen as the apprentice becoming the master, Chin would go on to play a Taoist monster hunter himself in a recent series of films (despite Chinese censorship laws requiring a Scooby-Doo reveal for all supposedly supernatural critters).
Have a wonderful evening!