(Hong Kong, 1990)
Directed by: Chui Fat, Wong Chun-yeung
Starring: Donnie Yen! Pauline Yeung! Ken Lo!
(Available on Hong Kong VCD)
For those who don’t know, the crack squirrels of Washington, DC were a zoological phenomena coinciding with the rise of crack cocaine in the inner cities. Desperate crackheads would buy their evil rock, smoking it on the spot and tossing the glass vials into the gutter where they attracted curious squirrels, fluffy tails aquiver. No one can resist the lure of cocaine, not Brett Easton Ellis, not the twenty-something internet money barons, and certainly not cute little squirrels, who would use their tiny paws to scrape out and eat the cocaine residue from the discarded vials. Needless to say, this gave rise to crazed, homicidal squirrels, pea-sized brains inflamed with low grade cocoa powder, as well as squirrels nursing snarling addictions. The combination of need and speed produced maniacal squirrels who would attack men, women and children in their frenzied search for more vials to lick. Alternately, they would crash, panting on the grass as crack cocaine burned out their furry little brains, lying comatose for minutes or hours before they mustered up the strength to crawl up some passer-by’s leg and attack their hair, searching, searching searching for their fix.
This description of DC’s crack squirrels is as close a description to Donnie Yen as I can find. With his pouting lips, ping pong ball eyes, and total absence of chin he spends much of his time on-screen in a reptilian stupor, seemingly oblivious to his surroundings. Then, without warning, his cheeks puff up, his eyes get even bigger and he throws himself around propulsively, pausing to worry some nuts with his paws, or to perch on the side of a tree, nattering to himself, before bouncing off across the screen. It is strange and, I thought, unclassifiable behavior until I learned of the crack squirrels of Washington, DC and realized that, like Jackie Chan in SNAKE IN EAGLE’S SHADOW, Donnie Yen was channeling the energy of an animal, albeit a drug-crazed one, into his kung fu.
He’s a big star now, probably one of the last of the hardcore kung fu stars who still has his own knees and doesn’t need a nap in the late afternoon, but in 1990 Donnie Yen had very few vehicles to show off his squirrel-fu. His most famous movies were TIGER CAGE 2 (1990), ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA 2 (1991), IRON MONKEY, and DRAGON INN (1992). But that’s like saying Jackie Chan is only in movies like PROJECT A 2, POLICE STORY, and DRUNKEN MASTER 2, an elitist notion giving room only to his high class pictures, and ignoring the low class pics, like THE KILLER METEORS and FANTASY MISSION FORCE. Not to mention the remedial class pictures: a class made up of slow learners, belligerent idiots, and mind-boggling weirdos. It’s to this last class that Donnie Yen’s HOLY VIRGIN VS THE EVIL DEAD belongs, a movie which finally answers the question: what do you say if someone says “Red Moon”.
Donnie Yen, back in the day.
A box office flop, HVVTED crawled out of the brain of director Wong Jan-yeung, the genius responsible for FIRE PHOENIX, and it tells the story of an ancient Cambodian Moon Monster who travels to Hong Kong, turning the moon blood red and attacking the innocent in his quest to serve the malignant God of All Mothers. Rainbow filter firmly clapped on the end of the lens throughout, the movie opens with teacher Donnie having a barbecue with several nubile students, the very definition of inappropriate behavior as the students are all obviously drunk and wearing electric deely boppers (there’s no evidence of drinking, but I assume they must all be drunk to be wearing those horrible things).
“Sorry, I’m an idiot.”
“And so’s my dog.”
Donnie is just chastising student Lin for cursing when the Moon Monster erupts from the ground. Donnie glances nonchalantly over his shoulder. The moon turns blood red. Donnie takes off his glasses and squints a little. Suddenly, student Lin is dead…naked and dead. The Moon Monster strikes! Soon he has made all of the students naked…and then dead! He flies away! Donnie surveys the shredded corpses and stamps his foot in frustration. Like William Hurt, all the pain is on the inside.
Let’s talk a minute about this so-called Moon Monster. Played by Ken Lo, Jackie Chan’s bodyguard, the Moon Monster is a masterful portrayal of the little monster far from home. Cut off and alienated he tugs the same simple heartstrings as ET when he’s not pulling out people’s livers, and, in fact, if it wasn’t for the liver-pulling he’d be quite the lovable scamp. All he wants to do is return to the moon and I wondered why this engendered so much opposition amongst the rest of the cast. Who knows? Maybe Donnie Yen hates the moon?
“You’re stupid and fat, moon!”
Or it could be the toxic fashion. Ken Lo returns to his roots as a discotheque bouncer for the Moon Monster’s wardrobe: acid-washed jeans, a black shirt (exchanged later for a leather tunic), knee high boots with zippers down to the ankles, a khaki duster, and a huge mop of hard rocker hair – he looks like the kids in high school who listened to Iron Maiden and hung around the parking lot huffing paint and smoking oregano.
A nice big oregano fatty is something Donnie sure could use as he is hauled into the police station where he pitches a royal snit over the suggestion that being found with five naked, dead teenagers is incriminating. “I want to hit him,” snaps the interrogator, just as the Captain walks in. “Stop it, you’re making a film,” he says reminding everyone of why they’re here in the first place. Some lethargic cat and mouse games ensue between Donnie and the police and it’s here that the movie earns its real title HOLY VIRGIN VS THE GLARINGLY OBVIOUS as Donnie returns to the crime scene (body outlines helpfully sprayed on the dirt), “This is where they died,” he moans, for the benefit of viewers who just woke up. Later one of his tails will report, “The target has entered a shop. Maybe he is buying a drink.”
Next we’re introduced to Shamen (Sharta + Ramen = Shamen), Donnie’s ex-wife whom we’ve already seen several times naked and unexplained. Shamen is the kind of lady who likes to walk around in her undies and has a complete set of satin sheets. She also guzzles cognac, but that’s normal for this movie where everyone guzzles nothing but cognac. I suspect that if the taps in the kitchen were turned on you’d get hot or cold cognac. Shamen is sleeping with one of the police officers who is investigating Donnie, but Donnie is a “nut for teaching” and “a nut for romance” and when he discovers the hankie-pankie he leaves the audience in tears with the way it doesn’t seem to bother him one bit. He practically rents them a hotel room (actually he does rent them a hotel room later).
The Moon Monster has not been idle for the last two paragraphs, as we seen when a young woman makes her boyfriend naked…and then dead! She’s a slave of the Moon Monster, and in a touching scene she goes to his temple where the Moon Moster makes her naked…and then dead! Which is dramatic irony. Lots of things happen at this point, the most interesting of which are a) Donnie’s strange friend, Chau Yuan-fat keeps getting between Donnie and the camera. Is he a private investigator? A good buddy? An annoying irritant? We never know, but we’re saddled with him for the rest of the movie. b) we learn about the four types of hair: curly (African), wavy (Caucasian), straight (Asian) and screwy (sex maniac). c) we meet the lovely librarian, Director Chor, who tells them all about the High Wind Tribe in Cambodia who hate the Moon Monster. (MOON Monster? HIGH WIND tribe? This movie seems to be trying to tell us something). Chor tells Donnie all this while he eats a McDonald’s apple pie, and frankly he seems more interested in the apple pie than her sketchy ethnographic lecture. Later she’s attacked by a bad optical effect and passes on to a better movie. d) Everyone decides there’s nothing else to do but go to Cambodia and fight some evil mastermind named Ma Tian who seems to be the employer of the Moon Monster.
Cambodia is sensitively depicted as a pre-technological civilization where the tourists stay in five star hotels with round beds (and plenty of cognac) while the natives fob off sham artifacts on them and live in grass huts. We also meet the charming Princess White of the High Wind Tribe who has hair like Bo Derek’s in BOLERO and a dead mink stapled to her shoulder. Prince Wolf wants to marry her, and while the High Winders chant “Jellyroll…Jellyroll…” they have a ritual battle. She trounces him soundly, after which the subtitles refer to him as Princess Wolf. Suddenly, some stock footage appears. Someone switches on a fan. Her dad spews blood. Freeze frame! This is the work of the Moon Monster (“Didn’t you hear the song of the Moon Monster in the air?”) and Princess White (played by poor Pauline Yeung from DRAGONS FOREVER who must have been wondering what she did to go from starring with Jackie Chan, to starring with Jackie Chan’s bodyguard. This would prove to be so depressing to her that HOLY VIRGIN would be her last movie) gets the synthesizer sword. Every time it’s drawn an ominous synthesizer blatt is played. Which brings us to the music, which is a synthesizer enthusiast’s dream. There’s ominous synth, danger synth, objectifying other cultures synth. It’s synth-sational!
Shamen is kidnapped by Ma Tian and Donnie, Chau Yaun-fat (groan) and her cop boyfriend sneak into his villa to find her. This is the worst sneaking in motion picture history. Imagine three drunk guys in Hawaiian shirts, running across a golf course in broad daylight while bickering. They find Ma Tian (who looks like the source for Lau Ching-wan’s look in A HERO NEVER DIES) and who has his own super special Ma Tian synthesizer and an army of bellboys armed with automatic weapons. Shamen has her top ripped off, but none of this bothers Donnie, who may still be smarting from the divorce. “Don’t worry,” he chirps,”I think Shamen will be fine. Let’s go back to the hotel.” Surprisingly they take his advice and there they hook up with Princess White who eats pork chops with her fingers (in case we’ve forgotten she’s playing a Cambodian). Everyone’s conscience eventually gets the better of them and they go back to save Shamen. Flesh-eating trout, Moon Monster, doped-up leopards who must be prodded with props, and stock footage gators are no match for the lethal loafers of Donnie Yen, and the movie even squeezes in time for a karaoke travel montage before the explosive ending (footage of which was already shown over the opening credits, under a double exposure of a naked woman doing aerobics – shades of Chu Yen-ping’s LADY IN HEAT). I won’t give away the ending, but everyone winds up sitting on the Bridge Over the River Kwai, with Donnie dolled up like a Harlequin sex pirate. Drinking helps.
HVVTED is a wonderful example of the shallow end of the cinematic gene pool and is a diverting, trashy romp. While movies like THE SEVENTH CURSE get all the attention as bad, fun movies, it’s movies like HVVTED that keep the bad movie banner flying with gratuitous nudity, Chuck Norris violence, wish-you-were-here performances and a constant undermining of any scrap of narrative propulsion with numerous “sitting around the kitchen table talking” scenes.
Unfortunately, HVVTED is only available via a series of lousy options (laserdisc, VCD, Malaysian DVD that seems to be out of print) but the Criterion Collection’s recent release of HOUSE, it’s only a matter of time before we get a Criterion Collection edition of this classic film and the world will learn that the original crack-eating squirrel isn’t an urban legend, but a grown man. A man named Donnie Yen.