While Ronny Yu was promoting FEARLESS, he talked up his next movie: a live action adaptation of the 2000 anime BLOOD: THE LAST VAMPIRE. So, a Hong Kong director in Hollywood remaking a Japanese movie originally made mostly in English because many of the characters were American. When Yu mentioned it while talking to Martial Arts Entertainment the interviewer asked if it was “sort of a wuxia movie.”
“Maybe. Sort of. You’re right!” Yu said. “It’s sort of cross-cultural, because the whole thing takes place in a U.S. Army base in Japan. Yeah. It’s like a cross-cultural wuxia.”
Alas, it was not to be… exactly. Instead of Yu it was made by French director Chris Nahon, known for helming one of Jet Li’s English language films, KISS OF THE DRAGON (2001). Yu was credited as a producer, but I’ve found no evidence of him staying on during filming in, say, a George Lucas or Steven Spielberg capacity. I suspect he left but got the credit because he’d done so much of the pre-production that Nahon built off of. Yu is not mentioned or shown in a 20 minute making-of featurette on the DVD and blu-ray, but I think it’s reasonable to assume Nahon kept a decent amount of what he put into place, since the sole credited writer Chris Chow and the cinematographer Hang-Sang Poon are both holdovers from FEARLESS. Yu was also still reported as director when Korean actress Jun Ji-hyun, credited as Gianna, was cast as the main character, Saya.
Though BLOOD is a slim 91 minutes, that’s almost twice as long as the original, so unsurprisingly they added a backstory and an arch-nemesis and stuff. The anime left us kind of in the dark about what was going on, but this version opens with text about a war in the 16th century, “demons settled in among mortals to prey on the bloodshed,” a samurai named Kiyomasa who was killed by “the oldest, vilest of all demons: Onigen,” and then it refers to Saya as “a mysterious hunter” aligned with “a shadow society known as The Council” as “she sets out to face her ultimate foe… Onigen.”
Okay, yeah, I can dig it, I guess. Then they faithfully re-create the opening subway slaying. It says it’s 1970, and the businessman is reading news about North Vietnam. When she attacks there’s a cool variation on the classic samurai-runs-by-and-slashes-a-guy-but-you-don’t-know-he-made-contact-until-the-guy-falls-dead trope. She slashes and there’s blood, then we see that there’s a gash across his face, then his glasses fall into two pieces and as he drops the two sides of his head slide apart because she’s vertically bisected him. There will be some pretty chintzy digital effects later on, but this one looks really good.
The Council are all white guys in fedoras, and some of the team are “cleaners” with special equipment to dispose of the bodies before normies find out about the existence of vampires. Men in black, basically. Walking through the city, something reminds Saya of hundreds of years ago (is this supposed to be the same spot?) when she was young and her late father’s most loyal retainer Kato (Yasuaki Kurata, RETURN OF THE SISTER STREET FIGHTER, HEROES OF THE EAST, MISHIMA: A LIFE IN FOUR CHAPTERS, EASTERN CONDORS, FIST OF LEGEND, MANHUNT) told her all about her pops and how he could tell demons by looking them in the eyes and seeing they had no souls.
Harrison (Liam Cunningham, THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR) is her handler, and he visits her in her hotel room, bringing her a bottle of blood in a paper bag. He gives her the assignment to go to the school on the air base, but not specifically to kill the vampires. That’s what she plans to do, so he says, “Be my guest. Kill the bottom feeders and lure out Onigen.”
In a montage introducing the inhabitants of the air base, Nahon uses movie shorthand to tell us it’s the Vietnam era: yellow tint representing heat, people with hippie-ish clothes and hair, “War” by Edwin Starr playing. Our human co-heroine is Alice (Allison Miller, 17 AGAIN), rebellious daughter of General McKee (Larry Lamb, TRANSMUTATIONS), who runs the base. He’s always too busy for her because “we’re at war.” She says it’s not her war.
Her secret-vampire classmates Sharon (Masiela Lusha, George Lopez) and Linda (Ailish O’Connor) are mean girls in this version. They call Saya “Jap,” saying (without irony, I suspect), “Next thing you know they think they own the place.” In that most familiar of horror movie tropes, the class is discussing a work of literature in order to suggest parallels to what we’re about to watch. In this case they’re reading Frankenstein, and Alice has an advanced understanding of its themes. She says the monster compares himself to Lucifer because ”God and Victor Frankenstein both deserted their creations not because they were imperfect, but because they reminded them of their own imperfections.” This clearly intrigues Saya, but I can’t tell if she likes or dislikes Alice’s sympathy for monsters.
Alice is on the Kendo team, but isn’t that into it. Her coach Mr. Powell (Colin Salmon, RESIDENT EVIL, PUNISHER: WAR ZONE, MORTAL ENGINES, NOBODY) makes her stay after to spar with Sharon and Lisa, who reveal themselves by pulling out real swords while she just has a bamboo one. They knock her flying across the gym and out the doors in a nod to that cool action beat I mentioned in the anime when Saya fights a vampire at the Halloween dance. Perhaps now would be a good time to mention that the action director is the legendary Corey Yuen (around the same time he was doing the John Woo masterpiece RED CLIFF), so we get all kinds of acrobatics, power punches, leaping across rooftops, spinning in the air, jumping off of people – the good shit.
Saya shows up and locks Alice out of the gym while she fights the vampires – Alice watches through a vent, sees her chop a girl’s head off, and the head lands right next to the vent, looking in at her, splattering blood on the slats. I mean, obviously that’s great, but it bothers some people because the digital blood is very weird and globby. Alice later says, “Something was wrong with them. Linda’s blood was—“ So either this was an intentional artistic choice, or something they regretted enough to try to explain/acknowledge with dialogue.
Anyway, I got used to it quick. A cool trademark that live action Saya has is that she still keeps her sword in that portfolio-type tube on her back, but now she likes to kick backwards to hit the bottom of the tube, knocking the sword into the air and catching it. (That would also be a cool thing to do even if it was charcoal drawings and not a sword.)
The General starts looking into “the Japanese girl,” who they were told was the daughter of an ambassador, as well as the suspicious men in black he caught on base claiming to be CIA, but nobody believes Alice about what she saw, because the bodies are gone. So she takes justice into her own hands, steals dad’s car, finds Powell at a bar wearing a cool ‘70s collar, and gets him to admit that while her daddy is fighting ‘Nam she’s ignoring “the real war, the one that’s been going on since the beginning of time between your kind and mine.” Wait, what? Suddenly everybody in the bar turns into vampires. I like that it’s the same idea as the Titty Twister but in a small, normal bar where they could easily have a trivia night.
She gets chased through alleys, cornered, and of course rescued by Saya, who smashes a bunch of the vamps with a sledge hammer. They all start breaking pipes and things off of structures to use as weapons, and surround her for a huge fight, which will not go the way they hope.
I like when she hides Alice under a wicker basket and we get the Alice P.O.V. of the fight through the basket.
It’s a long, very bloody (albeit digital dog-kibble-looking blood) fight. Some of the stylistic gimmicks (speed ramping, yellow tint, etc.) will annoy people, but I thought it was a really exciting fight. And it’s worth keeping in mind that this came out the same year as TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN, TAKEN, CRANK: HIGH VOLTAGE, FIGHTING, GAMER, and NINJA ASSASSIN. By the standards of its time it’s a master class in action coherence.
After she’s killed them all, Powell shows up. Embers start shooting at him like a Saturn Missile, there’s a white flash and cloud of dark smoke, and he transforms into…
…this stubby, goofy looking demon here, whose animated hop looks like crude stop motion and made me laugh out loud. In a bad way, but also a good way. I would prefer a cool monster, but one that makes me laugh is not nothing. In some shots he looks like he might be a guy in a suit, and if so this might be the “creature” that Khari Payton (Ezekiel from The Walking Dead) is credited as playing. I’m not sure.
I enjoyed the chase across rooftops, which ends with Saya slashing a power line and swinging on it like a rope. Then Powell leaps away, sprouts wings and looks more like a Deadite. They get to do the cool airstrip slashing scene from the anime, complete with the feeding him her blood as he dies. In this version Saya flashes back to her childhood when she learned she was a demon (but with a soul).
Onigen (Koyuki, THE LAST SAMURAI) does show up, and she seems to be seeking Saya just like Saya is seeking her. She appears as an upper class lady in fancy clothes, with a bodyguard and shit.
Saya tells Alice “It’s not your war. Go home.” At first Alice agrees and gives the well-meaning advice, “Saya, be really careful, okay?” But then she walks in on rogue Council agent Luke (JJ Feild, K-19: THE WIDOWMAKER) killing her dad, and then he tries to kill her and kills Harrison in front of Saya and the news says the General had a heart attack and that the authorities are searching for his mentally unstable daughter Alice. So the next time Saya tries to get rid of her Alice says that unlike Vietnam “It’s our war now.”
Right after she looks over at Saya lovingly, this motherfucker jumps onto the windshield:
Like Karen in BLADE, Alice feeds some of her blood to “halfling” Saya to revive her when she’s weak. While passed out Saya flashes back to her childhood, discovering her vampirism when she kills her boyfriend, at which point Kato gives her her father’s demon-slaying sword. Then she wakes up and tells Alice about a cool wuxia style fight between Kato and a bunch of flying ninjas, with leaves swirling in the air and a ninja coming at him from under the ground with a sword poking out like a shark fin. And they hang him up on chains like HELLRAISER! It’s a really cool scene but it’s about ten minutes of flashback starting about 2/3 into the movie, so it takes the momentum out of it. I’m not sure it’s information that really needs to be held back that long, but it’s cool when, in the present day, Onigen’s bodyguard takes off his sunglasses and we realize he’s the guy Saya stabbed in the eye way back when.
When their truck is attacked by a demon on a mountain road, Alice drives off a cliff. Shots like the one of Saya climbing out onto the hood as they plummet and then leaping and chopping at the beast are very artificial looking, but hey – I also think they’re cool! The truck somehow gets jammed between two sides of a ravine and they dangle from it as it keeps slowly nudging downward, so it’s kinda like THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK except Julianne Moore didn’t get to jump around on top of the truck, sword fighting an animated demon.
I wish the monster looked better – the designs in the anime are so much cooler – but I honestly dig the herky jerky look of the animation. There’s something kinda KING KONG or Ray Harryhausen about it and it’s got a certain charm even if it seems crude for the time.
Staying true to her trademark, when Alice throws Saya the sword she doesn’t catch it directly in her hand, she first kicks backwards and knocks it up into her hand as if she still had it in that tube. She slices one of the demon’s wings right off, so he hangs from the side of the cliff and throws big rocks at her. She chops them with her sword until one of them knocks it out of her hand. Then she pulls a piece of wood off of the side of the truck and stabs him through the neck with it. She’s crafty.
After the battle the truck collapses, and Alice wakes up in the dirt in daylight in some kind of hazy, dreamy village from Saya’s memories. Saya finds her childhood friend, still a little boy, and says “You’re still alive!” She doesn’t believe Alice telling her it’s not real, but then she turns and the kid looks like this all the sudden:
Aah! Nightmare shit. She stumbles backwards and Onigen comes out with a white gown and umbrella, looking like an ink sketch, and turns the poor kid into ash with a wave of her hand.
Before they fight Onigen tells her she’s her mother. You might be thinking EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, but it’s pretty much BLADE, right? The half-vampire, half-human vampire slayer faces off against their ultimate foe who killed their parent, and reveals they’re the reason they’re half vampire. But I suppose it is very Palpatine-like that Onigen taunts Saya about becoming her. She drops a cold but persuasive claim on her: “You think the more demons you kill, the more human you become, don’t you? How naive. The truth is, the more you kill, the more you unleash your power.” She thinks Saya’s destined to replace her, and she’s pumped about it.
It’s a well-choreographed sword duel, with Saya very angry and messy, Onigen smooth and cocky, long tendrils of fabric rising from her gown and waving around like tentacles (a nice use of CG for beauty). Some of the shots look like ink washes.
After Saya draws blood Onigen gets angrier, starts using sort of a Force push to knock her through the air, blowing leaves and dirt around, knocking her into a barn. Alice stabs Onigen from behind and gets thrown around. Saya flies at Onigen doing a wire-fu move I always enjoy, the thing where you kick your legs like you’re running through the air. Onigen tries a Palpatine approach, telling her to go ahead and kill her and she’ll become her. Saya calls her bluff. Same thing Darkman would do.
For the ending Alice takes the place of the school nurse from the anime, being interrogated about what happened. But they try to gaslight her about her dad’s death. She ends the scene implying that Saya was left in whatever astral plane or whatever that was where the fight took place. She calls it “the other side of the looking glass.” (Because her name is Alice?) I like Miller as Alice but I don’t know why they have her do a crazy-evil look when she says that. That’s a little much.
This feels more complete than the anime, we had a final showdown and everything, but it’s not really indicated why Saya believes she won’t turn evil like Onigen said she would if she killed her. Then again, that’s a very fucking convenient claim to make, isn’t it? Anyway, the end is a little puzzling. All we get is a nice shot of some type of farming village, not too different from the one in the middle section of FEARLESS, then one closeup of Saya in the dark somewhere, wearing a high-collared jacket with a zipper that is really gonna amaze those people if she’s trapped in the past. I don’t know what it means.
BLOOD: THE LAST VAMPIRE was only released in 20 theaters in the U.S., made less than $6 million worldwide, was not really known to exist to the average person, and got poor reviews (25% on Rotten Tomatoes with the consensus calling it a “tedious, shoddily acted, amateurish picture.”) So if they had a sequel in mind, that was not gonna happen.
The finished film doesn’t necessarily feel like a Ronny Yu film – it neither looks as good as his best or packs the same sort of emotional punch – but it certainly fits the “cross-cultural wuxia” description. Bridging cultures is an interest Yu shares with BLOOD and FEARLESS producer Bill Kong, who told the San Francisco Chronicle “We thought we had a chance to really break through to the American market. This is a very commercial movie — the setting, the visuals, it’s all perfect for appealing to the West.” As producer of CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, he noticed that though it was a theatrical hit with subtitles, “our research found that 95 percent of renters chose to watch the English-dubbed version.” Hence his first movie almost entirely in English.
I anticipated this movie when Yu was going to direct it, and was still curious when he didn’t, but I guess the negative word kept me from getting around to it until now. I can’t deny that it’s a flawed movie. Like the anime its appeal is all style, no originality. It’s about putting together the cliches that are enjoyable, maybe in a slightly unique mixture but not with any sort of major twist. And the things the live action version adds to the mythology serve to make it even more a mixture of anime tropes (little girl in a sailor suit kicking ass with a sword), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (fighting monsters in high school) and BLADE. And the flow of the story, with flashbacks interrupting an otherwise simple plot, is a little clunky (though it played better on my second viewing).
But I gotta say, I enjoyed this one in much the way I enjoy those digital era action/monster movies that I think of as studio b-movies – the RESIDENT EVILs, ULTRAVIOLET, that ridiculous Christopher Lambert version of BEOWULF, the 2019 HELLBOY, stuff like that. Fair warning: DRAGONBALL: EVOLUTION and STREET FIGHTER: THE LEGEND OF CHUN LI also came out this year, and I was much easier on those than you were. But I think you’d like this one better. Completely unpretentious, pretty lowbrow and at times low rent, but exhibiting some style and some awareness of things that are fun and cool to see on screen. It’s a weird mix of an almost-legit-good-but-not-quite-working genre movie and a laughable-but-fun-MORTAL-KOMBAT-ANNIHILATION type romp. It’s messy enough that I get why people didn’t like it, but for me there’s too much that’s really cool about it to dismiss.
One thing I like is the visual style. The best looking stuff is in the city on a rainy night, shot on a big soundstage (though I think they overdid the yellow tinting). But some of the other stuff where they’re dealing with not-necessarily-state-of-the-art digital effects manages to have a real painterly look to it. We’re used to all these green screen movies now, where it looks fake but they’re trying to make it look real. I like movies that lean into the artificiality as a style. We don’t get enough of those.
I was also impressed how well they mimicked the look of the anime with the lighting in some of these school scenes:
The best part of the movie is Gianna, playing this stoic character and going all in on the flying around and chopping and grimacing. A living embodiment of the drawings. In the behind-the-scenes extras everybody raves about her work ethic and there are all these shots of her joking around while standing on rooftops in fake rain or just hanging from wires casually waiting for the next take.
Since the movie didn’t catch on at all, Gianna didn’t become a big thing internationally like they thought she would, but she did follow it up with the title role in the Chinese-American co-production SNOW FLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN (credited as Gianna Jun) before continuing a successful career in South Korean films like THE THIEVES and THE ASSASSINS and that show The Kingdom (she was in one episode but starred in the 2021 spin-off movie KINGDOM: ASHIN OF THE NORTH).
In 2016 Nahon directed and edited a movie I really love, LADY BLOODFIGHT starring Amy Johnston, and since then he’s worked in French television. In the meantime, Ronny Yu would turn down an offer to direct another international co-production (what would become CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON: SWORD OF DESTINY) and return to Hong Kong for one more epic.
Tomorrow: the final chapter (for now at least) of UNCLE SAM WANTS YU.
May 3rd, 2023 at 7:25 pm
Weird time in cinema history.
Round about then there was another moderately scaled, meant to be the international breakthrough of another Korean movie star (Jang Don Gun, No Tears For the Dead) picture to come out. That film was the generically titled and quickly forgotten The Warrior’s Way. It actually did get to be widely distributed but that obviously didn’t help it’s prospects.
It’s also on the wackier, less realistic side of things (despite firmly not being a comedy). Reviews were unkind but I dig it but didn’t invest a lot into it. I should revisit it. Make it a series of Danny Huston villians, I think it can at least place top 3.