Blood: The Last Vampire (France/Hong Kong 2009)

Rating: **
Alternate Title: Last Blood
Review Date: 7/11/09
Director: Chris Nahon
Martial Arts Choreography: Corey Yuen Kwei
Cast: Gianna Jun (Jeon Ji Hyun), Allison Miller, Yasuaki Kurata, Koyuki, Masiela Lusha, Liam Cunningham, Michael Byrne, Colin Salmon

This bizarre French/Chinese co-production is a fun action outing, but a poor attempt at westernizing the original animated film. A young Japanese girl named Saya (South Korean sensation Gianna Jun) is a demon hunter with supernatural powers. She works with a secret organization known as "The Council" to exterminate the demons that live among us, with the hopes of getting to avenge her father's murder by the demon Onigen (Koyuki). When a demon threat shows up at an American Air Force base near Tokyo, Saya is sent in undercover as a transfer student to investigate the situation. It turns out that the base is teeming with nasty critters which Saya neatly dispatches with her cursed katana blade. Unfortunately, a girl named Alice (pretty Allison Miller) witnesses Saya's brutality, which puts her and her family at risk. They eventually start working together and take on the villainous Onigen, who bears some interesting secrets concerning Saya's lineage.

This film literally came out of nowhere, and I only heard about it a couple of days before it came out. Being a huge fan of the original, I was cautiously excited about seeing a live action adaptation. Unfortunately, the film suffers from garishly poor visual effects and an incomprehensible screenplay. The first half of the film does a good job of recreating various set pieces from the animated movie, and then the second half takes a radical turn to follow Saya's confrontation with Onigen. It's like two entirely different movies whose only common thread is the American girl, Alice. Her role in the plot is awkward, and clearly intended as a focal point for American audiences to identify with. Allison Miller is young, attractive, and a pretty good actress, but the lines she has to work with are terrible. She also doesn't have much to do other than get in the way and scream a lot. The other American actors in the cast are pretty poor, with the exception of Liam Cunningham. He does a decent job as Saya's handler, but his performance is very uneven. The real treat in the movie is seeing Gianna Jun and kung fu veteran Yasuaki Kurata in action. Gianna is lovely and her perpetually contemptuous glare is intoxicating. She channels Saya very well and it's delightful to see her kicking ass in braids and a Japanese schoolgirl uniform. Yasuaki Kurata always adds a touch of class to any production and it's great to see him in action under the expert guidance of Corey Yuen. While the fight choreography is very good, it's unfortunately spoiled by bad camera work and invasive editing. It's quite infuriating since there are some potentially really cool things going on.

Apart from the increasingly baffling and nonsensical plot, the biggest disappointment is in the visual effects department. While state of the art digital effects are extremely good these days, low budget CGI effects look TERRIBLE. I'd much rather see people on wires and guys wearing rubber masks than have to watch bad digital effects. The worst offender is the gratuitous use of digital blood. While you can do some really outrageous stuff with digital blood, it simply doesn't behave like real liquid and ultimately just looks like a bad particle animation. It's also not persistent. The great thing about working with blood is that it's visceral and messy. It leaves its mark on everything, including floors, walls, clothes, and people. With digital blood, there's no evidence of the injury apart from the initial contact, and then it just vanishes into thin air. I think back to the bloodless swordfights of early kung fu movies, and I think I actually prefer seeing no blood over today's digital blood trend. The creature effects are also rather amusing in a low budget way. Ultimately, it feels like the movie is trying to do too much with too little, and the overall result is a bit obnoxious, succeeding only in bringing attention to its short-comings.

While the effects may be garish, the cinematography is gorgeous and I really enjoyed the compositions and use of color. (although I noticed some pretty major focusing problems throughout) Corey Yuen's hand is evident in the action scenes, but it also looks like he was held back, either by the script, the budget, the director, or the editor. I felt cheated and wanted to see more. All of the scenes with Gianna and Kurata are wonderful, but everything else falls flat. Watching a Japanese schoolgirl take off someone's head with a roundhouse kick is alone worth the price of admission, and anyone who's a fan of female action films should find something to enjoy. It's not the kung fu horror film that I was hoping to see, but it has its moments.