“Blood: the last Vampire” is an interesting proposition, not only because it sees Jeon Ji Hyun (“My Sassy Girl”), one of Korea’s most popular actresses, making her English language debut, but also since it represents one of the few Hollywood Japanese anime adaptations to make a real effort to build upon its source material. The film is based upon the 2000 anime from Production I.G of “Ghost in the Shell” fame, which was directed by Hiroyuki Kitakubo (one of the key animators who worked on the classic “Akira”), and was helmed by Chris Nahon, who previously had cross-cultural cinematic experiences with the French-English outings “Empire of the Wolves”, and “Kiss of the Dragon”, arguably one of Jet Li’s better Western efforts. Adding to its pedigree is the presence of Corey Yuen, one of Hong Kong’s most prolific and best known action directors, who recently worked on the likes of “Transporter 3” and John Woo’s epic “Red Cliff”.
Set in the 1970s, the plot follows Jeon Ji Hyun (billed in the West as Gianna Jun) as Saya, who may look like a cute young girl, but who is actually a centuries old vampire-human hybrid who has dedicated her life to hunting down and killing demons. When the shady organisation she works for called The Council gets word of Onigen (Japanese actress Koyuki, also in “The Last Samurai”), the most powerful vampire, who Saya just happens to have a personal grudge against, she sets off in pursuit, heading to a US Airbase in Japan where she goes undercover at the local high school. Sure enough, the base is being plagued by mysterious deaths, and she wastes no time in cutting her way through the hiding demons, reluctantly taking the young daughter (television actress Allison Miller) of the base’s general under her protection. Unsurprisingly, she soon gets her chance to confront Onigen, though things turn out to be far more complicated than expected.
Given that the anime clocked in at just 48 minutes and was decidedly light on narrative, “Blood: the last Vampire” is one of the few examples where the stretching out of plot details usually seen in Hollywood adaptations offers a real opportunity to improve upon the original. To his credit, scriptwriter Chris Chow does make a concerted effort in this respect, fleshing out the character of Saya, and giving her more in the way of back story and motivation for her bloody quest. This works reasonably well, though its arguable whether her having flashbacks revolving around her old master (martial arts veteran Yasuaki Kurata, recently in “Shinjuku Incident”) and training scenes are preferable to the cold mystique which defined her in the original. Other characters don’t fare quite so well, most notably Alison Miller, who has presumably been written in to give Western audiences a vaguely recognisable face, but who serves no purpose other than to annoy and to inspire the hope that Saya will turn her back for a second and leave her to the demons. Even with such subplots and sidetracks, the film still only runs around an hour and a half, which is probably just as well since the story clearly works perfectly well as a lean piece of action.
Certainly, the fight scenes are the film’s de raison d’être, and on that score it doesn’t disappoint, with Corey Yuen’s choreography being fast moving and slick. Although the special effects are a little ropey in places and some of the CGI blood looks a little over the top, the film is exciting and suitably violent, with some nicely handled set pieces, especially those during the first 20 minutes. The action has a winning East meets West flavour, and although not quite up to the standards of true martial arts cinema, is definitely far more thrilling than most of the drab genre efforts coming from Hollywood. Nahon’s direction is lively and stylish, and though his sense of pace is somewhat off, unwisely dropping in too many flashbacks during the final act, he does show a good visual sense, creating a strange pan-Asian fusion setting.
Perhaps most importantly, for Asian film fans at least, Jeon Ji Hyun is excellent in the lead role. Whilst unfortunately she is not given too many lines or much in the way of substantial dialogue, she has a genuine screen presence, and manages to add a touch of depth to what could otherwise have been a fairly stereotypical Asian-in-Hollywood cute but violent type role. Performing well during the action scenes and acquitting herself admirably enough during the melodrama, she successfully manages to carry the film, suggesting that she would certainly be more than capable of tackling more serious fare.
Although “Blood: the last Vampire” is clearly quite the opposite, it still makes for fun and exciting, if undemanding viewing. Nahon does a reasonable job of bringing the slight anime to life and delivers an enjoyably daft martial arts creature feature which doesn’t do any great disservice to the source material.
Chris Nahon (director) / Chris Chow (screenplay)
CAST: Gianna Jun … Saya
Allison Miller … Alice Mckee
Liam Cunningham … Michael
JJ Feild … Luke
Koyuki … Onigen
Yasuaki Kurata … Kato Takatora
Larry Lamb … General Mckee
Andrew Pleavin … Frank Nielsen
Michael Byrne … Elder