Thursday, October 23, 2008

A Chinese Ghost Story (1987)


A young tax collector (Leslie Cheung) finds his documentation soaked with rain, forcing the poor scholar to take refuge in the local Len Ro Temple. There he draws the ire of Taoist monk Yen Che-hsia (Wu Ma) who warns him to stay away from the seemingly haunted temple. After a close scrape with some zombies, the young man is seduced by spirit Nieh Hsiao-tsing (Joey Wang), who spares his life. The two fall in love, but the young ghost is pressured to kill and is engaged to be married in a matter of days. The tax collector, with help from the now sympathetic monk, travels into the spirit world to stop the wedding and release Nieh's soul.


The stories of 17th century Chinese author Pu Songling have often laid the groundwork for Asian fantasy films. His collection Liaozhai Zhiyi (Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio) contained the story Nie Xiaoqian (The Magic Sword) which is the basis for Tsui Hark and Ching Siu-tung's A Chinese Ghost Story. Followed by a number of sequels, rip-offs (often starring Wu Ma or Joey Chang), or television adaptations, the film provides an original mix of horror, comedy, martial arts and Spielbergian special effects to great effect.

While certainly dated, this mixture of impressive (for the time) Hollywood-style special effects with fantasy wuxia elements (which Hark dabbled with in Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain) and Evil Dead II-style Horror/Comedy has held up surprisingly well. In fact, its story of ghostly love is strangely affecting because of the two lead performances and the dreamlike glow which seems to exist throughout.

It's not surprising that Joey Wang was typecast as her ghostly persona from this film after its success, as she embodies both the forlorn ghost and vengeful spirit equally well. The late Leslie Cheung provides most of the comic relief as the bumbling tax collector, but is also disarmingly (and necessarily) charming and heroic in his attempts to save his lady. Ma Wu's expressive face gets a fully work out in the film, and he gets several opportunities to show off some impressive swordplay, as well as his singing skills in a rather bizarre musical interlude.

Similar to how Steven Spielberg gets a great deal of credit for the films he produced in the 1980s, this film's success is usually greatly attributed to producer Tsui Hark. However, director Siu-Tung Ching has had an impressive career in his own right, and deserves credit for some impressive choreography and influential visuals which seemed to have a great influence in future Chinese fantasy films (such as The Bride With White Hair). Both men also deserve credit for balancing elements of broad humor, kung-fu, horror, romance and fantasy in a way that still feels fairly natural.

While this is hardly a horror film in the traditional sense, it doesn't shy away from gruesome moments My favorite being when the ethereal ghost seduces a samurai, the camera sweeping into his mouth and through his body as we see him instantly age into a dried up corpse. Unfortunately, when the humor gets broad, particularly in a scene where Leslie Cheung's character attempts to contact the police, it betrays its subject matter into silliness. There's a tradition of this sort of humor in kung-fu films, and perhaps it's simply a cultural difference (combined with some shaky subtitles) which made these rare moments such a chore.

While certainly revolutionary for the time, it's hard to deny that some of the film's effects may appear slightly rough around the edges for modern viewers. The stop-motion zombies are a lot of fun, though more cheesy than scary, and some of the blue screen and rear projection effects look less than stellar. That said, the sheer scope of the film required a massive amount of special effects, and what is shown onscreen is admirable and even the more dated moments only add to the charm.

The currently available Region 1 DVD from Image Entertainment features a fairly clean, though dark, print of the film in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Audio is available in both Cantonese and Mandarin, though the English subtitles leave a lot to be desired. In a film as steeped in fantasy and Chinese mythology as this, a more accurate translation would have improved the experience, though an average viewer will still be able to follow the plot.

The only special feature is the film's trailer.

A Chinese Ghost Story created a new standard for mixing fantasy and martial arts, and remains a hauntingly romantic film. Certainly deserving of a better presentation on DVD, it's worth seeking out for fans of Chinese fantasy or swordplay films such as House Of Flying Daggers or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The film was followed by two sequels, as well as an animated film in 1997.

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