Hong Kong. 1987.
Director – Ching Siu Tung, Screenplay – Yuen Kai Chi, Based on the Short Stories by Pu Songling, Producer – Tsui Hark, Photography – Wong Wing Hang, Tom Lau, Sander Lee & Poon Heng Seng, Music – Romeo Diaz & James Wong, Art Direction – Yee Chung Man. Production Company – Film Workshop.
Leslie Cheung (Ning Tsai Tsen), Joey Wong (Nieh Hsiao Tsing), Wu Ma (Yen Che Hsia)
The ineffectual young tax collector Ning Tsai Tsen arrives in a town to collect taxes. Nobody will offer him a bed so he is forced to seek shelter at a reputedly haunted temple on the outskirts of town. There he meets the warrior monk Yen Chi Hsia and the beautiful Nieh Hsiao Tsing. He falls for her, unaware that she is a ghost – a soul captured by the evil Matron and sent forth to tempt men and steal their lifeforces. Telling Ning Tsai Tsen her story, Nieh Hsiao Tsing begs him to take her ashes to freedom so that she can have the chance of reincarnation and be saved from betrothal to Lord Dark. However, this is something that requires Ning Tsai Tsen and Yen Chia Hsia to journey down into Hell.
Attempting to explain Hong Kong fantasy films to Western audiences often ends up with people scratching their heads. Directors like John Woo and actors like Jackie Chan, Chow Yun Fat and Jet Li had much crossover success in the late 90s but that came more out of Hong Kong martial arts/action cinema. Wu Xia cinema meanwhile languished unrecognised, apart from a sizeable cult audience, until the remarkable success of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).
A Chinese Ghost Story is perhaps the finest example of Hong Kong fantasy cinema. This genre had grown out of various Shaw Brothers films of the 1970s and was crystallised with Tsui Hark’s Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983), a lunatic film in its own right. (Tsui aso acts as producer here). However, it was A Chinese Ghost Story that became a landmark within the genre and an oft-imitated template for other films. Trying to pigeonhole A Chinese Ghost Story makes one’s head spin. Imagine a film part Star Wars (1977) and a whole lot Shaw Brothers. Or else maybe Kwaidan (1964), as directed by Sam Raimi in full-on The Evil Dead (1981) mode. It is all of these and more.
A Chinese Ghost Story has its nominal basis in The Magic Sword, one of the stories told in the collection Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (1756) by Pu Songling. The story had previously formed the basis of one of the early Shaw Brothers films The Enchanting Shadow (1960).
A Chinese Ghost Story is a grandiosely beautiful film. Ching Siu-Tung’s direction is an extraordinarily dexterous blend of lightning-paced action and startlingly beautiful imagery, all directed entirely tongue-in-cheek. The martial arts sequences are amazingly stylised, with opponents performing unbelievable gymnastic acts, twirling about in mid-air and travelling by bouncing off trees or by hanging onto thrown swords, where Ching Siu-Tung’s camera is poised with a lightning finesse to catch every sword-blow in mist-illuminated silhouette.
There are mind-boggling scenes fighting off a giant flaming slime-slavering tongue as it crashes through entire houses to try penetrate its victims’ throats; and an even more visionary descent down into a Hell filled with walls of grasping hands and devouring female faces, lorded over by a metal-masked Darth Vader look-alike. Joey Wong flies through the air as a ghostly train of silk, whipping people about enwrapped in her sleeves.
One amazing sequence has hero Leslie Cheung hiding under the water in Joey Wong’s bath trying to avoid detection by the androgynous, human-sniffing Matron while Joey passes air to him via kisses. Ching Siu-Tung also balances this out with an amusingly self-effacing sense of humour, with Leslie Cheung stumbling into situations completely oblivious to the danger about him. And then there is an indescribable scene where Wu Ma starts leaping about in mid-air and bursts into a rap song that goes on about the peaceful virtues of the Buddhist lifestyle. See A Chinese Ghost Story at all costs – it will change your life.
There were two sequels, both directed by Ching Siu-Tung and produced by Tsui Hark:– A Chinese Ghost Story II (1990) and A Chinese Ghost Story III (1991). Leslie Cheung, Joey Wong and Wu Ma re-teamed for the first, which is highly enjoyable; only Joey Wong appeared in the third, which is lesser but likable. Producer Tsui Hark later oversaw the animated A Chinese Ghost Story: A Tsui Hark Animation (1997), a loose rehash of the same story. A Chinese Ghost Story (2011) was a remake that failed in every single way. The film was highly influential and inspired a number of imitators such as Swordsman (1990) and sequels, Saviour of the Soul (1991), Green Snake (1993), The Magic Crane (1993) and The Storm Riders (1998).
Ching-Siu Tung’s other genre films are:- Duel to the Death (1983), The Witch from Nepal/The Nepal Affair (1985), A Terracotta Warrior (1990), New Dragon Gate Inn/Dragon Inn (1992), Swordsman II (1992), The Heroic Trio (1993), The Heroic Trio II: Executioners (1993), The Mad Monk (1993), Swordsman III: The East is Red (1993), The Scripture With No Words (1996), The Sorcerer and the White Snake (2011) and Jade Dynasty (2019). Siu-Tung is also known as an action choreographer par excellence and has coordinated sequences on films like Shaolin Soccer (2001), Invincible (2001), Hero (2002), House of Flying Daggers (2004) and In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale (2007).