A Chinese Ghost Story (倩女幽魂)
Director: Ching Siu-Tung (程小東) and Tsui Hark (徐文光)
Cast: Leslie Cheung (張國榮, 哥哥), Joey Wong (王祖賢),Wu Ma (午馬)
I’m going to begin this review by declaring my bias outright – this is my favorite movie of all time. No two ways about it, I eat this movie up. It is the quintessential Hong Kong film. From the art direction, to the pacing, to the outlandish choreography, and to the sudden emotional shifts, A Chinese Ghost Story is a beautiful, engaging, and moving film that puts its modern imitators to shame. Zhang Yimou, take note. THIS is how you do fantasy martial arts (also sometimes called wuxia pian, or chivalric swordsman stories).
If I were to create categories for the films I review based on whether or not you should see them, I would file this one under “Absolutely Essential Viewing” for many reasons which I will try to condense into a coherent review. Let’s begin with the setup. The late Leslie Cheung plays Ning Tsai-Shen, a traveling tax collector who runs afoul of bad weather, bad company, and overall bad luck. He’s caught in the middle of violent skirmishes, has next to no money, and his collection notes are illegible due to rain. When he is forced to spend the night at the haunted Lan Ro Temple, he becomes entangled in supernatural events and falls in love with tragic beauty Nieh Hsiao-Tsing, played by Joey Wong. But love is never easy. Nieh has long been dead, and her spirit is owned by an evil tree demon (Lau Siu-Ming) who forces Nieh and her sisters to seduce men so the demon can absorb their energy, but the demon also has plans to marry Nieh off to Lord Black, an ancient mountain devil. Luckily for Ning, watching over him is taoist swordsman Wu Ma, and together they plan to rescue Nieh from the underworld itself.
It certainly isn’t hard for me to explain why I love A Chinese Ghost Story, but it is hard to do so without rambling endlessly and with no focus. First off, it’s impossible to talk about the film without mentioning the stars. The entire cast is perfectly suited to the film, as was the case with so many ensemble productions in Hong Kong in the 1980s and early 1990s. Much of the credit goes to the late Leslie Cheung (who also sings the opening theme song). As the reluctant hero, Cheung gives it his all. He’s perpetually freaked out by all things supernatural, yet his infatuation with the alluring Nieh propels him to greatness despite the powerful and abundant opposition. This was Cheung’s gift. He was a devastatingly handsome man, and he could play it, but he was also perfect as the every man. So when Nieh chooses not to seduce his character into death because she sees him as a “good man,” audiences can believe it. Perfectly matched against him as Nieh is Joey Wong. During her heyday in the 80s, she epitomized ethereal beauty with her fair complexion, expressive eyes, and graceful movements. And of course veteran character actor Wu Ma, who shines as as the eccentric swordsman, rounds out the trio. The chemistry between the leads is one of the film’s major selling points, as you can see in this clip with Leslie Cheung and Joey Wong:
Perfectly complementing the attractive nature of the stars is the overall look of the film itself. For a film industry in which even the biggest of blockbusters operated on minuscule budgets when compared with their Hollywood counterparts, the best Hong Kong filmmakers achieved some amazing results. Special effects, including composite shots, stop-animation, and models/prosthetics, are frequently used in A Chinese Ghost Story to great effect. One particular sequence sees the trio fighting the ginormous tongue of the tree devil. Take a look:
Naturally, considering the director of the film is Ching Siu-Tung (Hero and House of Flying Daggers), fantasy martial arts are an integral part of the story. Ching has always been one of the major innovators in martial arts choreography, and his trademark flowing combat and circular motions are here in full force. In this particular clip, Wu Ma battles it out near the beginning of the film with a rival swordsman:
Yes, it may look a little shoddy at times. There are some visible wires and it certainly doesn’t have a polished look, but it makes up for it with enthusiasm, ingenuity, and overall emotional resonance. In short, this film is a blast, in large part because of these surreal aspects. Highly stylized action has long been a staple of Hong Kong action films, and it serves to heighten the fantasy nature of A Chinese Ghost Story as well as to distinguish Hong Kong cinema from all others. And for those who doubt that commercial Hong Kong films are artistically bankrupt, just take a look at the following scene:
In this scene, Ning goes to visit Nieh late at night, not knowing that she, her sisters, and the tree devil are out to steal the life energy of any man they come across. Of course Nieh cares for Ning, so it is her duty to hide him from the other characters who are literally sniffing him out. Reminiscent of a similar scene in Tsui Hark’s stellar Peking Opera Blues, in which one protagonist must hide her rebel friends in her bedroom from her clueless father, the scene is notable for many elements (color, the performances), especially the editing. Whereas traditional Hollywood dictates that such a scene be shot using the establishment-breakdown-reestablishment format, or A-B editing, in A Chinese Ghost Story, Hark (even though he’s not credited as the film’s director, he no doubt had a great deal of creative control) instead uses constructive editing to piece the scene together. Shots are framed with more regard for pictorial clarity and visual verisimilitude than industry convention.
These are just a few of the reasons why A Chinese Ghost Story, for me, is such a remarkable film. But they’re also why this film has stood the test of time. It’s drenchingly romantic, filled with great action set pieces, and moves along with the assured direction and pacing of a Michael Curtiz film. It’s also evocative of that time in Hong Kong’s film industry when the movies were groundbreaking in their artistry and almost shameless in their desire to entertain – and they did just that.