Thursday, June 6, 2013

A Chinese Ghost Story

A Chinese Ghost Story
Director: Ching Siu-Tung
Starring: Leslie Cheung, Joey Wang, Wu Ma

Wikipedia describes A Chinese Ghost Story as a romantic comedy horror film.  Yes.  Agreed.  A Chinese Ghost Story plays fast and loose with the strictures of genre, deciding to be a little bit of everything, albeit a master of none.  If nothing else, A Chinese Ghost Story will entertain (although I highly doubt it will elevate).

The somewhat complicated plot focuses on a lowly tax collector, Ning Tsai-Shen (or at least that was his name in the version I watched, imdb and Wikipedia list a different name for the character played by Cheung).  His work takes him to a town where there is a haunted temple, and he is forced to spend the night there where he encounters a Taoist swordsman (Wu) and later on, a lovely young woman named Nieh Hsiao Tsing (Wang).  Quickly, though, we realize Tsing is a ghost, and later learn that she is shackled to the service of an evil tree monster who forces her to kill wicked men on earth in order to feed on their souls.  When Ning and Tsing fall in love, you’d think the most complicated thing in their way is the fact that he’s mortal and she’s not, but no, the spirits of the underworld are constantly trying to keep their burgeoning romance from getting off the ground.  Not to fear, though, our Taoist swordsman to the rescue!

Before I go any further, a massive tip of the hat to Chip from Tips from Chip for supplying me with the video for this rather elusive entry in 1001 Movies.  So thanks, Chip, couldn’t have seen it without you!

As I was watching the opening credits of A Chinese Ghost Story, I noticed a name.  “Produced by Tsui Hark.”  That sounds familiar.  A quick imdb search, and my stomach plummeted.  Tsui Hark was the director of Once Upon a Time in China, that utter waste of my time.  Is this another giant muddled mess?  Well, to cut a long story short, while A Chinese Ghost Story is definitely a bit muddled, it was more enjoyable – dare I say a great DEAL more enjoyable? – than the poop that is Once Upon a Time in China.  Astonishing, the difference a semblance of a coherent plot manages to make.

There a great number of flaws in A Chinese Ghost Story.  This is definitely a Chinese film made for the Chinese people.  There is a cultural disconnect between this film and the type of film typical American audiences see.  The humor in the film is, frankly, utter crap.  Completely over the top, there is not a single drop of comedy in this film more sophisticated than the basest of The Three Stooges gags.  All the side characters aren’t characters but cartoons walking around making funny noises and saying ridiculous lines.  Frankly, it’s stupid.  And then there’s the soundtrack.  Clearly, the unfortunate aspects of eighties pop silliness were not contained to America, as clearly evidenced by the synthesizer heavy, electronic effects-laden accompaniment.  In a rather spectacular display of cheese, we get a power ballad under a montage of flashback scenes that WE HAD JUST WATCHED.  Yes, I know the history of this couple BECAUSE I WATCHED THIS SCENE NOT FIVE MINUTES AGO.  The power ballad… shudder.  And while overall, I do think the plot is coherent, it’s only just barely so.  It comes dangerously close to flying completely off the track completely on more than one occasion.  

And yet.

Wikipedia’s romantic comedy horror film does not work on the comedic aspect for me – AT ALL – but it works on both the romance angle and the horror angle.  The horror aspects, while perhaps not being legitimately frightening, are distinctly atmospheric.  And, um, can I just say The Evil Dead?  Because clearly, CLEARLY the group behind making this movie was a big fan of Raimi’s earlier film.  In the opening sequence, the one that establishes the danger of our heroine, we get Raimi’s classic POV tracking shot of something that’s racing along the forest ground toward the unwitting victim.  Later on there are stop-motion animated grisly skeletons buried in the cellar of the remote temple, and when Ning encounters them, there is more than a small “cabin in the woods” feeling.  There is flesh that oozes and dissolves and bubbles, again making me think of very specific scenes from Evil Dead, a gigantic deadly magic tongue – yes, tongue – that is pure Raimi, and even the evil tree with branches that come to life to trap its victims is straight from Raimi’s playbook.  Am I a fan of The Evil Dead?  Not particularly, but it’s interesting that a camp classic American horror film from 1981 manages to fairly profoundly influence the production design of a camp classic Chinese horror film from 1987.

Apart from the abundantly clear and fairly massive nod to The Evil Dead, there is a lyricism to the spookiness and romanticism of the rest of the film.  As Ning walks through the woods at night, flooded with fog and blues and Tyndall scattering, the film is beautiful.  As Tsing rises gracefully in the air and unfurls her silky robe and we watch it wave in the wind, the film is gorgeous.  And despite the ill-timed montage of romantic scenes I mentioned earlier, it’s actually pretty sweet watching Tsing and Ning fall in love.  Ning, despite the screenwriters’ best efforts, manages to avoid most of the cartoon grotesquerie that renders the smaller characters unwatchable, and retains a sense of righteousness that doesn’t feel forced.  He’s just a regular guy with a sense of right and wrong who won’t force himself on a random woman he comes across in the woods (and sadly, that right there sets him apart from nearly every other male character in this movie).  This regular guy who is forced to do battle with the demons of the underworld deserves his happy love story.  I was rooting for him, I really was.

While I will definitely admit to A Chinese Ghost Story being more than a little silly, I also rather enjoyed it.  The hero is likeable and not too cartoon-y, the ghost heroine is ten times more badass than the hero, the fight scenes are fun but, importantly, don’t drag on too long, and I latched onto the plight of the central couple very well, which made me root for them and gave me a reason to keep watching.  In short, when you strip away the frills and adornments – the stupid side characters, the pretty awful music, the unnecessary aspects of the plot – there’s a strong central tale that is convincingly romantic and fairly spooky with some cool fight sequences. 

Once Upon a Time in China be damned, I had some fun with this one, its cinematic cousin.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10


  1. You're welcome. Thanks for the shout out.

    It sounds like you liked this one more than I did. It didn't really work for me as a comedy, as a horror film, or as an action film, although it did come the closest on the last one. I had more fun with Peking Opera Blues which has a similar kind of crazy, over the top comedy and action.

    1. I definitely get that. I think I was lucky, in that I was in the right sort of mood for the silliness that is most of this movie, so it jived well. I can understand not enjoying it, though.

      I had no idea what Peking Opera Blues was about. Now that you mention it in reference to this film, I'm kinda looking forward to it!

  2. I completely got the Sam Raimi/Evil Dead vibe from this film, almost as if parts of this were done in homage.

    That said, I have no idea how it ended up on The List. I mean, something like The Devil's Backbone is so much better, has better effects, and is a much more coherent story.

    1. Yes, I noticed your quote on the blog club page for this film was words to that effect. Is this movie necessary? Eh, probably not. I was in the right sort of mood to enjoy it for its silliness and wacko/crazy special effects, though. I haven't seen The Devil's Backbone because I usually won't watch a horror film unless coerced, but its imdb description sounds awesome and the fact that its del Toro makes me intrigued.