By Ed Sum (The Vintage Tempest)
A Chinese Ghost Story (倩女幽魂) was a staple to many a mid 90’s independent theatre’s list of must see Halloween treats and there must be a reason as to why it’s fallen out of favour in recent years. Yes, the effects were cheap and silly to the point of that of Sam Raimi’s classic Evil Dead, and that should not dissuade fans of Asian cinema from forgetting about it. Well, maybe the 2011 remake, which was never as good despite some decent updated effects, but that’s beside the point.
Quite often, fans of horror simply forget what’s out there on the world stage. The world is aflutter with many an urban legend of ghost lore from other countries. It’d be remiss to think that no other cultures are affected by the paranormal. Sometimes that’s because the populace at large are generally hesitant to talk about it, especially in Asian communities despite the fact that cinema says otherwise.
The Japanese have many a tale translated to screen. Some of them have become Criterion classics like Onibaba, House, Kwaidan and Kuroneko. In Hong Kong or Mainland Chinese cinema, not many films stand out like Chinese Ghost Story. It’s surprising this company has not put this trilogy into their line of classics.
In the original 1987 film, producer Tsui Hark and director Ching Siu-tung crafted a wonderful film that was artistically marvellous for its time. It showed how a tax collector Ning-Choi (Leslie Cheung) fell in love with a spirit of a female courtesan, Nip Siu-sin (Joey Wong).
Through a series of misadventures they become soul mates, and that has become the basis of all three films, an animated feature and television series. The tale is circular in the sense that their love for each other is timeless as Buddha. Through the belief of reincarnation, even their future selves find each other again. Although that may seem sappy for an audience of horror fans, the terror comes from the vivid imagination that encompasses Chinese folklore. Demons exist throughout the land and they occupy Nature in varying degrees. With the first film, it lives in a tree and anyone who is unfortunate to be buried near its limbs become automatic servants to this powerful entity. The terror lies in the fact they cannot leave unless the living is willing to move the spirit’s mortal remains away. By rescuing Siu-sin, she is able to reincarnate.
The second film continues Ning’s life. Although he’s parted ways with the warrior-monk, he still needs help when he returns home to find that the Royal Court has become corrupted through spirit possession. It seems the ghosts do not want to leave Ning alone! The human female ally he partners with may well be Siu-Sin’s reincarnated form (played by Wong), but not enough time has passed to allow viewers to make this leap in judgement. They fall in love but the question of whether these souls are one in the same are left subject to interpretation.
By the third film, the boys from the first have reincarnated into the form of two monks, master Bai Yun and disciple Shi Fan, who find terror in their own home court! It seems that no matter what, Siu-sin cannot escape her afterlife. Now reincarnated as Lotus (Joey Wong continues her involvement in this series), even that spirit is forced to live in servitude to another evil tree spirit
The animated movie and television series are independent from the films; they provide new takes to this eternal storyline. The cartoon is very Disneyesque and it looks at reincarnation in a country-wide level. Everyone is destined for better things in their next life. The television is more dramatic. It’s almost like China’s version of Dark Shadows in the way it explores Chinese folklore minus the vampires.
All this fun shows that the Chinese respect and fear the realm of the spirits. Perhaps the reason why these films are not as popular now is that they have run its course and it’s only out of respect to move on. Like ghosts, they will linger as a hauntingly memorable tribute to a time long gone.