Asiatic tales of the supernatural have often been more visually phantasmagorical than their Western counterparts because of this culture’s lavish history. From its etheric representations on age-old scrolls to modern comics or written fiction, like Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio by Pu Songling, one series of fantasy novels from China has proven to be very popular, Ghost Blows Out the Light turns up the flame and may well outdo the Chinese Ghost Story trilogy from a few decades ago.
This series (Guǐ Chuī Dēng, 鬼吹灯) has spawned eight books since publication in 2006. Very rarely will I regret not knowing how to read a foreign language because I feel I’m only getting half the picture from the two movies — Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe and Mojin: The Lost Legend —made so far, which are based on this series of books. In what I could find online and understand, the films follows Hu Bayi, a retired soldier and his buddy, Wang, as they search this country for its treasures and discover its mysterious past.
Depending on the film, they have a female companion Shirley Yang, who either hinders or helps them. Sadly, with no centralized group of producers guiding the cinema versions, the narrative is all over the map. Not even the same performers play the leads. When the two films were released only months apart in 2015, one in September and the second in December, the issue is not just with the fact they do not have a measure of continuity. The second film saw limited release in North America whereas the first did not.
However, true to the series title, these tomb plunderers have to abide by a code and the movies are somewhat linked according to tradition — upon entry to a crypt, a thief respects the dead as much as those who created the mausoleum. As a sign of respect, they place a candle in the southeast corner and light it. Should it blow out, the dead does not want these people here or like the idea of having their property removed. Anything moved gets restored to their proper place. If only such superstition and respect for the dead existed in Egypt, more of that culture’s past might have been preserved!
The author, Tian Xia Bachang (天下霸唱), crafted this series based on his knowledge of Chinese folklore and he must have made a fortune selling the movie-rights to various production companies in China. He’s still penning stories. A search on Amazon shows he’s writing a Ghost Lamp series. Sadly, no translation looks to be forthcoming for an international audience to read, but only time will tell if the second film, Mojin, makes roads to more movie houses in North America to play. This film saw very limited distribution and it had all the fun of The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emporer meets Lara Croft, Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life but done right. If Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid is any indication, the appetite from Chinese people living abroad for entertainment from their native country is huge. More films should get a wider distribution instead of being limited engagements.
China has the budget and production house capabilities to pull off Hollywood caliber material. Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe has a Lovecraftian vibe even though the story is credited as adapted from “Jingue City,” from the novel in volume four (I assume). But for viewers wondering what H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness can look like, this film succeeds at visualizing both. Terrors get unleashed during an archaeological expedition at Mount Kun Lan, and Hu is the only survivor. As he tries to make sense out of his ordeal, the truths he discovers are mind shattering. Mankind’s origins hails from elsewhere and factors into certain individuals’ importance. At the same time, a demon dog (a Hound of Tindalos perhaps) is patrolling the aether as though searching for someone.
This first movie starts off strong and maintains interest in a late 70s China and the red flavour remains even through to the second film. Although not meant to be a sequel, the three heroes here are actually a team, and which story it takes inspiration from is not as apparent. In this later time, tomb raiding is not as lucrative. They have retired and relocated to New York to start again. Two of the three become peddlers of stolen antiquities and that leads them to trouble. However, a mysterious businesswoman Ying Caihong has other plans and tries to convince them to get back to tomb robbing. When a person from Hu’s past is rumoured to be alive, he agrees to head to a site rumoured to have a rare flower capable of bringing the dead back to life.
These two films has another common trait. Hu has feelings for Shirley and the tales consider the lengths he will take to insure her survival.
While I’m uncertain how many tales exists per Ghost Blows Out the Light volume in the published works, I’m hooked. The movies are not entirely perfect because it packs a lot of action over the exposition to develop the relationships, but I hope more will get made. I looked at the titles of the set and they only tease at further dangers to come. Hu needs to arm himself better than Ash from Evil Dead if he’s to survive to old age!
- The Fine Ancient City
- The Supernatural of Longling Grotto / Dragon Cave Ridge
- The Insect Valley in Kunming / Yunnanozoon Valley
- The Magical Palace in Kunlun Mountain
- The Weasel Tomb
- The Destination of the South China Sea
- Nuqing County of Xiangxi
- Gorge Coffin Hill