Fondly Honouring the Spirits in August with an Animated Chinese Ghost Story

18 Aug

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By Ed Sum (The Vintage Tempest)

The Chinese Ghost Month is well at the mid-way mark, and this season is a time when spirits are said to roam the mortal realm. The gates to this spirit world are open from August 3 to 31 and while we can not see them, perhaps with the third eye awakened, perhaps those sensitive enough to this energy will see all. In the meantime, I’m looking at a fond favourite, A Chinese Ghost Story written and produced by Tsui Hark. I’ve talked about the many itereations of this story on otakunoculture before and the remake the remake at 28DLA.com

The animated version holds the test of time reasonably well. The story looks at the life of Ning, a tax collector, who finds a new love after his former one rejects him over the affections of a better well to do official. Money talks in this ancient world, and just whom Ning works for never does get fully explained. He’s supposedly collecting for the Emperor of China, but in his travels, he (like the live-action films) is a bumbling fool who has no messengers to send the money back to the palace. In his travels, he meets two monks, White Cloud and Ten Miles, who are described (in the translation) as Ghostbusters. Although the term is inaccurate, they are spirit seekers who want to send spirits back to where they belong. Red Beard is their rival.

This film really needs the Blu-ray upgrade and a better translation. Hopefully, Viz Media will consider rereleasing this fond classic. While I can understand the Cantonese track, and I found nuances in the meaning missed in the subtitles. The ideologies remain at least semi-faithful in what the ancient Chinese believed in. Spirits reincarnate. It’s possible to start a new life. One detail I loved is on explaining how memories are lost during the transition from spirit to human again. Those who do not get hit by these hammers have full knowledge of their previous life. Those who do, well — perhaps it’s best that their prior life is forgotten.

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During Ghost Month, I have to wonder if what’s roaming the earth is given a taste of what they once had before being required to return to the other realm? There’s no perfect answer of what really goes on after we die, and only guesswork from those who have experienced out-of-body experiences. In what this animated story present is only one of many possibilities, and it shows that we do not have to be afraid of ghosts. Only those who were bad in life have a higher potential to still be terrible individuals after death. Those of pure heart will get second chances.

In what this animated take gives is a great sense of musical wonder. The daemonic mountain spirit is egotistical and full of pomp; he rules over all the ghosts who lives nearby. He’s the real threat and the song he sings has resonance to a product that contains a few song and dance moments. Essentially, this animation is a very Disney style take of the Chinese mythology. That means there’s a cute side-kick animal who is essentially the comic relief. If more effort was put into turning this film into a proper musical, one could say the release is “Solid Gold.”

3½ Stars out of 5

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