By Ed Sum
(The Vintage Tempest)
Ghost Month will reach its perigee on August 15th. At the Hungry Ghost Festival (盂兰盆节), these once human souls are permitted to visit the living world and some may visit their descendents to see how they are doing. On this day, we venerate them with happiness and acknowledge their existence. We save the first row in any performance venue for them to sit there. Anyone who tries may well feel a chill!
This time of the year is a different sort of Halloween. As for what believers can do in preparation is to beware of certain practices lest the spirit attaches itself. This can range from avoiding wearing clothing that is red or black to not killing insects crawling around–they may be someone’s grandparents reincarnated. The best thing to do with the latter is to catch and release the critter outside.
Superstitions aside, some fans of horror cinema may opt to get into the mood. Instead of scaring ourselves silly, we may opt to look at supernatural comedies. My choices have to fit the criteria of how the spirit world interacts with reality. Instead of a top five, I have six on my list. In my culture, we consider this number lucky. Amongst my favourites that are distinctly Asian and PG-13 in tone are:
Tsui Hark’s A Chinese Ghost Story (1995)
This animated version is a youth-minded (and very Walt Disney) take of the original live-action films. It’s not to say the 1993-53 work is bad–these films are its own world and the cartoon did what the producers could not cover and that’s to hammer (literally) themesa of resurrection and how love can be eternal in one go. The work is very colourful, and this was one time I did not mind seeing the hero Ning have a lively animal companion save the day.
Plus, the musical extravaganzas in this work is very memorable! They even put a few spectacles created by the House of Mouse to shame. After seeing this film for the first time, I knew I had to own the album and listen to it to death.
Encounters of the Spooky Kind (1980)
Fans of Sammo Hung will dig his breakout work which defines the subgenre of ghostly cinema from China. where this actor (as Bold Cheung) is confronting the undead. More zombies are creeping about than ghosts, but the film begins hilariously enough with two spirits arguing over which of the two should possess Bold Cheung (Hung) and the misadventures he has along the way.
A sequel was made. Sadly, it’s not connected to the first film.
Spirited Away (2001)
Hayao Miyazaki‘s cautionary tale is can be interpreted as an Orphic tale. Instead of following this tragic Greek tale in all its beats, it’s more about a journey of discovery–of trying to understand the inner self and realizing change is required. Sen must learn how to adapt. Not all the spirits she encounters are willing to help.
Sisily 2 km (To Catch a Virgin Ghost) (2004)
No sexual implications are implied with this film from South Korea. Instead, it’s about Seok-tae looking to do what’s right. he stole from thieves who got a fortune in diamonds. He’s hiding out in what may be a ghost town and he finds locals willing to protect him. In the only operational house, he encounters a ghost and she is not your typical malicious type. Her death is sad, and her personality never changed. Hints of a forbidden romance is hinted at and because of this, she and the villagers are willing to help.
As for the gang looking for Seok, they do not know what they’re in for! This film doesn’t depend on fancy effects to get the scares on. Despite the lack of a fear factor, this film is unique for showing how two worlds can and cannot get along.
The Fake Ghost Catchers (1982)
No matter how hard the trio in Ghost Adventures tries, they will never be the Three Stooges. Anyone who knows what The Shaw Brothers represent to Chinese cinema may well scratch their heads at how kung fu and ghosts can go hand in hand. It makes for some crazy and innovative set pieces when mortals have to fight the undead!
When Bao (Hsiao Hou) quits his job as an assistant to a fake medium and is hired to aid a female ghost flee another supernatural suitor, just who is being chased by whom (in the living and the dead world) gets crazy. This other entity thinks he can still make a bride out of her in the afterlife. I liken the laughs to the antics of the Marx Brothers, but let’s just say the hilarity is more fully understood for those fluent in Cantonese (or find a subtitled version of this film). We even see some of the classic superstitions in use here, like how ghosts prefer to hide under an umbrella. Spirits shun the sunlight, and this cover is the only way they can travel during the day.
Out of the Dark (1995)
Stephen Chow, the King of Asian Comedy, made a horror film and it’s a strange brew to say the least. It has it’s supposedly gory moments and I feel it’s no worse than what people see in Evil Dead 2. This movie becomes self-aware at times, and is worth a look for it’s take on how people in modern day China looks at ghosts.
Leo (Chow) is the main protagonist in this work and he can talk to ghosts. When an apartment building is haunted by more than one previous resident who died of mysterious circumstances, the attempt to cleanse the place can only lead the gang he recruits to self doubt. Toilet humour and strangeness aside, this film is a must for fans of this director’s work.