A Chinese Ghost Story April 6, 2020
1 Hr., 38 Mins.
itting that the movie be called A Chinese Ghost Story: it evokes the feelings one typically has hearing a well-told tale of the macabre while sitting with a group around a campfire. The film, directed by Ching Siu-Tung and released in 1987, is set a few centuries ago and stars the inimitable Leslie Cheung as Ning Choi-san. Choi-san is a gawky, easily frightened debt collector who, at the beginning of the movie, stops by a
quaint Chinese village to go about his usual duties. Think of him as you would Shaggy of Scooby-Doo fame, or Bob Hope in one of his many horror comedies of the 1940s. He’s so comically meek, it makes your bones hurt.
Low on money and as such unable to afford any of the local hotels, Choi-son soon into his trip resorts to making house in a temple on the outskirts of town. The place is ostensibly abandoned. But a local priest, Yin Chik-ha (Wu Ma), who will eventually become something of a sidekick figure, warns Choi-san ahead of time that the place is haunted. The latter possibility can’t be true, Choi-san rationalizes, so is there really any reason why he shouldn’t take up an opportunity for free housing?
Upon arrival, the whole "abandoned" thing seems false — Choi-san is near-immediately confronted by a catalog of colorful characters. They all act at the fever pitch of animated board-game players. Among them is a striking young woman in a flowing raiment named Nip Siu-sin (Joey Wong). For Choi-san, Siu-sin is corporeal evidence of love at first sight's existence. Choi-san at first is inclined to figure that the temple, contrary to popular belief, is neither vacant nor haunted after all, given none of these people to him resemble what he thinks of when he thinks of ghosts. But then he wakes up the next morning and is completely alone — no evidence anywhere of even recent life existing there.
Choi-san predictably gets to know Siu-sin better in the course of a few evenings; though with increasing familiarity comes the realization that she is indeed a ghost, even if you can kiss her the way you could a person. A Chinese Ghost Story is soon concerned with Choi-san trying to release Siu-sin from the purgatorial spirit world, where she’s being held captive by a Disney villain-like tree demoness (Lau Siu-ming) with a literally mile-long tongue who forces Siu-sin to seduce men so she can swoop in and suck the life out of them. This will go on for an eternity if someone doesn't intervene. This is all pretty dramatic — a life-or-death situation with an otherworldly caveat.
This is a ghostly, genre-bending tale that eventually feels most to us like a farce; it's high-spiritedly written by Yuen Kai Chi and frenetically directed by Ching. It's a zanily realized picture book of a horror movie. Eagerly pivoting from rabid comedy to tender romance to Evil Dead (1981)-like horror to kung-fu action, there’s a pinballishness to it; it never quite settles anyplace because it’s too intent on doing the most. Like its characters, it seems worried that it will run out of time. Yet its way of doing everything all at once without ever really ringing falsely has an addictive quality — we don’t want its muchness to stop.
As quasi-hellacious as its world is, I wanted to live in it — a feeling I guess I wasn’t alone in having since the film got two sequels as well as a 2010s reboot and an animated spinoff. It made folklorish ghost movies feel new again in Hong Kong cinema at the time, too, starting a brief trend in spiritually (no pun intended) similar movies. Even if its initial burst of popularity has settled in the last few decades, rendering it more classic than new-feeling as far as longtime fans are concerned, for a newcomer like myself it still noticeably has immediacy. Just like how even told-to-death, campfire-baiting ghost stories never truly get old if told the right way, movies like A Chinese Ghost Story don’t either. B+