1 Hr., 38 Mins.
A Chinese Ghost Story April 6, 2020
host stories are best told, I think, around a campfire, where the storyteller can nimbly move back and forth between dead serious and comic tones. “A Chinese Ghost Story,” from 1987, works so well because it’s evocative of one of those campfire-lit tales, oscillating smoothly from the funny to the genuinely horrific. We respond to it similarly — a little freaked out but more than anything pretty delighted,
excited to tell others about.
The film, directed by Ching Siu-Tung, 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 deferential it makes your bones hurt. The debt-collecting doesn’t much work out for Choi-san (he quickly runs out of money), so out of desperation he decides to make house in a temple on the outskirts of town. The temple is ostensibly abandoned. But a local priest, Yin Chik-ha (Wu Ma), who will eventually become something of a sidekick figure, cautions Choi-san 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 temporary housing?
Upon arrival, Choi-san is confronted by a litany of colorful characters. They all act at the fever pitch of animated board-game players. Choi-san might as well have teleported into a shaken-up snowglobe. Among them is a striking young woman in flowing raiment named Nip Siu-sin (Joey Wong). For Choi-san, Siu-sin is corporeal evidence of the love-at-first-sight thing. Choi-san at first figures that the temple is neither abandoned 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. Suddenly the whole that-place-is-haunted warning has credence.
Choi-san predictably gets to know Siu-sin better in the course of a few evenings It turns out that she is indeed a ghost, though she’s one you can kiss the way you would a person. “A Chinese Ghost Story” is soon concerned with Choi-san releasing Siu-sin from the purgatorial spirit world, where she’s being held captive by a Disney villain-like, genderless tree demoness (Lau Siu-ming) with a literally mile-long tongue who forces Siu-sin to seduce men for her to suck the life out of. This is pretty dramatic — one of the few times a life-or-death situation has an otherworldly kick. But, as high-spiritedly written by Yuen Kai Chi and as frenetically, sometimes phantasmically directed by Ching, “A Chinese Ghost Story” proves itself a zanily realized picture book of a horror movie.
This is a ghostly drama that eventually feels more to us like a farce. Eagerly pivoting from rabid comedy to tender romance to “Evil Dead” (1981)-like horror to kung-fu action, there’s a pinballishness to the movie. It never quite settles anyplace because it’s too intent on doing the most, worried, seemingly, that it’s going to run out of time. 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+