Thursday, June 23, 2011

Review – A Chinese Ghost Story

June 23, 2011

A Chinese Ghost Story – Hong Kong, 1987

Ching Siu Tung’s A Chinese Ghost Story takes place in a world in which a wandering swordsman just happens to stumble upon a beautiful young woman bathing herself in a river. Their meeting appears to be by design, for she is eyeing him in a way that suggests anything but modest and purity. The swordsman, who should perhaps know better, forgets that this is not the behavior one usually finds in a woman from this part of town and wastes no time in joining her in the river, where the two of them soon lose themselves in the moment. The effort is his undoing, for it weakens him greatly and allows an evil Tree Devil to sneak up upon him and steal his longevity, without which he is reduced to nothing more than a grey skeleton that completely melts if a bright light happens to hit it. Oh, I forgot to mention that the woman is a ghost, and the Tree Devil has the power to make her do this sort of things simply because she was buried under him. If that’s not strange enough for you, the film is set to a pop soundtrack despite being a period piece, and one of the main characters is a wise swordsman who loves drinking and slaying ghosts and who at one point in the film breaks into what can perhaps only be described as a “swordsman rap” for apparently no other reason than to allow the character to inform the audience that he “seeks his own way.” When I described all of this to my girlfriend, a young woman who understands Asian culture much more than I do, her facial expression never matched the incredulous look that appeared on my face as I was relaying it to her. “That’s right” she said in a rather nonchalant manner that suggested that the actions depicted in the film were practically everyday occurrences. The lesson here: Sometimes you just have to go with it.

A Chinese Ghost Story is one of those Hong Kong films that combines genres in a way that perhaps few films from other countries can without being labeled B-films and relegated to midnight screenings. It is part love story, part erotic comedy, and part period horror film. That it succeeds for the most part is a pretty impressive feat. The film’s central character is Ning Tsai-shen (Leslie Cheung), a wandering bill collector who could easily have appeared in a slapstick comedy in the twenties or thirties. In his first scene, he opens an umbrella that is so worn out that it provides very little relief from the storm raging around him. Cheung’s deadpan look at the camera and physical pratfalls are reminiscent of the kind one finds in Buster Keaton films. That Cheung could also play characters like Cheng Dieyi in Farewell My Concubine just goes to show the range of this man’s talents.

Through a series of errors and simple bad luck, Ning finds himself having to seek shelter at the Lan Ro Temple. Just the mention of this place is enough to get locals chattering, and one man even runs after Ning in order to measure him - for a coffin. On the way to the temple, Ning is pursued by a pack of wolves who eyes glow an eerie yellow, and upon arrival, he finds himself literally in the middle of a duel between two bickering swordsman out to prove which one of them is better. That honor eventually falls to an old monk named Yin (Wo Ma), who in a rather unpleasant way tells Ning to keep moving. He doesn’t of course, and the next day, he finds himself irresistibly drawn to the intoxicating sound of a lute. Behind it sits the very beauty who lures men to their doom, Nieh Hsiao-tsing (Joey Wang). And yet, Ning is spared the men’s fate primarily because of his naiveté when it comes to women. It seems Ning is more likely to be concerned about a woman catching cold when she shows him her shoulder than to recognize her act as flirtation. The trait makes him somewhat adorable to Nieh. Eventually, the two fall in love, and Ning vows to save her from the Tree Devil. The ensuing adventure is as thrilling as it is confounding, involving not only a trip to the Netherworld but also an escape from a forest that seems intent on preventing them from fulfilling their mission.

The humor in the film does not always work, which may be a result of both the passage of time and the film’s occasional poorly translated subtitles. In fact, there was more than one occasion when what appeared in the subtitles could hardly be described as English. And there’s a running joke involving a couple of corpses trying to get their dusty hands on Ning that has not aged well, perhaps as a result of the fact that the corpses appear only slightly more realistic than the alien spaceships in an Ed Wood film.

What does work extremely well in the film is the relationship between Ning and Nieh. I am often critical of films that portray true love as developing over a rather short time frame. However, the bond that forms between Ning and Nieh is surprisingly believable. It starts off as mere curiosity. Who is this stunningly beautiful woman playing the lute? Who is this sweet fool who seems oblivious to my advances? The curiosity grows to interest and then it becomes so strong that they are willing to risk everything for the other. Along the way, we also witness Ning transform from a weak pushover to a man of great courage and determination, and the journey is rather convincing.

I don’t claim to understand everything that occurs in A Chinese Ghost Story. Much of what takes place after the story moves to the Netherworld requires an understanding of Chinese folklore that I simply do not possess, so when a number of female heads flew out of the Dark Lord’s overcoat, I had no idea what was going on. The characters do though, and if they accept the existence of tree devils, dark lords and ghosts that can be injured by incidental head butts, perhaps we should, too. It’s just more fun that way. (on Blu-ray in Region A)

3 and a half stars

*A Chinese Ghost Story is in Cantonese with occasionally incorrect English subtitles.

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