[Welcome to Peter’s Kung Fu Corner: a monthly column dedicated to retrospectives on the martial arts films I grew up watching. We’ll be covering all kinds of Hong Kong action films from Bruce Lee all the way to Joseph Kuo. Get ready to be introduced to some weird, wacky, and utterly badass films.]
This being the second year of me writing monthly kung fu columns, I wanted to make it a tradition to talk about spooky films in October. Halloween is kind of a nothing holiday, but it does put a spotlight on the otherwise overlooked horror genre. With Halloween Kills making up a huge bulk of the discussion this year, why don’t we instead focus on one of the most overlooked Hong Kong horror films I can think of? Mr. Vampire might be a stone-cold classic, but I’m absolutely in love with A Chinese Ghost Story.
The very first film I saw with the legendary Leslie Cheung, A Chinese Ghost Story might seem esoteric to those not familiar with Hong Kong action. Taking more inspiration from the wuxia genre than kung fu, it does nothing to familiarize its viewers with Chinese folklore surrounding the undead and ghosts. If you’re unaware of how those things work, you might view the film as overly goofy and nonsensical. Despite that, the very core of the movie doesn’t rely too heavily on these concepts to weave its tale.
Beginning with a breathtaking scene where a man and woman are getting busy with each other, the mood quickly turns sinister as some off-screen threat devours the man. We then shift to our main hero, Ning Choi-San (Cheung), wandering through the countryside on an uncertain mission. Accompanied to a rather poetic song sung by Cheung, it does everything to set the tone for the film. While certainly something of a darker tale, this film isn’t without comedy of both the visual and slapstick variety.
Choi-San is a debt collector that is rather inefficient at his job. His journey leads him to a rural town where he needs to gather money from a restaurant owner. With some earlier rain having ruined his ledger, Choi-San is shooed out of the building and is forced to find refuge somewhere that is cheap…preferably free. This leads him on a course towards Orchid Temple, a famously haunted building that no one returns from alive.
During all of this, Cheung gives a performance that is utterly enchanting. Completely committed to his role, he really does sell the idea that Choi-San is a bumbling fool with a kind heart. Absolutely unmotivated by a desire for riches, Choi-San does his best to reason with the restaurant owner and even talks to a few of the locals about their plight. The funniest bit, however, comes when he learns of Orchid Temple. All of the citizens suddenly stop and listen intently before turning their backs when Choi-San looks behind him. It continues a few times and almost looks like a Simpsons gag (though, curiously, this film would release a few years before the eternal show).
With no real alternative, Choi-San makes the trek through the woods to this mysterious temple and barely makes it through with his life. When he does eventually reach its doors, he stumbles into a battle between a Taoist priest named Yin-Chik-Ha (Wu Ma) and a longtime rival. After coming to a stalemate and nearly skewering Choi-San, our hero gives some words of encouragement to lay down weapons and fight the evils of this world with love. Certainly, a bit melodramatic, but it foreshadows what is to come next.
Yin reluctantly lets Choi-San stay at the temple, but warns him that things aren’t what they seem. Not particularly interested in Yin’s story, Choi-San gets ready for sleep before he hears a hauntingly beautiful voice coming from the distance. Following it to a secluded hut on the river, we get reacquainted with the lovely woman from the beginning of the film that had sent a man to his death. Revealed to be Nieh Hsiao-Chien (Joey Wong), Choi-San is unaware of her existence as a ghost.
As we eventually learn, Hsiao-Chien has been cursed with stealing the souls of men to feed a powerful deity known as the Old Evil (Lau Siu-Ming). Initially, she assumes Choi-San will be lustful and handsy like everyone else, but he shows a completely different side to humanity than Hsiao-Chien has ever seen. Lured more by her voice than her beauty, he asks questions about her origin and wonders if she needs help finding shelter. He also rebukes her advances, leading her to realize this man is innocent.
Not wishing to lure him to his death, she sends him off and tells him never to return. With that, we now have the inciting incident for Choi-San’s struggle that will see him fall in love with this heavenly ghost. Yeah, A Chinese Ghost Story is actually a romantic comedy. Go figure.
I won’t recap the rest of the plot as you absolutely should watch this film, but there’s more to talk about than simply plotline and character development. The thing that always stuck with me over the years is how ridiculously beautiful this movie is. Produced by the legendary Tsui Hark (who would later go on to direct Once Upon a Time in China), A Chinese Ghost Story looks like a painting in practically every scene. There is a tremendous amount of production put into even the smallest things with lots of dust and papers flying when moments get intense and close-ups used to punctuate the intimacy that Choi-San and Hsiao-Chien feel with each other.
Accompanying this visual feast is an absolutely outstanding soundtrack. Composed by Romero Diaz and James Wong, you could say that music does the heavy lifting for propelling this film beyond simply being good into an all-time classic. Mixing traditional Chinese instruments with synthesizers, the sound is unlike anything heard in its era. At times, I get flashbacks to the N64 era and Nintendo’s wacky sound chip on that platform. It has a calming vibe when called for and a bombastic one when the action picks up.
There isn’t much in the way of action throughout the film, but the finale does cap things off with a large-scale battle. As I said before, A Chinese Ghost Story is more of a wuxia film, so you can expect sword fighting and lots of flying around. With the plot handling supernatural elements, any pretense of reality is thrown out the window. We’re given moments where Yin will be blasting beams out of his hands and heads will roll across the ground after being sliced off. It’s wild but certainly fits the campy atmosphere on display.
It all feeds into the comedy, as well. This was the one thing I forgot over the years as the general atmosphere is what keeps A Chinese Ghost Story in my memories. I’m drawn in by the mystique and captivated by the love story, but the comedy makes the moments between brawls and exposition go by briskly. It sometimes leans into toilet humor, but it never fails to remind you that real life can be stranger than fiction. We, as humans, can go from being vicious to stupid at the drop of a dime. More than anything, that range of emotions is what makes us who we are.
As I write this out, I also realize that is probably an intentional reading of the material. The plot eventually reveals that Hsiao-Chien wishes to become human again and free herself from the servitude of the Old Evil. On the other hand, Yin’s destructive existence hunting ghosts has made him desire to be dead and wander the afterlife. Due to their experiences, the two characters are basically the Yin and Yang of each other and it takes the kind heart of Choi-San to pull them out of their misery.
I could be off base here, but without being a true scholar of Chinese folklore, I can only make assumptions. Even if my reading is wrong, I can tell you with certainty that A Chinese Ghost Story is an absolute classic. It definitely has a few areas where some editing could help -such as having a real conclusion-, but it’s no surprise that the success of this movie led to a duo of sequels, an animated series, and a remake in 2011 that completely misses the point.
You can actually watch that remake on Netflix, but I wouldn’t recommend it. (Ed Note: As it so happens, the remake was removed from Netflix a day or so before I wrote this. Go figure. You still shouldn’t watch it.)
None of those follow-ups can really compare to the original, but I can’t blame director Ching Siu-Tung from trying to recapture that lightning in a bottle. Decades later, I’m still utterly enchanted by what this film is and how it progresses. Unlike any film I’ve covered in this column before, it remains unique despite how influential it went on to be.
We may never have another film like A Chinese Ghost Story, but that’s okay. Sometimes when the stars align perfectly, you get a classic like this that lives on well beyond its time. It’s a shame the movie isn’t more readily available, but I implore everyone to seek it out in some fashion. If you have the means, you won’t regret taking the time to check this out.
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