Movie Review: A Chinese Ghost Story

Directed by Sui-Tung Ching
Starring Leslie CHeung, Joey Wang, Wu Ma, Wai Lam, Sui-Ming Lau, Zhilun Xue

In the early ‘90s, I was really getting into the Hong Kong action flicks that were just starting to break out here in the underground market, especially the works of John Woo. Around that time, there was a British TV show called Incredibly Strange Film Show (1989-1989), hosted by Jonathan Ross who would interview strange directors and characters from cult and exploitation films, such as Doris Wishman, Russ Myer, Ray Dennis Steckler, and Ted V. Mikels. On one of these episodes, he talked to Tsui Hark, producer of a lot of the early John Woo films, showing clips from the different titles he’s produced or directed. During this montage, they showed some scenes that just blew me away. It had flying heads, a guy with a HUGE tongue, beautiful ghosts, and things I had never seen before. These were from A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), and I knew I had to find to see if it was as amazing as the short clips I saw.

After a lot of searching, I was able to come across a copy from a small Asian video store in Chicago, one that were renting pretty much bootleg VHS copies, usually with either no label or only Chinese. The first copy I got didn’t even have subtitles, but it didn’t stop me from being entranced by this incredible movie.

The basic story is about a young man who falls in love with a young woman, who unbeknownst to him, is not only a ghost, but one who is trapped by her master, a powerful tree demon, that uses his long tongue to burrow into helpless men and suck out their life essence. The beautiful ghost is used to lure men and keep them busy with the promise of love until their master shows up to feed. While the young man doesn’t realize right away that this girl is in fact a ghost, he tries to protect her from the dangers of the woods, when in fact, she is one of those dangers. The ghost starts to fall for him, even letting him escape from her master, which means punishment for her. Hooking up with an old crazy Taoist monk, who has abandoned mankind to fight demons, they try to free the ghost from her imprisonment. Before it’s over, we’ve seen an incredible display of wire stunts, sword fighting, stop-motion zombies, and some other unworldly creatures, the likes you’ve never seen before.

The story was somewhat based on of the 17th century fables from Pu Songling’s collection Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, which were similar to Grimms’ Fairy Tales. What makes this different is that not only does it have a very powerful story about love and lost, and what one will do for that love, but it is filled with an incredible array of monsters, demons, ghosts, zombies, ones that are very unfamiliar with western audiences. When is the last time you’ve seen a tree demon that has a huge tongue that can shoot out of its human looking mouth, stretching out to wrap around trees, snapping them like they were toothpicks? Or seeing a bunch of bodiless heads flying towards someone, attacking, and biting them?   

Director Sui-Tung Ching, who was also the martial arts coordinator here, came from that background, working as either a stunt coordinator, fighting instruction, or action director. While Hark might be behind the look and style of the film, I believe the director is the reason it works as well as it does, with all the sword fighting, jumping and flying through the air. But no matter who was behind it, there are so many sequences that are just beautiful pieces of cinema. When we first meet the ghost, played by Joey Wang, seeing her face briefly through an open door, with the haunting voice on the soundtrack, one can see why thousands of fans fell in love with her. There is a scene where Leslie Cheung, our hero, is hiding from Wang’s master and the other ghosts, inside of a huge bath. To keep him from coming up and being seen, she throws off her robe and goes underwater, kissing Cheung, as if giving him the air he needs to breath while he stays under. It is an amazing shot and so well done. The whole film is just filled with this cinematic beauty, making you really appreciate the style of the picture.

Cheung plays as our hero, Ling Choi San, an accountant off to a village to collect some debts. Along the way, debt records being ruined due to the rain, he becomes sort of stranded there. Since he has no money for lodging, he ends up at a deserted Orchid Temple, which because it is said to be haunted, it wouldn’t cost him anything. Well, any money, that is. It is there he first meets up with the angelic Wang (real name Tsu-hsien Wang) who plays Lip Siu Sin, the ghost that is trapped in this afterlife to do her master’s bidding. Cheung had become a huge star in Hong Kong, first as a singer and then later as an actor, appearing in both of John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow films, as well as films like The Bride with White Hair and it’s sequel. He would also return for A Chinese Ghost Story II, but that is for another review.

Now, I would like to think that all the action, monsters, sword-fighting, and everything else in this movie is what made me fall in love with it, but I think a big part of it was because of Joey Wang. I was entranced with her just as much as Cheung’s character was in the movie. Not sure if it was just her, or the soundtrack from the film, or just how she was filmed but I immediately would seek out other films if she was in. Wang started out as a model, becoming a very popular one, before she moved into acting in the early ‘80s. This film was such a huge success that not only did it spawn a bunch of similar themed titles, but it also kind of typecast Wang into playing ghost characters! The first time I saw her in a non-period piece, Jackie Chan’s City Hunter (1993), it threw me for a loop!

Wu Ma plays the Taoist monk who has dedicated his life to fighting the evils of the world and gets caught up in this love affair between this innocent young man and the ghost. Ma was a staple to the Hong Kong industry, appearing in close to 300 films. He worked so much that in some years, he would appear in over 20 titles alone! He was films like the Mr. Vampire film series, to other Tsui Hark classics like Peking Opera Blues (1986), as well as being in a lot of Jackie Chan films. He was 45 years old when he appeared in A Chinese Ghost Story and just amazes me how agile and talented this guy was. So much fun to watch.

The film was a huge success over in Hong Kong, receiving 10 nominations in the Hong Kong Film Awards (their equivalent to our Oscars), including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress. Unfortunately, it only took home awards for Best Art Direction, Best Original Film Score, and Best Original Film Song.

If you’re looking for an introduction to Hong Kong action/horror, I don’t think you could pick a better title to start with, other than the fact that this still remains one of my favorites and has never been topped. So fair warning! They would go on to make two official sequels, both starring Joey Wang, but as different characters. Now this is where it can get confusing. A Chinese Ghost Story II (1990) is a direct sequel to the first one, with Leslie Cheung also returning, but Joey Wang doesn’t play a ghost, though Cheung falls in love with her because he thinks it is the same girl from the first one reincarnated. A Chinese Ghost Story III (1991), takes place one hundred years after the first movie, where the tree demon with the big tongue comes back from its tomb that it was locked away in at the end of the first one. All three were directed Sui-Tung Ching and produced by Tsui Hark. I would honestly recommend all three films.

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