#461: A Chinese Ghost Story I and II
Comedy-horror meets wuxia in this Hong Kong cult classic
Initial release: 1987 (first film), 1990 (second film)
Director: Ching Siu-tung (both films)
Where do I even start with A Chinese Ghost Story? This pair of movies (and a third one in 1991) is just so completely bananas, a whirlwind tour-de-force of absurdity, that trying to write about them like I would most other films feels pointless.
I guess I’ll start with the basics: A Chinese Ghost Story is, as a franchise, the brainchild of legendary Hong Kong filmmaker Tsui Hark, who in 1978 came up with the idea to adapt parts of the 18th-century Chinese novel Strange Tales From A Chinese Studio, inspired by an earlier adaptation he’d seen as a child in 1960 called The Enchanting Shadow. After an initial pitch to produce it as a television show fell through, he began developing it as a film, attracting the attention of Ching Siu-tung, who wanted to collaborate with Tsui. While Ching was in the director’s seat, the first Chinese Ghost Story might better be considered a collaboration — and even that’s somewhat diplomatic, as pretty much every film produced by Film Workshop, Tsui’s production company, was effectively directed by Tsui regardless of who actually was supposed to be director. (Tsui is also infamous for an incident where he locked a cast and crew in the studio for three days to get a sequence done; rumor has it that A Chinese Ghost Story was the film they were making.)
When I was doing research for this review I started to get a pretty good picture of who Tsui Hark is, and I’m beginning to suspect that he may be actually insane. Take a look at his two American directorial credits: Double Team and Knock Off, a pair of Jean-Claude Van Damme flicks directed by Tsui that might be some of the most insane movies ever made, and not just because Dennis Rodman’s in one of them. There’s a surreal quality to his films that makes them instantly identifiable, a chaotic goddamn fever dream that’s more impressionistic than coherent, leaving you reeling and unable to recall much of the plot but you’ll sure as shit remember everything else.
A Chinese Ghost Story — either film — is no different. On paper, the film is about a down-on-his-luck tax collector named Ning Choi-san (the late great Leslie Cheung) being forced to spend the night in an abandoned temple after he finds he can’t afford to stay at the inn, only for the temple to turn out to be haunted by the ghost of a woman. On screen, however, there’s this whole mess about an evil tree spirit enslaving female ghosts, a Taoist ghost hunter (whose introduction to the film is a swordfight already in progress with some other dude randomly spilling into the scene as Ning is just arriving at the temple) and Ning falling in love with one of the ghosts, Nip Siu Sin (Joey Wong, previously a basketball player and model before becoming an actress.) In the sequel, Ning goes home to find that the town has seen better days, is arrested in a case of mistaken identity, escapes, is mistaken for a wise elder by a weird resistance group, and ultimately winds up helping to fight against another evil demon…
I dunno, man, stuff just kinda happens in these movies.
Like, I could give you a blow-by-blow breakdown of the plot, but what would even be the point? You’d have to see these movies for yourself, inject the insanity directly into your eyeballs. We’ve got scenes like Ning having to hold his breath underwater in a tub to hide from Nip’s fellow ghosts while they’re having an argument, multiple scenes where our Taoist ghost hunter shoots fireballs from his hands like a machine gun, a scene in the second film where Ning and another Taoist get into a fight with a giant ghost/demon in an abandoned villa while the Taoist tries to teach him how to use a stop spell, and Ning winds up freezing all three of them by accident; a scene where Ning’s cellmate reveals the tunnel he’s been digging, and when asked why he doesn’t use the tunnel himself he replies “it’s easier to work on my book in here,” the list goes on. It’s bonkers. It’s bananas. It’s crazycakes. It’s absolute fucking madness, complete with Cantonese pop songs (the second film’s theme song actually got pulled from Apple Music in China years later due to thinly-veiled references to the Tiananmen Square Massacre,) unpredictable cinematography, and stellar performances by Cheung (who also starred in both Bride with White Hair films — I actually commented while watching Ghost Story that Cheung sure seems to get a lot of ass in these movies) and Joey Wong, plus Wu Ma and Jacky Cheung (no relation as far as I can tell, though like Leslie he’s also a pop singer) as Taoist ghost hunters.
These films are absurd. That’s all I can sum it down to. There’s a real Evil Dead 2 vibe to them, only with a little less focus on gross-out and more focus on goofball physical comedy. They’re surreal and dreamlike, here to make you laugh more than scare you, and will forever live in the annals of cult Asian film.