Director: Tony Siu-Tung Ching
By Roderick Heath
Deep within the tangled growth of a dark forest lies an ancient ruin, a place where lost or weary travellers might find a place to rest for the night. But in the glow of moonlight, a mysterious and beautiful female emerges from the shadows. She approaches with seductive, otherworldly tenderness, and the traveller, stunned and smitten, can only submit, but at the peril of their soul, as they graze the boundaries of the liminal and fall in love with an emanation from beyond.
You know where this is going, because it’s the basic outline of dozens upon dozens of ghost stories. It’s a simple narrative that exploits a kind of idle masculine fantasy, charging it with warning and delineating the boundaries of taboo through the image of the death-dealing temptress and the evocation of evil in a place cordoned off by legend to commemorate some forgotten travesty of history and invested over time with fetid psychological symbolism. Mario Bava’s La Maschera del Demonio (1960) and Terence Fisher’s The Gorgon (1964) are some Western film variations; Eastern takes include episodes in Masaki Kobayashi’s Kaidan (1964) and Kaneto Shindo’s Kuroneko (1968).
Tony Siu-Tung Ching’s variation, based on a novel by Songling Pu, is something different—a crossbreed of this Gothic-flavoured nightmare scenario with the high-flying, reality-bending action of wu xia, the meat-and-potato genre of Chinese cinema. Blends of supernatural and mythical drama with swashbuckling exploits are fairly common in wu xia, and in the annals of Hong Kong action film. Tsui Hark’s canonical fantasy action work Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1982) and Lau Kun Wai’s nutty Mr. Vampire (1985) did it before Ching, as the Bride with White Hair diptych would afterwards. Ching is one of Hong Kong cinema’s most employed stunt and action choreographers, but he has maintained a directing career as well, with the three entries in his A Chinese Ghost Story series the most famous.
The grandmaster of Hong Kong cinema’s international emergence in the 1960s, King Hu, had experimented with melding spirituality and action and had filmed another Songling Pu story as the epic A Touch of Zen (1972). The first episode of Ching’s take was produced by Hark, and the imprint of that master’s rocket-paced, breathless sensibility is all over Ching’s work. But there is a delicate, but fervent romantic streak counterpointing the ebullience in Ching’s first two terrific films (the third is generally regarded as a flat retread of the first and lacks two important actors) helps to mark out A Chinese Ghost Story I & II as gems of 1980s Hong Kong cinema and that distinguishes Ching’s sensibility, even in later, blander work like The Empress and the Warriors (2008) and The Sorcerer and the White Snake (2011). Ching’s cleverest tweaks to the old mythos was to transform the ghostly female figure from agent of death to pawn struggling for freedom, and uncover an element of dreamy longing and rebellion against the oppressive nature of social norms.
The intensely rhythmic opening evokes fetishistic, erotic qualities, a swooning succession of wind-driven autumnal leaves, drenched moonlight, dangling silks, burning candles, hazy nocturnal light, breathily suggested sensuality, and exposed flesh, as a young taxman is seduced by a spectral woman. The bells on the anklet of Tsiao-Tsing Nieh (Joey Tsu-hsien Wang) ring when locked in the folds of love, summoning an awful thing from the woods to launch itself upon the man she pretends to embrace but, in fact, holds as prey. Destined to encounter these supernatural emissaries is a young tax collector, Ning Choi Sin (the lamented, ever-charming Leslie Cheung), who passes through a regional city. Law and order there are kept by an incompetent, overeager gendarmerie who assume everyone running must be a wanted criminal. Ning is beset by multiple humiliations as a callow youth playing the one official everyone wants to avoid, without horse or funds to buy him a dry place to sleep for the night. When he tries to collect taxes from one tavern keeper, he finds that rain has rendered all of the entries in his record book illegible.
Penniless, Ning asks where he might spend a sheltered night. He is directed to the ruined Lan Ro Temple by townsfolk whose murmuring disquiet at his obliviousness evokes a trillion horror movie peasants. Ching turns canard into satirical coup as Ning keeps pausing and glancing back over his shoulder at the crowd, who all cease rhubarbing and play dumb until he starts off again. He reaches the long-abandoned temple deep in the woods and straddling a lake, bathed in blue moonlight and fog and swirling leaves. Ning is chased by wolves, which stop at the threshold, and is then caught between two super-talented martial arts warriors battling in the grounds of the temple. The frighteningly brilliant Taoist warrior-monk Yin Chek Hsia (Ma Wu) duels with his long-time challenger Hsia-hou (Wai Lam), who’s determined to best the monk but has never succeeded. Poised uncomfortably between their sword points, Ning spouts desperate pacifications: “Love will conquer the world! Love is a powerful weapon!” Hsia-hou stalks off whilst Yin, who’s holed up at the temple trying to hide from a world of such competitive men, tells Ning to leave him alone. Hsia-hou comes across Tsiao-Tsing bathing in a river and tries to seduce her, leading to his exsanguinating death by the mysterious monster. When Yin comes in search of him, he’s attacked by Hsia-hou’s withered zombie remnant.
The Taoist destroys the zombie with magic, whilst Ning spends the night in a temple wing filled with other zombies who, despite his proximity, keep failing in their attempts to catch the oblivious taxman. Ning is drawn out of the temple by the strains of an instrument being plucked in the temple grounds: he finds the musician is Tsiao-Tsing, lustrously beautiful and hauntingly melancholic. With his mixture of bumbling well-meaning and innocence, Ning makes the lady fall in love with him. Tsiao-Tsing has a secret, however, that is no small lover’s hindrance: she’s actually the ghost of a murdered woman whose father was also killed before he could properly bury her and perform the necessary rituals to help her become reincarnated. Now she’s in thrall to a demon that can alternate between the forms of a tree monster, with an enormously long tongue, and an androgynous human overlord with a retinue of malevolent ghost-women. The demon is planning to wed Tsiao-Tsing to its evil overlord, Lord Dark, in the netherworld because, as Yin says in the film’s most pertinent line, “Spirits use each other, just like people.” The centrality of the romantic passion between Ning and Tsiao-Tsing enriches A Chinese Ghost Story enormously without ever slowing the film’s breakneck pacing or giddy inventiveness.
A Chinese Ghost Story, a pinnacle of Hong Kong film, also represents in turn an exemplar of a showbiz ethic, one that aims to offer a variety of entertainment, shifting from thunderous action to scares to romantic melodrama to slapstick comedy to musical numbers, without fatal tonal uncertainty or narrative diffusion. This replicated a presumption which Hollywood filmmaking once accepted but since abandoned in favour of focus-grouped niche markets, kept alive rather in the mass-audience-serving style of Hong Kong film and Bollywood. A Chinese Ghost Story readily includes all these elements, including breaks for song numbers. Both episodes are loaded with horror-movie tropes, but Ching quickly reveals his love for silent comedy, channeling the influence of Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd, always well-remembered Hollywood icons in Hong Kong film, in Ning’s beleaguered but hardy approach to the hilariously overdrawn problems life keeps throwing his way. Ching’s intricate staging of comedy situations could become silly if they weren’t handled with deft invention and timing, qualities that work hand in hand with wu xia’s emphasis on precise physical skill and wit. In his first appearance, Ning tries to eat a dumpling that proves so hard it can crack rocks. A later comic bit turns into a miniature epic of taboo-grazing and suspense-mongering mixed with low comedy as Tsiao-Tsing hides Ning from the demon and her ghost-slaves when they come to visit her in the temple. She forces him into her bath to hide under the water, doing everything in her power to keep one of the more curious ghosts from looking into the bath, including breathing water into his lungs via a kiss and finally diving in and sitting on top of the increasingly breathless bureaucrat. Ching delights here in dodging around the usually prim behaviour in popular Chinese cinema whilst not breaking the rules. The comedic and suspense elements dovetail beautifully in a climactic moment as Ning tries to climb a ladder even as it’s being eaten by the monster, thus climbing frantically to nowhere.
A Chinese Ghost Story is, in familiar fashion, partly the tale of Ning’s maturation. As he begins to learn how to make his way in the world, he hits upon the bright idea of faking all of the erased entries in his ledger and successfully intimidates debtors into paying up. Ning’s true rite of passage is doing battle with evil, of course, a labour in which he’s not greatly talented or effective, but he transcends himself through the strength of his ardour. Tsiao-Tsing saves him several times with her supernatural powers, and she and Yin take on most of the action sequences. Deeply knowledgeable in the occult and supernatural warfare, Yin uses the paraphernalia of his religion and black magic as well as martial arts prowess to battle evil, and chases spirits through into the netherworld. Yin’s formidable gifts and cold capacity to recognise and take out ghost women makes him an oddball blend of the familiar variety of wu xia hero—a warrior who has mastered arts both physical and spiritual, giving them herculean skill and poise—mixed with the Van Helsing-esque variety of evil-battling savant, with overtones of a third tradition linked to both: the superhero. Yin is mistaken at first for a murderer by Ning, who sees him decapitate one of the tree demon’s ghostly underlings and glimpses his face on a wanted poster, which proves to be the image of Yin’s outlaw brother. The young bureaucrat tries to report Yin to the local magistrate, who is so timorous that he’s happy to take any excuse to ignore the problems posed by Lan Ro Temple, striking a note of satire over the ostriches and puppet masters of politics that extends more cogently into the sequel. Soon enough, however, Ning and Yin form a team, and Yin abruptly starts tearfully confessing how he’s let his anger over being confronted by challengers alienate him from humanity.
The very title A Chinese Ghost Story conflates parochial qualities with sarcasm. The story is grounded in the peculiarities of Chinese folklore and the accumulation of religious and spiritual concepts from multiple cultural influences, ineffably different to European precepts and yet subject to the same historical patterns. Ching presents a world where the incorporeal and earthly can meet and shift between states almost at will. The raw symbolic qualities of ghostliness, as embodiments of loss, of unfulfilled responsibility towards the dead, of fear of the unknown, and other permeable emotions that dog us, are considered as part of the texture of everyday existence. The narrative duel pits abstracted good against evil, but each is associated with different levels of religious belief and concomitant social ideas. The primal undertow of animism, associated with sacrifice and an oppressive, ancient, feudal/patriarchal hierarchism that subjugates Tsiao-Tsing to its power for despicable ends, is embodied by the ancient tree demon. This is pitted against the more enlightened religious creeds of Taoism and Buddhism, with their singular spiritual beneficence and capacity to meet chaos with order. Evil is battled not with crucifixes and holy water, but mantras and written sutras.
But the title’s cheekier quality is located in another dimension, that is, the manner in which it combines and coherently contrasts distinctive localised storytelling modes. The narrative sends horror story crashing headlong into comedy and freewheeling action, with the spirits and demons serving similar purposes to aliens for Hollywood blockbusters, a reminder that Ching followed Hark in trying to compete with and outdo the flash of Hollywood on a limited budget. Even fiends from hell prove fallible to the right bit of chop-socky know-how. It’s this hyped-up quality, the genre-hopping energy and gall of Ching’s films, that spur me to consider them adventure films, as they travel well beyond the psychological miasmas of horror tales as well as wu xia’s shared trait with Westerns, in that they both detail personality clashes and morality plays in terms of action. Here, as in Greek myth, battles with supernatural forces are merely part of the texture of a grand battle of humankind to dominate the earth around them and even venture into lands beyond, and, like many true adventure tales, the heroes engage in rebellion against repressive orders. And throughout it all, comedy and tragedy masks frame every gesture with an emotional directness that again feels like it belongs to a longer, older tradition.
The vivacity of Ching’s imagery and the compulsive drive of his filmmaking provide a centrifugal force that compels the various, usually quite distinct building blocks to form a coherent whole, a whole that overcomes the occasionally jarring shifts in approach, and finally dances on air as deftly as its heroes. Ching creates indelible visual impressions, like the grotesque sight of the tree demon’s colossal, tentacle-like tongue slashing through the undergrowth and writhing under the feet of the heroes. The penile invasive tip tries to dive into their mouths to drain their essences, enhances the already queasy erotic quality of the great tongue, an image of perverse evil that contrasts and manipulates the enticing feminine grace of Tsiao-Tsing. Ching wreathes shimmering mist and diffused light around the starkly atmospheric environs of Lan Ro, with the hauntingly lovely sight of Tsiao-Tsing’s white-and-red-clad form dashing through the misty trees, with sleeves of flowing silk that can become rescuing ropes and animated tendrils. This quality of unearthly beauty appended to the usual wire-fu shenanigans would show up again in the Bride with White Hair films and Hark’s Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame.
The undertone of hazy eroticism and romantic languor is never entirely quelled by all the action, climaxing in a rapturous scene in which Tsiao-Tsing and Ning fulfil otherwise unquenchable longing by writing a poem together, creating a missive shot full of mysterious imagery that is so vague and affecting that in the sequel it’s mistaken for some kind of secret political message. The act of writing is imbued with the same romantic and totemic power it possesses in the climactic scenes of Doctor Zhivago (1965) and Hero (2002), and, in a way, the lovers’ penning of their poem is political, as it is a placard for their independence, with the films siding with young rebels against the malicious, life-sapping dictates of forced marriage. Whilst the Old Evil is bested in combat, the film resolves with Ning desperately attempting to keep exterminating light from falling on Tsiao-Tsien, who finally has to retreat into the urn with her ashes to protect herself. She cannot emerge again to see Ning, and he must perform the necessary rites to send her on in her reincarnation cycle.
Ching’s sequel lacks the romantic passion and the structure of the original, but in some other ways is superior. With a larger budget and zestier staging, he embraces an ever more madcap approach to his blend of action, comedy, and supernatural power. With Tsiao-Tsing freed from the bonds of the demon and hopefully allowed to gain reincarnation, Ning travels on his lonely way, only to be imprisoned, escape, and fall into the company of another warrior monk, this time a Buddhist called Autumn (Jacky Cheung): Autumn takes Ning for a thief when he rides off on Autumn’s horse, in the mistaken belief that it has been provided to facilitate his escape. Autumn, as well as possessing the same proficiency in white magic as Yin, can dig his way through the earth at great speed like some sort of mutant gopher.
The duo are attacked by spooks in the woods, which for some reason, do not set Autumn’s infallible nose for the supernatural tickling; in reality, they’re not spooks at all, but a band of freedom fighters in disguise. The band is led by sisters Windy (Joey Wang again) and Moon (Michelle Reis), who want to rescue their father, Lord Fu (Siu-Ming Lau), a former official who’s been arrested and charged with treason for trying to criticize the autocracy of the Imperial court. The fighters mistake a bearded Ning for Elder Chu Kot, the intellectual with whom Ning was imprisoned and whose writings inspired both the Lord’s arrest and his faction’s rebellion. Ning is transfixed by Windy’s amazing resemblance to Tsiao-Tsing, wondering if, against all seeming logic, she is her reincarnation. Both sisters in turn are love-struck by the man they believe to be their wise revolutionary guru.
Ching devotes a lot of the first half of A Chinese Ghost Story II to trying to top his first film’s physical comedy and action set-pieces, and succeeds, if at the expense of narrative contiguity, especially in two extended sequences of ribaldry. As in the first episode, the plot revolves around a haunted temple, except this time the locale is chosen by the freedom fighters as a place to ambush the convoy taking Lord Fu to the Emperor, and proves to be inhabited a large saurian demon that ponderously stalks potential victims in the temple. When Ning and Autumn first enter the temple, Autumn endeavours to teach Ning an incantation that can freeze anything in its tracks. Ning accidentally freezes Autumn while practising it at exactly the same time that the hulking demon bears down up them: Ning desperately tries to fend off the creature and communicate with Autumn through eye movements to learn the counter-curse. At one point all three become frozen in a pose with the beast, claws about to furl about the heroes, dribbling drool down on Ning’s cheek. The level of farceur skill shown here by the two Cheungs, and the way Ching cleverly weaves it in with the animatronics of the monster, is rare and splendid. A second, equally adroit if sillier scene enlarges upon the first film’s bathtub scene, as Ning tries to avoid compromising the two Wu sisters when he tries to alert a bathing Windy to the monster’s presence, and then tries to cover for Windy as she tries to get dressed without being seen by Moon and the other warriors and retreats to a loft, where the monster stalks her, in a dance of embarrassment and timorous sexuality.
Whilst both women are taken by Ning, he only has eyes for the one who looks like Hsiao-Hsien; when Moon gets the message, she transfers her affections to Autumn, an equally impossible fancy. But as in the first episode, the lingering shadow of arranged marriage holds Ning and his love at bay, for Windy’s father has promised her long ago to another lord, though fortunately such impediments prove rather more surmountable when both lovers are corporeal. Along the way, however, Windy is almost transformed into a demon herself when the monster in the temple is finally destroyed, albeit with its still-animated body parts flying in all directions to attack and latch onto the fighters. The girls’ father and his escorting jailers, led by the formidable, decent but rigidly dutiful soldier Hu (Waise Lee), finally pass by the temple, but the clash of arms between the two forces is stalled by the arrival of the official procession escorting the Imperial High Priest (Shun Lau). The High Priest proves to be the source of both the epidemic of demons and the political repression sweeping the land.
Political subtext is introduced during Ning’s early, mistaken imprisonment, learning quickly he has no hope of proving his innocence. Elder Chu (Feng Ku), who’s spent most of his life in jail, claims that every effort he’s made to find safe artistic ground has merely brought him some new variety of official persecution: “I analyse military strategy, they say I’m organising rebellion…I try to write fairy stories, they say I’m promoting superstition!” He’s spent so long in jail that he’s actually dug a hole through the wall and comes and goes when he feels like it, using his cell as a quiet place to work. Ching’s mischievous culmination of the theme comes when the heroes pursue the High Priest to his temple, where they find the entire Imperial court arranged in rigid ceremonial splendour—except they’re all hollow shells, their insides eaten out by the demon, a fake government fronting for monstrous power. Fortunately for Ning, he and Windy find themselves at the Lotus Temple, where Yin has holed up, and they’re able to call him to aid Autumn in a showdown with the High Priest.
Both episodes conclude with epic, utterly bizarre and visually startling leaps into special-effects set-pieces, as the heroes make journeys into the netherworld to do battle with the demons on their own turf, lands of abyssal dark and desolate plains where the demons sit on thrones and lord over dimensions beyond. In the first episode, Old Evil’s body proves to be composed of severed, animate flying heads that try to gnaw on the heroes like piranha, but the tag-team work of the three heroes finally helps defeat the monster. In the second, the High Priest proves to be a colossal juggernaut of a flying centipede, and Autumn and Yin, in a flourish unashamedly pinched by Men in Black (1998), are both swallowed by the beast, forcing them to destroy the beast by detaching the spirits from their bodies by reciting mantras, and then hacking their way out. This risky trick for the two savants of supernatural warfare proves tragic for Autumn, who can’t get back into his body. His spirit is swept away, with a distraught Moon chasing him, a last flourish for the rare melancholy underlying the series’ general joviality.
Ching’s visual style throughout the two films is a constant delight. Like Hark, who would eventually take the approach to excessive levels, Ching toys in the first episode with paring every shot to the bare minimum of time it takes to register, in a fashion that anticipates, but still remains distinct from, Hollywood filmmakers’ embrace of the hyperkinetic because basic rules of focus and editing rhythm are still obeyed. Nonetheless the racing pace of the films is startling and compulsive, whilst Ching’s photography, essayed in an argot of wide-focus lenses used in close-ups to give everything an overlarge, vertiginous immediacy, and zooming camera motions that constantly take on points of view or are used to add physicality to action shots, became deeply influential in a lot of subsequent filmmakers. Perhaps the western filmmaker most inflected with Ching’s example is Peter Jackson, whose photographic style and kinetic approach to fantasy, spectacularly in his early work and more measured in his Tolkien films, bears distinctive traces of Ching’s mighty fantasy-adventure diptych— at a zillion times the cost.