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Ning Tsai-Shen, a humble tax collector, arrives in a small town to carry out his work. Unsurprisingly, no-one is willing to give him shelter for the night, so he ends up spending the night in the haunted Lan Ro temple. There, he meets Taoist Swordsman Yen Che-Hsia, who warns him to stay out of trouble, and the beautiful Nieh Hsiao-Tsing, with whom he falls in love. Unfortunately, Hsiao-Tsing is a ghost, bound for all eternity by a hideous tree spirit with an incredibly long tongue that wraps itself round its victims and sucks out their life essence (or 'yang element')... Written by
Michael Brooke <firstname.lastname@example.org>
By 1987 Hong Kong had given the world such films as Sammo Hung's `Encounters of the Spooky Kind' Chow Yun Fat in John Woo's iconic `A Better Tomorrow', `Zu Warriors' and the classic `Mr Vampire'. Jackie Chan was having international success on video, but it was with `A Chinese Ghost Story' that HK cinema had its first real crossover theatrical hit in the West for many years.
Western filmgoers had never seen anything like it. It was a film that took various ingredients that HK cinema had used for years (flying swordsman, wildly choreographed martial arts and the supernatural) and blended them to create a film that was unique in its look, feel and execution. Forget the poor and unnecessary sequels it spawned, this is the original and best.
Director Siu-Tung Ching (still best known as an Action Choreographer on such films as Woo's `A Better Tomorrow 2'/'The Killer') has, under the watchful eye of legendary Producer Tsui Hark, created a masterpiece of Fantasy/Horror cinema. And with such an expert crew at his disposal (no less than 6 Martial Arts Coordinators) the chances of the film being anything but wonderful would be unthinkable.
The editing by the amazingly prolific David Wu (who wrote/directed `The Bride With White Hair 2' and edited such classic titles as `A Better Tomorrow 1/2/3', `Hardboiled' and the cult hit `The Club') is quite simply a work of genius. His crafting of the perfectly choreographed high flying, tree climbing sword fights makes them some of the best HK cinema has ever created. Fast moving, outlandish but never confusing they are, even today, the pinnacle of their art.
The crew of cinematographers have also done miracles. This is a film where every shot is an expertly crafted painting. Where wonderful blue tinged night sequences, shrouded in an ever-present ghostly fog, are the breathtaking platform for our story to unfold. It's a film where everything is used to weave a dreamlike beauty. Even the silken robes and dresses worn by Hsiao Tsing become living parts of the movie, whether in romantic sequences or battle scenes the ever present silk flows across the screen. Even a simple scene where Hsiao Tsing changes robes is turned into a thing of fluttering beauty as every skill on the set combines to create a most memorable scene from such a simple act. The sets are also amazing, giving an other worldly sense to the forests, and the temple and harshness to the scorched, flag filled wasteland of hell for the amazing finale. The production design by Zhongwen Xi deserves the highest praise.
Another major factor to the films success is the music by Romeo Diaz and James Wong. Hong Kong films have given us some fantastic music and songs that have added so much to the success of a sequence, but on `A Chinese Ghost Story' the music is, quite simply, vital. From the opening song onwards the music becomes as important as the characters.
The score is a perfect mixture of modern and traditional instruments. Drums, bells and guitars pound away over the action sequences to great effect, but it's in the slower, achingly romantic pieces that it comes into it's own. Here; flutes, strings and female choral effects create what are possibly the finest pieces of music heard in an HK film. Add to this the female vocal, stunningly beautiful song that plays over Tsau-shen's and Hsiao Tsing's love making, (nothing is ever seen, but the effect is wonderful. This is lovingly innocent movie romance) and you have a shining example of the power a film's music can have.
And we of course have the acting talent. Leslie Cheung (`A Better Tomorrow 1 & 2' and a very popular singer) is outstanding as the innocent tax collector. His work in the (thankfully mild) comic sequences is never over the top and his scenes with Joey Wang are played with just the right amount of passion and innocence.
Joey Wang (who would later be mostly relegated to support roles in films like the Chow Yun Fat/Andy Lau classic "God of Gamblers") has never looked more radiant than how she does here. She is the epitome of ethereal beauty. Her portrayal of the tragic Hsiao Tsing is stunning. She shows her characters sadness at what she has become and what she is made to do, but also gives off a subtle eroticism in the scenes where she is luring the men to their gruesome deaths. Veteran actor Wu Ma (`Mr. Vampire', `Swordsman') is great fun as the wise, brave, but ever so grumpy, Yen. He treads a fine line between the eccentric and the annoying with practised ease. And what so easily could have been a character that could have harmed the film is actually wonderfully entertaining and memorable.
But what about the monsters and beasties?, I hear you cry. Well they range from the rather crude but fun stop motion/animatronic zombies that inhabit the temple (resulting in a great running gag with constantly thwarted attempts to munch on the amusingly unsuspecting Tsau-shen), to the rather cheesy but surprisingly effective Lord Black. Complete with an arsenal of vicious flying heads, and quite outstanding wire work. Most of which has, to this day, never been topped.
But the most outstanding effect and creation is the tree spirit's killer tongue. We first encounter this thing with an `Evil Dead' style rushing camera effect as it powers down its victims throats to deliver a lethal French kiss that turns the victims into zombiefied husks. But later it's shown in all its crazy glory. It can grow so big and long that it shoots through the forest after prey, rips apart trees, wraps itself around buildings and coils it's slimy length around people before picking them up and throwing them against tree trunks!! It can even split open to reveal a fang filled mouth! It's an outrageous idea that given the deeply romantic main plot shouldn't work. But it does, to fantastic and unforgettable effect.
So what all this adds up to is a classic example of Hong Kong movie making. A true team effort that has given us a truly ground breaking movie. It's a film packed with wit, invention, action, monsters, martial arts, ghosts, fantastic ideas, lush visuals, beautiful music, and most important to it's enduring charm, one of cinemas most moving romances.
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