Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Chinese Ghost Story (1987)

I don't know much about the Chinese ghost story tradition, but I do know that there are not a lot of straight-up Chinese horror movies. Ghost movies from China & Hong Kong tend to blend elements of fantasy, kung-fu, romance and comedy.

Of these movies, my favourite is A Chinese Ghost Story, produced by Tsui Hark and directed by Ching Siu-tung. It tells the story of a hapless tax collector (Leslie Cheung) who takes shelter in a deserted temple, where he falls in love with a woman who turns out to be a ghost.

The movie involves an evil Tree Demon, a vengeful Taoist priest, Sam Raimi-style camerawork from the point of view of an extremely long tongue, the most comically unthreatening zombies of all time, a song & dance interlude about the power of the Tao, plenty of slapstick comedy, and a surprisingly moving ending. Small children might find parts of it frightening, but the emphasis is on slapstick comedy and romance.

This tradition of combining kung-fu with horror movies seems to date specifically to the 1974 movie Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, which attempts to marry the British Hammer Dracula movies with the Hong Kong Shaw Brothers kung-fu movies; it was co-directed by Hammer veteran Roy Ward Baker and Shaw veteran Chang Cheh, and co-starred Peter Cushing with many kung-fu stars. This movie featured both vampires from the Western tradition and hopping vampires from Chinese folklore. But the cycle properly begins with director/star Sammo Hung's 1980 movie Encounters of the Spooky Kind, which places a far greater emphasis on action and comedy.

A Chinese Ghost Story strikes me as being superior to these earlier movies simply because it integrates the disparate elements with more confidence. The movie slips from being potentially spooky to laugh-out-loud funny with apparent ease, and even manages to get serious in its final act without a jarring shift in tone. The performances of Leslie Cheung as the tax inspector, Joey Wang as the ghost and the great Wu Ma as the priest certaily help here.

I really need to learn more about Chinese mythology before I can speak about movies like this with any authority. All I can say for the moment is that this is a tremendously fun movie that I've watched many times.

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