This was one of the first Hong Kong movies I saw, and that was in a theater, although it would’ve been in the ’90s sometime. I’ve seen it on home video at least a couple of times since then, but it’s interesting to come back to it specifically as part of an exploration of Tsui Hark’s filmography. Most people, I think, including myself, see the Chinese Ghost Story trilogy as Tsui Hark films, even though they were directed by Ching Siu Tung and only produced (and in only one case written) by Tsui. What drives this impression? Does Ching contribute anything of his own?
Roderick Heath at Ferdy on Films discerns Ching’s sensibility in “a delicate, but fervent romantic streak,” which he finds in later Ching directorial efforts such as The Empress and the Warriors (2008) and The Sorcerer and the White Snake (2011). Certainly the romantic element in A Chinese Ghost Story is much more pronounced and much more earnest than any of Tsui’s earlier action films, but no more so than that of Tsui’s romantic comedy Shanghai Blues (1984). I also feel Heath undermines his case by attributing all kinds of things in A Chinese Ghost Story to Ching that aren’t evident in any of the other directorial efforts of his I’ve seen. What’s left is the way that Ching choreographs action sequences, which fits right into Tsui’s preferences for exaggerated, superhuman defiance of gravity and nonstop whirligig motion. In the end it seems as though Ching and Tsui were greatly in synch as collaborators, but the exact nature of their working relationship is still a subject for more research.
Of course there’s also the question of how much of the film’s sensibility is a reflection of general trends in the Hong Kong film industry at the time. The combination of horror, comedy, and martial arts had already been well-established by films such as Sammo Hung’s Encounter of the Spooky Kind (1980), Yuen Woo Ping’s The Miracle Fighters (1982), and especially Ricky Lau’s big hit, Mr. Vampire (1985). (Wu Man, who plays the Taoist priest-warrior pictured above, is said to have directed one of the best of these martial arts horror comedy films, The Dead and the Deadly, but I haven’t seen it yet.) From a genre standpoint the thing that A Chinese Ghost Story adds to this familiar mix is romance, music (especially Wu Ma’s goofy, exuberant paean to the Tao), and more deeply realized fantasy elements that at times make the film play like a sword-and-sorcery epic. The imaginative special-effects-driven fantasy aspect builds on Tsui’s work on Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983), and since the romantic ghost story is a throwback to earlier Hong Kong films such as The Enchanting Shadow (1960), which is a based on the same story by Pu Songling as A Chinese Ghost Story, it’s the fantastic, secondary-world quality of the film that is perhaps its most original and influential contribution to the local film industry.
If I found the slapstick humor in Zu less tiresome on my most recent viewing, I found the slapstick humor in A Chinese Ghost Story more tiresome than before. Or maybe it’s not the slapstick, because the way the stumbling and bumbling of the scholar keeps him out of danger is still pretty damned funny and clever. Rather it’s the scenes in the nearby village with the two cops chasing everybody who moves and the corrupt judge (played by the shlock producer-director Wong Jing, which I hadn’t noticed before) that failed to amuse. The courtroom scene at least pays off with the revelation that the corrupt officials have actually somehow arrested the right guy for once, but as satires of bureaucracy go this seems like pretty thin stuff.
One criticism I’ve seen of the film is its depiction of gender and sexuality. The tree demon is presented as both male and female, at least vocally, and a number of commentators have pointed out that in Chinese films characters without a sexuality (as in the eunuchs of many a wuxia movie) or with dual gender (cf also The Bride with White Hair) are depicted as both powerful and evil. As Peter Nepstad says in his review at The Illuminated Lantern, “Being on the border of Yin and Yang also is said to infuse a person with great power, having the abilities of both man and woman yet being enslaved by the passions of neither.” The dual gender of the tree demon had always struck me as an interesting piece of gender-bending, as seen in other Tsui Hark films, but now it seems like more of a traditional Chinese stereotype. It’s your bog standard hermaphroditic spawn of hell.
Perhaps more tendentiously Daisy Ng Sheung-Yuen at This Century’s Review seeks to “problematize the naturalized, unreflective representation of desire and sexuality” that she finds in A Chinese Ghost Story. “The popularity of the costume ghost genre may be seen as a reflection of our dream of possessing ageless beauty and never-ending love, and yet projected on the phantasmagoric screen are also fears of gender ambiguity and transgression as well as confused and contradictory feelings towards body and sexuality.” I confess that I’m a sucker for the tragic romance in this film, but I take her point about how carnal sex is associated with grotesque death at the hands — or rather the writhing, slobbering tongue — of the demon. The scholar and the ghost do have sex in the film, but they’re punished for it. True love apparently can only be an ethereal yearning from a distance. Well, what can I say, it’s the story of my life.
If this seems like a Tsui Hark film, it’s because of the frenetic action, the effects-driven fantasy, the visually arresting (or at least eccentric) compositions, and the way it can move from goofy comedy to poignant melodrama without missing a beat. When I first saw it (and A Chinese Ghost Story II, which I actually saw first), it was like nothing else I’d ever seen before in the way it blended and bended genre. Now it seems more conventional, especially compared to some of Tsui’s other films, such as Peking Opera Blues. Even so, it succeeds hugely at its crowd-pleasing, tradition-updating task. The hardcore Tsui fan can always blame the conventionality on Ching Siu Tung.