Wednesday, July 4, 2007
#16: A Chinese Ghost Story (Siu-Tung Ching, 1987)
"A Chinese Ghost Story" was made, I'm guessing, for no other reason than to be as entertaining as humanly possible. It mostly succeeds. Equal parts horror film, comedy, romance, and martial arts actioner, it manages to incorporate ghosts, zombies, forbidden love, evil spirits, flying severed heads, sibling rivalry, blatant rip-offs of scenes from "The Evil Dead," thrilling fight scenes (that were in turn blatantly ripped off by "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"), enormous killer tongues, slapstick comedy, killer wolves with glowing eyes, human/ghost sexual relations, beheadings, Taoism, grave-robbing, ancient curses, slime, hidden forests, braggadocio, heavy rain, talking skeletons, painful sacrifices undertaken in the name of love, reincarnation, tax collecting, and the fakest beard I've ever seen. Also, the man with the incredibly fake beard, a Taoist monk/martial arts master/ghost killer, performs a rap song midway through the film about how great Taoism is. And this takes place several hundred years before the birth of rap.
The incoherent, confusing, and mostly irrelevant plot concerns a wimpy, peace-loving tax collector who travels to rural China to collect some tax. The inns are full, so he is directed to a spooky monastery deep in the forest. After a perilous journey, he finds the place and quickly meets the Taoist monk and a beautiful ghost. The monk is there to kill ghosts, the ghost is there because she is being held prisoner by her evil demon mother, who in turn is bound to an evil tree spirit. The ghost ensnares men with her beauty and sexual allure, and the evil tree spirit takes care of the rest, devouring the flesh from their bones. Our friendly tax collector, however, cannot be ensnared because he is pure of heart. He and the ghost fall in love, and he attempts to steal her ashes and place them somewhere special so the curse can be lifted and she can be reincarnated. Meanwhile, a bunch of crazy stuff happens every five seconds.
I am unfamiliar with Ching as a director, but I have seen two of producer Tsui Hark's films as director (the insanely fast-paced action film "Time and Tide" and the even more insanely fast-paced period-piece/gangster/action-adventure/comedy "Peking Opera Blues"), and "A Chinese Ghost Story" follows the Hark template of ADD/change-scenes-every-three-seconds editing and pacing. This can grow a little wearying over the course of an entire movie--I occasionally wanted to shake the filmmakers and say, "Slow it down just a bit! A little character development, please! I want to see those flying severed heads for a few more minutes!"--but, mostly, I loved the speedball insanity of the whole endeavor. (Side note: Hark had an unhappy dalliance in Hollywood in the late nineties, directing a couple of Jean-Claude Van Damme buddy-cop flops, one with Dennis Rodman and the other with Rob Schneider, said "I don't like this much," and moved back to Hong Kong.)
A couple other things I liked about this movie:
The acting was much better than it needed to be. A movie like this doesn't particularly call for thespian skill, but Leslie Cheung ("A Better Tomorrow," "Farewell My Concubine," "Happy Together") (who unfortunately killed himself by jumping out of a high-rise window in 2003, though conspiracy nuts claim sightings of him in Argentina after his death), Joey Wong, and Ma Wu bring a lot of zazz to their parts.
The subtitles are atrociously fantastic as well, depending on which DVD or VHS copy you get. Be prepared for a lot of broken English translations like "Nice destructioning of you ghost. Let's having lunch for to Thursday."
I liked this movie.