Hong Kong ,  1987
Directed by Ching Siu-Tung.
This is the classic Tsui Hark tale that made ghost stories popular again. Beautiful ghosts, giant tongues, and warrior priests battle it out with scholar Leslie Cheung right in the middle of it all.
When the lowly tax collector Ning Tsai-shun(Leslie Cheung) gets caught in a downpour on the way to town, his tax books are ruined and no one will pay. He needs a place to stay for a few days so he can re-write the books. He settles into the strange and silent Lam Ro temple, empty except for one very energetic Taoist priest who warns him away. He elects to stay, and it isn't long before he is lured by the sound of a lute out of the temple to where Hsiao Tsing, a beautiful woman, awaits him.
But there's more to this woman than meets the eye. She's a ghost, in the reluctant employ of a thousand year old tree demon who uses its massive tongue to suck the life out of their victims. When ghost and scholar meet, they fall in love, and he swears to help her escape from the tree demon's evil clutches.
In other words, the general outline of the film appears to be a faithful adaptation of Pu Songling's The Magic Sword, right down to the names of the principal characters, Ning and Hsiao Tsing. But the details are fleshed out in such an entertaining and joyful way that the film rises beyond its written origins. Producer Tsui Hark and director Ching Siu-Tung take the material and make it their own with creative special effects, crisp pacing and editing, memorable characters, and a lot of humor.
A Chinese Ghost Story centers on three characters: the beautiful ghost, the young scholar, and the recluse priest. Each has their own motives and desires. Hey, they even have their own themesongs, which recur throughout the film.
Leslie Cheung is the scared, weak scholar (in this case, a tax collector). The role of the scholar reoccurs throughout most of the films inspired by stories from the Liaozhai zhiyi. The scholar could be said to be the writer Pu Songling's alter ego, and of all the actors I have seen playing this role, Leslie Cheung has to be the most memorable.
Joey Wong is Hsiao Tsing, the forlorn ghost. She lures travellers to their deaths, though she really doesn't want to (In spite of not wanting to, however, she does manage to polish off quite a few). Beautiful but deadly, ethereal, wearing robes with sleeves that never seem to end, sometimes sweet like a girl, other times cold as the tomb. Joey Wong was good at this role -- too good. It stuck to her like glue. After A Chinese Ghost Story came out, you couldn't swing a dead cat without hitting a movie starring Joey Wong as a forlorn ghost, demon, or fox spirit. In later films her performances start to stale, but here it's still fresh.
Finally, there is Wu Ma as the Taoist recluse, Master Yan. He is a far cry from the sort of Taoist portrayed by Lam Ching-Ying in the Mr. Vampire films. First we are further back in historic China, in the Ming Dynasty rather than the 20th century. And second, this type of Taoist is not the 'fire-dwelling' kind, who lives in town, conducting funeral rites and performing feng-shui. Instead, he is a recluse, who lives far away from mankind, contemplating the Tao, trying to perfect himself in his quest for immortality. Wu Ma portrays the Taoist recluse as a force of nature, a man in harmony with the Tao and therefore extremely powerful. He can cause things to explode with a single chant of "Pao-yen Pao-lo-mi!" He can blow out a burning tree with his breath. He is far, far removed from the sort of quietly contemplative Zen monk who discards his earthly emotion and desire. Instead, he is an absolute tempest of emotion, as boisterous as they come. When it comes time to contemplate the Tao, he does so in an acrobatic musical number which he sings at the top of his lungs! It is a performance so delightful that he will reprise it in a number of films to follow.
Everything from the original story is wildly exagerrated here. In The Magic Sword, a small hole is burrowed into the victim through which the evil demon drinks their blood. In A Chinese Ghost Story, the demon drinks its victims blood using its own, enormously long tongue. The tree demon itself, only alluded to as a middle aged woman in the original story, here is presented as an androgenous creature, whose voice fluctuates between man and woman. The demonification of androgeny makes a certain amount of sense in the terms of the story here, since some of the most corrupt villains of the Ming dynasty were the eunuchs of the palace. 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.
A Chinese Ghost Story diverges from its source material in another important way. In the original story, there is a happy ending, Ning and Hsiao-Tsing get married, they even have children. But in our film, the best ending that can be hoped for is a proper burial for Hsiao Tsing's bones, so that her ghost may finally stop wandering and she may be reincarnated.
From a haunted temple to a flying Taoist swordsman, crawling zombies to a gigantic vicious tongue, chanting sutras to harrowing Hell itself, this is exciting, kinetic, outrageous Hong Kong cinema at its best. Tsui Hark and Ching Siu-Tung followed this one up with two sequels, A Chinese Ghost Story II and III.
Posted by Peter Nepstad on April 02, 2004.