Chinese Ghost Story 2
Hong Kong 1990
Directed by Ching Siu-Tung.

The adventures of scholar Ning continue, when a series of coincidences and chance meetings thrust him into the center of political intrigue that threatens the nation itself.

If I were Sir Alistair Cooke and A Chinese Ghost Story II was going to be on Masterpiece Theater this evening, I might begin by leaning back in my brown leather chair and saying,

"Is there a reward for being a good man?" This is the question which the protagonist in tonight's story asks when falsely thrown into prison, his head about to be placed on the chopping block. And in a sense, it is the question that filmmaker Tsui Hark ponders in this political allegory disguised as a supernatural comedy.

I would then probably turn my head, looking at camera two, before my deeply informative monologue continued. But alas, I am not Sir Alistair Cooke, in fact I haven't even been knighted yet. Remind me, the next time I see the Queen, to find out what the hold up is.

Anyway, we've come a long way from A Chinese Ghost Story, which was in essence a jazzed up story straight out of Pu Songling's Liaozhai Zhiyi. A Chinese Ghost Story II picks up the story thread from where the last movie ended, building a new tale on the same characters, picking up where Pu Songling left off. Again, supernatural elements exist, but here, they are not the main focus. Instead, the story becomes a political intrigue which shows us corruption from the smallest outpost prison guards right up to the High Priest, second only to the Emperor. It is a bleak world, where demons have risen (as they always do, at the collapse of an empire), but though the system is corrupt, there are a few righteous men (and women) willing to fight for the good of their country. We must judge for ourselves whether there is any reward for "being a good man." It is fitting that this Pu Songling inspired story should be full of subtle recriminations against a government gone bad, Pu Songling's stories themselves often contained similar hidden messages, often directed towards the examination judges who so often failed him despite his obvious talents.

Read the story which inspired A Chinese Ghost Story,
The Magic Sword

A Chinese Ghost Story II begins with a brief clip from the ending of the previous film, then three words: "The Story Continues." We pick up not long after we left our hero Ning (Leslie Cheung), the tax collector (now referred to as a bill collector). He returns to his home town to find it has changed for the worse, and the shop he worked for infested by a gang of theives. He barely escapes with his life but then is caught by a gang of bounty hunters who mistake him for the outlaw Bing Chow, even though the wanted poster depicts him with a goatee, while Ning is clean shaven. Ning is thrown into prison, where he shares a cell with a political writer, who laments the fact that no matter what he writes, the government finds it revolutionary, detects a conspiracy in it, and throws him in jail.

When the old writer shares his story, the audience can't help but recall that China still has in place a censorship policy just as barbaric. When films are shot in mainland China, government censors must approve the script, they must approve the final edit, and they keep all original negatives of the film. Failure to obey the strict code results in banning of the artists work, even potentially prison time or exile. It's unbelievable that such practices still exist in the modern world, and Tsui Hark reminds us of this in this not-so-subtle parallel.

Time passes, and Ning grows a long goatee, which ironically makes him look exactly like the Bing Chow fellow he was accused of being in the first place. He soon discovers he is to be beheaded, due to some bribery of the guards and some switching of victims. Here, we see corruption at its most petty, in the lowest levels of the government. The old writer takes pity on Ning, and helps him escape, declining to escape himself since it's convenient for him to stay and work where he isn't disturbed.

Once he escapes the prison, he falls in a group of outlaw freedom fighters, led by two sisters, Windy and Moon, who disguise themselves as ghosts to frighten their opponents. The girls are planning to ambush an imperial soldier who is taking their father, Lord Fu, in chains to the emperor. Windy is the spitting image of Hsiao-Tsien, Ning's ghostly love from the first movie (now referred to as 'Sian' in the subtitles of this film. Tsien, Sian; same sound, different spelling). She says she isn't her, though Ning needs a great deal of convincing to be sure (as do we, since she is also played by Joey Wong). In turn, the outlaw group mistake Ning for Elder Chu, the writer who he shared a cell with earlier. He tries to convince them he isn't Elder Chu, but fails. The scene where he tries to convince the band he is not Elder Chu is reminicient of the classic Monty Pyton film The Life of Brian, where Brian tries to convince the people he is not the messiah:
Look, how many times do I have to tell you, I'm not the messiah!

Only the true messiah would deny that he is the messiah.

Allright, then, I AM the messiah!

The crowd erupts. He is the messiah! He is the messiah!

When a real supernatural creature finally shows up, its up to Ning to dispatch it with the help of Autumn, a crazy Taoist monk who likes to travel underground like Bugs Bunny. (Don't ask.)

Finally, the imperial guards escorting lord Fu arrive, the outlaws strike against them. But soon they all discover just how far up and how extensive the corruption is in the government. As Lord Fu explains, "No matter how many you kill here, you won't save the kingdom. The emperor is surrounded by sycophants and has no idea of the suffering of the people."

Leslie Cheung once again turns in a classic performance as the weak, ineffectual scholar caught up in a maelstrom of events beyond his control. Joey Wong does her usual ghostly schtick, even though she's human this time. I swear she must take her own personal fan with her onto the set of every movie, so that her hair is always blowing in the wind. And Wu Ma returns as the Taoist Monk of Orchid Monastery to do some last minute ass kicking. New characters in the cast are also played by strong performers: Waise Lee, Michelle Reis, and, oh yes, there's Jacky Cheung. He gets on my nerves pretty badly in most films, here is his just right - not too annoying, his character necessitating a certain amount of loud, obnoxious goofiness.

If there was a flaw in this film, it is that the sub-plots take too long to resolve, and the movie seems to wander aimlessly through a lot of filler time, even though the time is taken up as it is by exciting fight scenes, and comedic miscommunication. It isn't until the last 30 minutes of the film that we have our central villain, a powerful demon truly worth fighting. Until then, we spend too much time on this large supernatural creature and Ning and Autumn's attempts at defeating it. It's exciting, it's funny, but ultimately it's pointless, and I wished the film would get to a more dramatically engaging center, which it finally does with the arrival of the imperial escort to Lord Fu.

The theme which runs through A Chinese Ghost Story II is a question of identity: how do you tell who or what someone really is? To begin the story, Ning is mistaken for Bing Chow, then for Elder Chu, the outlaws disguise themselves as ghosts, Lord Fu is mistaken for a common criminal, Windy is mistaken for Sian. The borders between the real and unreal, the normal and the strange, the living and the dead, have begun to blur. When the High Priest arrives, we must ask ourselves, who is he, really? In the end, our heroes discover that they can tell each other not by who they are, their rank or station, but by how they act. Only in this way can honorable men recognize each other. In returning to Ning's question, "Is there a reward for being a good man?" The answer is yes, in that being so is a reward in itself.

Rating: Highly Recommended (Highly Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on April 02, 2004.

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