Hong Kong ,  1960
Directed by Li Han-hsiang.
The famous Pu Songling-inspired supernatural horror film that Tsui Hark and Ching Siu-Tung later adapted for their seminal ghost film, A Chinese Ghost Story. Long recognized as a refernce point of the later film, but rarely seen, until now, as Celestial Pictures has released it on DVD as part of its Shaw Brothers collection, with a beautifully restored picture and English subtitles. So how inspired was Tsui Hark by ENCHANTING SHADOW? Plenty, it turns out, as many of the characters and events in the two films are identical. It wasn't an inspiration, it was a remake.
ENCHANTING SHADOW differs from its remake, and from almost all supernatural tales of old China, in that the time during which the events take place is precisely defined, rather than vague and ambiguous. And the events of that time drive the story and create motivation for the principle characters in a way that films not set in a concrete time period are unable to do.
Although the exact year is not spelled out, we can discover it through dialogue. We learn from conversation in the film that it is a time of chaos, the Ming Dynasty is in disarray, the Qing is attacking, and warlords are establishing their own domains. At one point our scholar hero, in a bout of optimisim for the future, mentions that "Zheng Chenggong has gone to Taiwan, it is an advantageous position," (from which to counter-attack and restore the Ming). This fact narrows our timeframe considerably, to 1662: The year Zheng took Taiwan away from the Dutch, and subsequently passed away. The Yamgzhou massacre is also mentioned, with occured previously, in 1645.
What does all this mean? ENCHANTING SHADOW takes place during the confusing, violent period after the fall of the Ming and during the establishment of the Qing. The Ming Dynasty fell to bandits in 1644, the Manchus immediately moved in and drove out the bandits, then took the reigns of power for themselves. Ming loyalists established the "Southern Ming" Dynasty, which lasted until Qing armies finally stamped them out in 1662. For loyalists, it would be a crushing year. Yet the Manchus had their own troubles, their emperor dying of smallpox the year prior, and the long lasting and stable Emperor Kangxi just ascending to the throne. In ENCHANTING SHADOW, the scholar is optimistic about the chances of the Southern Ming and the provinces still under its control, but the warrior priest is pessimistic about the fact that they lack cohesive leadership. And indeed, the squabbling southern factions prove to be their downfall, as the Qing army squashes them one after another.
And so the world is in chaos. Some do whatever they can to take advantage of the situation for themselves, others retreat from the world in disgust. ENCHANTING SHADOW follows one Ning Caichen (Chao Lei), an honest scholar who follows neither path. He is optimistic about China, but does not go to the capital to take the scholar exams, as he must fulfill his familial obligations to his elderly mother, as a loyal confucian. But with all the inns filled by refugees and soldiers, he must find shelter in an abandoned temple, thought by the locals to be haunted. The only one there, however, is Yang Chixia (Yang Chi-ching), a warrior priest, who no longer involves himself with the affairs of men, and lives uneasily with the ghosts without disturbing them, as "some men are worse than ghosts, and some ghosts are better than men."
Ning gets a first hand education in this saying shortly afterwards, as guzheng playing in the distance draws him to Xiaoqian (Betty Loh Ti), a beautiful maiden, and her evil grandmother. They are both ghosts, but Xiaoqian has been enslaved by the elder ghost and forced to entrap men for her at the temple. After trying to tempt Ning, and seeing he is of a finer character than any before him, she implores him to help by removing her bones to be properly buried in her hometown, away from the wicked ghosts influence. However, grandmother is not about to give up so easily.
How does ENCHANTING SHADOW compare to A Chinese Ghost Story? Very favorably. It is a beautiful film, with lavishly detailed sets and costumes of the kind Li Han-hsiang has become famous for. The acting is quite good, and the story builds suspense nicely. Tsui Hark and Ching Siu-Tung seem to have taken the original story in its entirety and simply updated it, adding some special effects and kinetic camera work by way of Sam Raimi's THE EVIL DEAD, and added a dash of androgynous evil. In both films, the warrior priest is a notable supporting character, Wu Ma in the later film, Yang Chi-ching in this, both have a musical number they sing to express their philosophy. Yang Chi-ching is a supporting character in hundreds of Shaw Brothers films, this ranks as one of my favorite of his performances. ENCHANTING SHADOW is a beautiful movie that stands the test of time, and is highly recommended.
Posted by Peter Nepstad on December 18, 2005.