Hocus Pocus
Hong Kong 1984
Directed by Chien Yu-Sang.

Peking Opera actors try to scare each other by pretending to be ghosts until real ghosts show up and join in the hi-jinx. Hilarity fails to ensue.

Some modern Chinese Operas use a greater amount of props, scenery, and special-effects than those of old. Apparently Lam Ching-Ying's opera troupe is cutting edge because of their over abundant use of these things, along with a liberal application of wire work for their jumps and rolls. After putting on a spectacle in a small, remote village, the village headman rewards the Opera stars handsomely. Satisfied with a job well done, they turn in for the night, only to wake the next morning to find that the theater, the town, all the people, are gone! They were performing for ghosts!

So begins this tale about ghosts haunting an opera house. The troupe's imagination is stirred by Uncle Sheng's (Lam Ching-Ying) telling of the ghostly tale, and they begin to tell tales of their own, spooking each other out, and pulling elaborate pranks. Kuei is a minor actor in the troupe but he commands a lot of respect from the other small time players. The lead actor, Chin, on the other hand, is cocky and arrogant and generally disliked. Kuei and the others play a prank on Chin, pretending to be ghosts after he gets back to the opera house late at night and drunk off his ass. They scare him half to death. The next day, Chin starts a fight with all of them, vowing revenge.

There's a lot of goofing off at the beginning of this movie. A lot of it. It doesn't ease up, either, at the long awaited arrival of a real ghost. Because, well, the real ghost is a little dork. He runs around pulling pranks on people as if we haven't seen enough of this already. A female Hua Dan actress squats on the commode and he opens the curtain for everyone to see. He kisses a girl, she slaps the man putting on makeup next to her. He messes up their stage fights. Such a naughty little ghost!

When the ghost stops Kuei from performing properly on stage, it's the last straw for Chin who goes absolutely berzerk over it backstage. Everyone is trying to calm him down, but he won't. Finally the little ghostly bugger ups the ante by possessing the arrogant Chin. The other actors realize he is possessed and grab the only remedy they can find. I'm not sure how to describe this, so I'll just go ahead, and you can make of it what you will. What they do is they grab a butt naked boy, and lift him over Chin's head. Then the boy pees on his head. This causes the ghost to leave the body. My God I should hope so. That's not stunt pee, you know. Imagine a hollywood actor having these scene described to them. ("OK, now what we want you to do is just stand there, you see, and we'll lift this boy up, OK,..."). It's a beautiful Hong Kong movie moment, a little reward for those of us who were able to stay awake through the first part of the film.

The gig is up for the ghost. Uncle Sheng gathers his troupe and performs an opera skit as Judge Bao Zheng, late that night. Judge Bao is played with blackface, which in the Chinese Opera indicates that he is upright and fair. Judge Bao is featured in numerous plays, and is said to try human cases during daytime and hear cases for the dead at night. The ghost falls for the ruse and appears before the court, where he explains his bones are buried under the theater. The troupe promptly digs them up and reburies them properly. Chin and Kuei are reconciled after the incident, and Chin resolves to be on better terms with everyone. Unfortunately, they disturbed another set of bones, belonging to a very vicious, very angry ghost. When that ghost finally makes his appearance at a celebratory banquet, the food flies. As do the table, the chairs, and the people. Finally, after a brief consultation with a ghostly chest of drawers, it's up to Uncle Sheng, Kuei, and Chin to defeat the evil ghost together.

Once again, they don the Peking Opera costumes, this time Lam Ching-Ying appearing very much like a high ranking, ghostly official. His troupe wears costumes appearing as his entourage of spirits. They do combat with the evil ghost using only their opera skills, and buckets and buckets of dog blood. After a while I had to start wondering where they found so many dogs to kill so late at night. I envision them walking into the dog pound, where wholesale slaughter must have occured. Anyway, dousing the place with dog's blood makes it more difficult for a ghost to get around, apparently.

With such an exciting backdrop, and with so many very faithful borrowings from the Chinese Opera, this should have been a big hit. But it just takes too long to get going. By the time anything interesting happened, I already felt betrayed by this movie. It was too late. But if you went in to this movie knowing the first hour was going to be slow, you might just have a chance to come out on the other side really enjoying this film. The Peking Opera scenes were very good, with the exception of the opening scene (too many wires, too little reason). Lam Ching-Ying puts in a solid turn, as usual. And the evil ghost is fairly menacing in a mildly amusing way. As the characters in the film prayed to T'ang Ming Huang, the patron saint of the opera, to end their ghostly sufferings, I had to pray to end them as well. Thankfully, T'ang Ming Huang came through at the end.

Rating: Marginally Recommended (Marginally Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on March 30, 2004.

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