In Love with a Ghost in Lushan
Hong Kong 1984
Directed by .

An atomospheric piece that features a scholar with bad teeth, two ghosts, and the requisite drunken Taoist priest.

This movie makes no bones about being inspired by the writings of Pu Songling. Before the story begins we are treated to a mini travelogue in which we visit his old home, now a museum, in Shandong Province. It is also explained that the film is based on two of his stories, the Nieh Shih and The Taoist Priest of Lushan, put together. The Nieh Shih I know is called The Magic Sword in the H.A. Giles translation, it's the same story which inspired Tsui Hark's A Chinese Ghost Story just a few years later. The Taoist Priest of Lushan is also in the Giles book, sadly the story bears no resemblance whatsoever to the movie which follows. Maybe something got lost in the translation. Instead, I find the story of Miss Lien-Hsiang to be more relevant in theme and incident.

The story proper, once we get the informative but dull prologue out of the way, begins with sunsets and mountains, sweeping vistas reminicient of A Touch of Zen. Our hero is a young scholar, in the traditional Pu Songling mold, who has not passed his examinations and so paints landscapes and portraits for a living. He sees a woman in the mountains, but she disappears. He meets a drunken Taoist priest, but he disappears as well. We start to suspect that there is something supernatural going on. Or perhaps our hero simply needs corrective eyewear. At any rate, he lodges for the night in a spooky old temple, as poor wandering scholars are so often fond of doing, where he encounters two beautiful women and their nasty, overbearing mother-in-law. One of the girls, Shiu Sen, is really nice and sweet. The other, Hung Yu, is a vamp. They each in turn have little encounters with the scholar.

Shiu Sen begs the scholar to take her away. Her stepmother sold her to a relative, she explains. They beat her. "It's my bitter life," she explains. The scholar passes. Later, Hung Yu asks him to paint her portrait. He agrees. She gets buck naked and asks how she should pose. The scholar steps back, in horror and revulsion, and demands that she leave. I'm curious as to what prompted his feelings of revulsion, but sadly the director never allows us to make up our own mind in this regard. While I'm concerned over the mental capacity of our scholarly hero, Hung Yu turns blue and scares the crap out of him. He faints. I mean, if a naked woman scares him, imagine how he takes a vicious blue-faced ghost! But he rebounds in what is certainly the oddest scene in the film. Hung Yu leans down to bite him on the neck, when he suddenly leans up and gives her a nasty bite on her neck instead! She screams and disappears.

By now he's figured out that the women are ghosts or demons of some sort. He's sure he will be killed. But Shiu Sen gains his confidence and tells him he will find safety with the Taoist Priest, whom he promptly shacks up with. It turns out the priest himself doesn't seem particularly powerful, but woe betide all who cross his little floating glowing magic bag. The old mother-in-law gets a taste of the magic bag and flees, sorely wounded.

The scholar agrees to transport Shiu Sen's bones away from the temple back to her home. He leaves the temple and returns to his studio, situated right in the middle of a messy love triangle between another painter, himself, and the wealthy and attractive Miss Wu. Miss Wu loves the scholar, but the painter loves Miss Wu. Our hero is completely oblivious to the whole thing. Instead, he falls in love with Shiu Sen. Perhaps ghost women are less threatening to his manhood. Shiu Sen leaves him his slipper, which, if he holds it over an open flame, will summon her to his side.

Miss Wu gets suspicious of the whole affair, and stumbles onto Shiu Sen's bones. At that moment, she becomes possessed by Shiu Sen's evil stepsister, Hung Yu. A Taoist priest is summoned, to exorcise the spirit. Meanwhile, the jealous painter decides to poison the scholar. And the old witch woman returns to bring her children back, and kill anyone who happens to be standing around. It all culminates in a big free-for-all in which the drunken Taoist priest from the beginning of the film returns to drink, and fight.

In Love with a Ghost in Lushan is probably the most faithful adaptation of stories from the Liaozhai that I have seen. It also bears a strong resemblance in plot to A Chinese Ghost Story, which was released three years later. Although it is never cited as an inspiration or a reference for the later movie, I can't help but think the film was seen or at least known of by the principals involved in the later movie.

Still, a faithful adaptation does not necessarily a good movie make. What about the acting? The score? The cinematography? Failing on those counts, is there at least some gratuitous violence and/or nudity? There isn't, but the film doesn't quite fail, either. The actors certainly aren't what you might be used to seeing in a film. They have buggy eyes, bad teeth. They don't look quite like stars. More like a movie full of extras. The special effects were very low-tech, mainly based on quick editing. But even in spite of these drawbacks, the film was able to get my attention and keep it. I would categorize this film as a programmer, Saturday matinee filler, no more, no less.

Rating: Marginally Recommended (Marginally Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on April 02, 2004.

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