Spooky Bunch, The
Hong Kong 1980
Directed by Ann Hui.

A Cantonese Opera troupe gets mixed up with a platoon of ghost soldiers seeking revenge. Lots of atmosphere, little action.

The Cantonese Opera troupe version of Community Theater is invited to perform on remote Cheung Chao island by a Mr. Ma, under the condition that Ah Chi (Josephine Siao), a player normally confined to bit roles, plays the leading role in the performances. Mr. Ma also invites his nephew, the unfortunately named Dick Ma (Kenny Bee), to the island to watch the performances. He hopes by arranging this that his nephew Dick will marry Ah Chi, because of a curse that her grandfather placed on his grandfather. The curse was that they would bear no children. Uncle Ma feels that if they married, the curse would surely be broken. Dick Ma, quite the young gigolo apparently, is none too pleased with the idea.

The troupe parades through town, advertising themselves. One of the acrobats invites a pretty young woman to the show, who then mysteriously disappears. Was she a ghost? Well, naturally. Once they arrive at the theater the players halfheartedly go through the traditional rituals, such as burning incense for ghosts, but they don't really believe. Uncle Deng (who has what the others call "spooky eyes") believes, because he can actually see the ghosts. He tries his best to ignore them and stay out of their way, and keeps his ghostly visions to himself.

The opera troupe performs a selection from The Romance of the West Chamber. In it, Ah Chi plays the Hua Dan role of Cui Yingying's maid. The maid carries love letters between her mistress and her lover, Zhang Jumrei. The performance verges on unwatchable, but the audience is in a good mood and just heckles them and laughs. The play staggers along for only a short while when suddenly a spirit possesses the actor playing Zhang Jumrei, who they refer to as 'No. One.' The spirit, it turns out, is very playful, very much like a child. Her name, which must have caused her all sorts of grief at school, is Cat Shit. When she isn't busy possessing No. One, Cat Shit eventually becomes friends with Ah Chi.

For all intents and purposes, this film is a kind of horror-comedy. But every time it seems like something really funny is about to happen, someone horribly dies. Enough people die in this film to put a damper on any comedic qualities it might have had.

Once Cat Shit arrives, all kinds of possessions, murders, and spooky goings on start taking place. It is then that we learn Ah Chi's grandfather's curse is not the problem for Ma's family. Dick Ma's grandfather and Ah Chi's grandfather worked together. They gave 'forged' medicine to an entire military platoon, who were poisoned by it and died. The ghostly platoon then swore revenge, and have been haunting and killing off both families ancestors ever since.

When Dick's uncle winds up dead, he finally starts to take the situation seriously. He tries to help Ah Chi, who doesn't really believe any of it. Or, perhaps belief or disbelief does not come into play for Ah Chi. After talking to her for a while, we come to understand that Ah Chi has a brain the size of a pea. She's honest, innocent, naive, and extremly, wildly stupid. It comes as somewhat of a shock that she hadn't forgot to breath one day and died long before this. But, she's so endearingly cute that Dick is charmed by her anyway. Maybe she makes him feel smart.

The soldiers weren't the only ones who took the medicine. There's also Belle, a former prostitute. When it seems the opera troupe is out of a job and must pack up and leave, she pays the troupe to perform another day, and she requests two specific plays: Emperor Han and Wu Song Kills His Sister-in-Law. Then the spirit of an army Colonel possesses the lead actor, No. One. Poor guy, he spends most of the film possessed.

Wu Song Kills His Sister-in-Law is a powerful piece, and one which was carefully chosen by the ghostly players. In the story, Wu Song's sister-in-law commits adultery, then with her lover kills her husband in cold blood. We see the players perform the 'Deathbed Watch,' in which Wu Song is sitting in a chair, holding his brother's spirit tablet, when his brother's spirit appears in the form of a dwarf, and tells Wu Song what has occured. Afterwards, Wu Song slays his own sister-in-law (who is to be played by Ah Chi), an act which causes him to be sentenced to exile. The spirit soldiers use this play to air their own grievances, and exact their revenge on the living.

There are a lot of small touches in the film that allow the audience glimpses of old traditions and superstitions. The opera troupe is not allowed to talk backstage during their opening act, it's considered bad luck. The God Guan Yu, frequently a character in Chinese Opera, also has the power to defeat ghosts and other supernatural beings. When confronted by a vicious ghost, a cast member attempts to quickly don the costume and weapons of Guan Yu in an attempt to defeat the spirit. And at one point, when Cat Shit whines that she wants to watch TV, Dick Ma has some paper TVs made and burns them for her so she can watch them in the underworld (Incongrously to this old tradition, she tunes into a quick English lesson).

The Spooky Bunch explores the burden of history and tradition in modern China. Our heroes, Dick Ma and Ah Chi, are forced to take responsibility for a past that they had no part of, for the actions of people who they, too, despise. The absurdity of this responsibility is shown all the more forcefully in Ah Chi's character, who so clearly doesn't have a clue. Josephine Siao brings a remarkable level of charm to her irritating character, while 'new wave' director and auteur Ann Hui allows the story to unfold quietly and without fanfare, giving the picture an almost documentary quality. An entirely different approach to the supernatural than Sammo Hung's horror-comedy Encounter of the Spooky Kind, released in the same year.

Rating: Recommended (Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on March 30, 2004.

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