Sunday, January 29, 2017

A Chinese Ghost Story

Let me start off by saying that I am not, in any way, an expert on Asian Cinema. In the mid to late 80s, as the Laser Disc was becoming a 'thing,' people were more easily able to see foreign movies as regional protection wasn't as big a thing then as it is now. Either that, or it was just easier to buy an Asian Laser Disc Player in the States. In Boston, there was on enterprising young gentleman who nearly single-handedly fanned the flames of interest in Hong Kong cinema. He would wander about in a long, leather trench coat, even in the hottest weather with VHS copies of the latest Chow Yun Fat film, or Tsui Hark masterpiece tucked into pockets like a watch salesman in New York City. At one point, he told me that he had three Laser Disc machines running day and night to keep up with demand for these tapes. When local arthouse theaters, such as the Brattle, would show some of these films, this young gent would wander up and down the line of folks waiting to get inside, offering these movies for sale. He was utterly breaking international copyright law but who was to know? I always thought he'd get caught as he was so brazen but, to the best of my knowledge, he never was.

That brings me to the movie that's the subject of this post, 1987's "A Chinese Ghost Story." My memories tell me that the copy I acquired of this film had no subtitles, though that memory might be wrong. I think, instead, they just weren't very good. The story then seemed muddled and yet I thoroughly enjoyed the goofiness and pathos of this movie. Like many films out of Hong Kong then, and possibly now, it has moments of going over the top. There is quite a bit of wire-fu, spell casting and swordsmanship. This all comes hand in hand with demons of the underworld that make our Western Zombies look pale in comparison. This film manages to tread three narrow lines at the same time; it is equal parts romance, comedy and horror. I recently re-watched this, thanks to YouTube and can say that the film held up quite well.

The plot revolves around a young debt-collector who is rather meek and bad at his job. When he gets to the town that's the focus of his efforts, he can't even collect enough money to put himself up for the night. He's directed to the nearby Orchid Temple, which is known by the locals to be haunted. There he runs into two swordsmen in the midst of a duel. One is driven away, only to be seduced by the lovely ghost of the temple who, in the middle of The Act, calls out to the local ancient evil tree demon/demoness who sucks the life juices from the hapless swordsman. The other leaves the story for now. When the young debt collector sets himself up for sleep, the ghost returns. Her appearance isn't at all ghost-like so the young debt collector mistakes her for a real young woman. Unlike all her other victims, he doesn't look for sex with her and turns aside her advances. When he thinks she might be in danger, he tries to protect her. This causes the ghost to start to fall in love, a condition soon shared by the young debt collector.

From there, the plot generally wanders towards the idea of saving the ghost from her fate while destroying the ancient evil whose major power is her/his amazing extendable tongue. Just when the movie seems to be getting too serious, some form of comedy slides in to bring it around, or we get an exciting fight scene with folks flying all about, tossing off curses and charms, chants that fend of evil powers or a giant tongue that wraps itself around the temple, the fighters or anything it can get itself around.

The ending, too is not the usual Hollywood, happily-ever-after affair though it does seem to be open enough to two sequels. I don't remember them nearly as well, and haven't watched them, partially as this film stands just fine on its own.
The young debt collector
is played by Hong Kong Pop star Leslie Cheung. His was a huge career, being one of the biggest stars of that kind of music in all Asia. Sadly, he died by committing suicide when 46 due to clinical depression. He was also a rarity in that he was a self-declared bi-sexual, something one does not do in that culture.This is the lovely young woman/ghost at the center of the plot:
And this, the male/female tongue-lashing tree demon:
For fans of cinema that wanders outside the usual boundaries, who love to see people flying about unabashedly on wires, latex effects that range from decent to ridiculous, this is a great entry into Hong Kong movies. Luckily, the film is easily available on YouTube. There are surely some cultural bits and pieces that don't translate but I think these obstacles are easily overlooked. This is a film that will make you smile, question and perhaps even tear up a little in equal parts. Enjoy!


Behemoth media said...

OMG, I never heard of this movie! Or I was high while sitting through it in Chinatown and totally forgot about it. Still I think I would remember that tongue!

T' said...

You should watch it. It's a lot of fun and is kind of crazy. Hong Kong cinema is SO expansive, it's possible to never hear of a lot of their movies. Some of them are just all out crazy and a hell of a great ride.

Behemoth media said...

I don't remember the name but I saw one where the villains attack a village and the entire village fights back with impossible martial arts... including the old grandmother and the new born baby! It was awesome!