Menu
Home / Film / Feature Articles / Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, Pt. 1: From the Ming Dynasty to the Shaw Brothers Dynasty
The Dare

Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, Pt. 1: From the Ming Dynasty to the Shaw Brothers Dynasty

There is little in the short story “The Magic Sword,” part of the compiled writing of Chinese author Pu Songling known as Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (聊齋誌異), that sets it apart from any other story in the collection. Written over the course of many years in the latter portion of the 1600s, Pu’s Strange Tales explores the world of ghosts, demons, monsters, spirits, and otherworldly folklore, usually with an eye toward tsk-tsking its audience over immoral, non-Confucian indiscretions. “The Magic Sword” takes up just a few pages and relays the tale of a young scholar named Ning who, upon finding himself unable to obtain lodging for the night, takes up residence in an abandoned temple. In the temple, he encounters another traveler, a man named Yin, and later that night witnesses a meeting between a couple mysterious people before being visited by a beautiful young woman named Hsiao-ch’ien who attempts to seduce him. Because Ning is righteous and has a sick wife at home, he banishes her from his makeshift chamber. He learns during a subsequent visit that she is a ghost cursed to prey upon men for a demon, and that Yen is a magical swordsman who fights devils. Impressed by the purity of his heart, the ghost implores Ning to help free her from her ghoulish master. From this rather humble story has grown practically an entire film genre, the leading light of which is Ching Siu-tung’s 1987 masterpiece of the Hong Kong New Wave, Chinese Ghost Story (倩女幽魂).

Pu Songling’s short stories have served as the source for a number of films, but none seem to have stuck quite the tenacity as “The Magic Sword,” though to be fair, that probably has more to do with people aping Chinese Ghost Story than having any sort of fondness for Pu Songling. Pu himself was a middling civil servant who harbored a chip on his shoulder. His critical view of what was then-modern society is reflected in many of the tales, where the monsters are revealed to be nobler and more trustworthy than the human characters. Bitterness over the Qing dynasty was rampant during those early years (serving as the backdrop for pretty much all of your favorite kung fu films from the 1970s), owing to the fact that the Qing were foreign invaders from Manchuria, to China’s north. Although the rotten and corrupt nature of the late Ming dynasty contributed substantially to Manchuria’s ability to conquer China, whatever shortcomings the Ming had were quickly forgotten amid anti-Manchurian cries to “restore the Ming!” It never happened, though, and the Qing ruled for so long that they became pretty much indistinguishable from native Chinese.

It’s likely that the civil dissent regarding the Qing empire (as well as the lingering corruption of the last Ming court) colored Pu’s opinion of his fellow man as expressed in his writing. Centuries later, the phantasmagoric weirdness of his stories inspired dozens of Hong Kong film makers — among them, director/choreographer Ching Siu-tung and director/producer Tsui Hark. But A Chinese Ghost Story wasn’t exactly an adaptation of one of Pu’s strange tales, or at least that wasn’t the film’s only inspiration. It is also, in part, a remake of an earlier Shaw Brothers movie, 1960’s Enchanting Shadow (倩女幽魂). The plot of  A Chinese Ghost Story is very close to Enchanting Shadow, but where the 1987 movie is full of frenetic energy and insane special effects, Enchanting Shadow has the feel of an older horror film, something along the lines of the samurai ghost tales by Japanese master Nobuo Nakagawa, and in some places, even a Hammer horror movie.

Flickering Shadows at the Shaw Brothers Studio

Enchanting Shadow takes place in the dying days of the Ming Dynasty, with war between the collapsing remnants of the Ming and the conquering Qing ravaging the countryside. A young civil servant named Ning (Zhao Lei) is making his way through the battered kingdom in order to fulfill a promise to his dying mother. Unfortunately, the town he finds himself in at sunset one night is stuffed to the gills with refugees, travelers, and soldiers, leaving nary a room to be rented. Ning figures he’ll just do the “backpacking across Asia” thing and find himself a temple to crash in for the night. He doesn’t much mind that the temple is abandoned and in a state of decay, nor does he put much stock in local opinion that the place is haunted. After spending a hefty sum of money to find a rickshaw carrier to get him close to the temple (no one will actually go to it, regardless of how much money Ning offers), Ning makes himself at home in the dilapidated old structure. He soon learns, however, that he is not alone.

Camping out in the old temple as well is a Taoist swordsman named Yan (Yeung Chi-Hing). Enchanting Shadow differs slightly from the later A Chinese Ghost Story in that the swordsman isn’t initially antagonistic toward the happy-go-lucky Ning. A bit puzzled by the lad, and standoffish at first, maybe even bemused, but generally, Yan welcomes the company. Nor is he a dedicated ghost buster, as Wu Ma’s version of the character later is, taking instead a “live and let live” attitude toward ghosts reflective of Pu Songliong’s respect for monsters over man. However, both versions of the swordsman do get to sing and practice their sword technique. Yan and Ning talk about the state of the country and why each of them is not fighting in the war — Ning because of piety toward his mother, and Yan because he has rejected the conflicts and political machinations of man. When the subject of haunting comes up, Yan just gives a non-committal shrug, remarking that even if there are ghosts, some of them are probably substantially more honorable than men.

Ning soon discovers that Yan is not his only neighbor. A villa next to the old temple is also hopping, with a group of attractive young women lounging about the place. One in particular, Hsiao-Chien (Betty Loh Tih), catches Ning’s attention with her guzheng playing, painting, and poetry composing — all artistic pursuits that are near and dear to the scholar’s heart. Ning gets busted sneaking into Hsiao-Chien’s room to help complete an unfinished poem, and the young woman doesn’t take too kindly to the lad’s prowling. Still, after a stormy start, the two become close, eventually even falling in love — which would be sweet if Hsiao-Chien didn’t turn out to be a ghost, her well-appointed villa an illusion covering a decrepit haunted house, and her mistress (Tong Yeuk-Ching) a demanding old ghoul with a taste for the flesh of young scholars.

Enchanting Shadow isn’t particularly scary most of the time, but it does boast an effectively creepy atmosphere. Director Li Han-Hsiang was famous for his attention to detail, and his obsession with art direction and sets means that Enchanting Shadow takes place in a well realized, highly stylized universe. The decaying temple is drenched in cobwebs and dust and ruined old furniture, making it feel very much like a decrepit old temple rather than a movie set of a decrepit old temple. Even if you didn’t already know the story, there’s something undeniably wrong and supernatural about the place.

1957 and 1958 saw the introduction of “Hammer horror” to the world. It’s a good bet that someone involved with the making of Enchanting Shadow was influenced a great deal by the new style horror films emerging from England’s Hammer Studio (the Shaw Bros. studio would eventually collaborate with Hammer on a few films, most notably The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires). There are several scenes in Enchanting Shadow that but for the costumes could have come right out of Hammer’s Dracula movie. Ning’s first ride to the haunted temple is very much a “I will not take you to Castle Dracula!” moment, as is the reaction of everyone to his insistence on going to the temple. It’s a little surprising Ning didn’t walk into an inn and order a jug of wine from Michael Ripper. The attention to detail, sets, and props was also a hallmark of the Hammer horror films, and the final showdown between Ning, the swordsman, Hsiao-Chien, and the devil granny feels exactly like the finale of a Dracula film, right down to the smoking skeleton lying behind “The End.”

Other aspects of the film recall the work of Japanese director Nobuo Nakagawa, who made a name for himself directing eerie period pieces featuring vengeful ghosts and fiendish samurai at roughly the same time as the birth of Hammer horror and the Shaw decision to get in on the game with Enchanting Shadow. Nakagawa’s films used many of the same cultural shorthand signs to communicate the strange and eerie, the primary one being the use of colors, especially green lights, to let you know when something was ghostin’ around. Enchanting Shadow mixes Nakagawa’s supernatural samurai with the Hammer horror style, plus a dash of local seasoning to create a movie that is both uniquely Chinese yet still speaks the international language of spooky cinema — no matter what your experience with Chinese culture may be, once the scares begin, you will be in familiar territory.

The nighttime journey through increasingly haunted-looking woods is tense, with Ning hurrying to return Hsiao-Chien’s body to a proper graveyard so she can break the granny’s spell over her. The mood and escalating sense of desperation is reminiscent of one of your finer Hammer films, especially any time the heroes are racing to stake Dracula before the sun sets. Somehow they always fail, just as Ning and Hsiao-Chien will fail to outrace her demon mistress. Even though you expect granny to catch up with them, it’s still a frightening moment when it happens. Unfortunately, the finale suffers from a too-sudden resolution, leaving one with a bit of a, “Huh, that wrapped up quickly” reaction. However, any fan of Hammer horror will recognize the tendency to get the credits rolling before Dracula’s corpse is even done dissolving.

Director Li Han-Hsiang had been puttering around the Shaw Brothers studio for a few years before directing Enchanting Shadow. His big break came in 1959, with the romantic epic The Kingdom and the Beauty starring tragic Shaw. leading lady Linda Lin Dai. A year later, Enchanting Shadow cemented Li’s position as one of the studio’s preeminent directors. He specialized in opulent costume dramas and huangmei opera (it’s like a slightly less discordant version of Peking opera) adaptations, and for years his style defined the studio. Working with Enchanting Shadow leading lady Betty Li Toh, he directed some of the biggest and most respected hits in Hong Kong history, most notably The Love Eterne.

Betty Loh Ti was raised by her grandmother after both parents died. She developed an early interest in the performing arts, eventually winning a contract with the Great Wall Film Studios in 1953. Her time at Great Wall passed uneventfully, however, and it wasn’t until she contracted with Shaw Brothers that her star began to rise. She appeared in several of the studio’s biggest films, and eventually married Shaw leading man Peter Chen Ho (a fixture in many of director Inoue Umetsugu’s best musicals for the studio). In 1964, she left Shaw Brothers for Motion Picture and General Investments Limited, where she worked for another four years before an untimely death. Most everyone reports it as suicide, but details are sketchy, at best. During her time at Shaw Brothers though, and thanks to films including Enchanting Shadow, The Love Eterne, and Dream of the Red Chamber, she came to embody everything audiences expected in a leading lady. She was only 31 when she died. If her death was indeed self-inflicted and not an accidental overdose, she would not be the last star associated with this bittersweet tale to take her own life.

As huangmei films began to lose popularity, Li Han-Hsiang decided to seek his fortunes elsewhere. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out, and he soon found himself back at Shaw Brothers. Things had changed though, and Li soon found himself tasked with directing skin flicks. Not one to be deterred by smuttier material, Li dove into them with gusto, bringing the same sort of lavishness and craftsmanship to his erotic films as he’d achieved with his epics the previous decade. In 1982, he directed Passing Flickers, a bawdy, uproarious, nudity-packed celebration — and skewering — of the motion picture business in general, and the Shaw Brothers studio in particular.

Unfortunately for leading man Zhao Lei, he’s trapped between one of the greatest leading ladies in Hong Kong cinema history and one of Shaw Brothers’ greatest supporting actors (Yeung Chi-Hing) giving what has to be one of his best performances, as swordsman Yan, the world-weary warrior-monk and part-time expert on the supernatural. Surrounded by such elegance on one side and such boisterous charisma on the other, Zhao Lei’s affable scholar gets lost in the mix. Like Li Han-Hsiang, Zhao enjoyed a long career that saw him, like many long-lived actors, struggling to adapt to changing trends. He performed in a number of big films from the 1960s, including A Story of Three Loves starring Grace Chang, several Betty Loh Ti films, and a few of Li Han-Hsiang’s major films of the period. In the 1970s, he popped up in a number of interesting kung fu films, including King Hu’s The Valiant Ones and the utterly ridiculous but ridiculously entertaining Monkey with 72 Magic. By 1982, his career was winding down, but before his death in 1989, he came out for one more go-round in John Woo’s Just Heroes, a veritable who’s who of old school veterans and, for some reason, comedian Stephen Chow.

Enchanting Shadow is the sort of refined, artfully crafted film you don’t see much of any more, with an attention to detail that wouldn’t be matched until Chu Yuan started directed wuxia movies for the same studio. It was one of the first significant films in the fledgling Hong Kong horror scene and would be worth seeing for historical importance alone. Luckily, it has a lot more to offer the viewer than a mere film history lesson. It’s a beautifully acted, beautifully crafted, genuinely creepy high point in the long tradition of good old fashioned ghost stories.

About a quarter of a century later, Tsui Hark and Ching Siu-tung looked back to Enchanting Shadow, and to Pu Songling, and came up with an idea that resulted in, if not the greatest film of the Hong Kong New Wave, then at the very least my personal favorite…

Hammer Horror: The Warner Bros Years

About Keith Allison

Keith Allison is a writer and pop culture historian living in New York. His interest in film and adventure started at an early age, when he was left to his own devices in the wee small hours and discovered the Universal monsters, Godzilla, and "Matinee at the Bijou." He has written for Alcohol Professor, The Cultural Gutter, Teleport City and the book Sex and Zen and a Bullet in the Head. He is also the author of Cocktails & Capers: Cult Film, Cocktails, Crime, and Cool.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Stay Informed. Subscribe To Our Newsletter!

You will never receive spam. Unsubscribe at any time.

You have Successfully Subscribed!