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Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, Pt. 3: It Seems We Have to Storm Hell!

Unlike the situation with Zu, producer Tsui Hark intended to use an entirely Chinese crew for A Chinese Ghost Story, figuring it was easier to teach Chinese technicians how to pull off Hollywood-style effects than it was to teach Hollywood technicians how to work in the Hong Kong film industry. The film was another hit for Hark and another stormy relationship with his director. As with John Woo, Hark’s partnership with Ching Siu-tung resulted in some greatest films and then end in tatters. Hark unwillingness to acknowledge where the producer’s desk ended and the director’s chair began was a source of constant friction between him and Ching Siu-tung.

A Chinese Ghost Story remains about as faithful to Pu’s original story as did Enchanting Shadow, at least for about half of the film. It stars Leslie Cheung, an astronomically popular pop star at the time who was fresh off the success of his supporting role in A Better Tomorrow. He plays Ning, the hapless tax collector in a semi-lawless part of China. He meets with little success in his career and is, unsurprisingly, not welcome at the local inns. Unable to find a room in town, he is forced to sleep in a creepy abandoned temple that is rumored to be haunted. And indeed, things at the temple are pretty high on the creep factor, including (unbeknownst to Ning) a bunch of corpses lying restlessly in the basement, and two rival Taoist ghost hunters (Lam Wai as Hah Hau, and Wu Ma as Yin Chik-ha, in a performance that turned the venerable old hand into a bona fide superstar).

Ning also discovers a neighbor in a nearby pavilion, a woman named Hsiao-ch’ien, played by Joey Wong Tsu-hsien. Swept away partly by Hsiao-ch’ien’s beauty, but also by his desperate desire to be gallant, Ning is oblivious to the fact that Hsiao-ch’ien is trying to seduce — and kill — him. Eventually, Ning discovers Hsiao-ch’ien’s is a ghost forced to suck the souls out of men for her master, a flamboyant tree demon that has attracted the attention of swordsman Yin, who is there to slay devils and perform amazing musical numbers for his own amusement.

Despite the gulf between them, Ning and Hsiao-ch’ien fall in love, and though Yin is convinced that nothing but tragedy can come from a romance between a human and a ghost, he becomes their ally against the wrathful Tree Demon (played by Lau Siu-ming) and Hsiao-ch’ien’s scheming ghost sisters. Their defiance of worlds both human and demon leads to a special effects-laden raid on Hell, at which point A Chinese Ghost Story veers pretty wildly away from Pu’s story, the finale of which involves nothing more outrageous than Hsiao-ch’ien’s demon master getting burned by a tiny magic sword in a bag hanging over Ning’s window (assorted other of the film’s subplots, like Ning mistaking Yin for a famous bandit and his somewhat slapstick adventures with the hungry corpses of Hsiao-ch’ien’s previous victims, are original to the movie and barely seem to intersect with the main plot).

Despite being the biggest pop star in Asia at the time, Leslie Cheung was still a rookie actor. One of ten children in a broken home, and the son of a prominent Hong Kong tailor, Cheung eventually went to school and worked as a bartender in England, during which time he chose the Western name Leslie for himself since he liked Leslie Howard as Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind. In his spare time, he started singing. After returning to Hong Kong to care for his ailing father, Cheung caught fire as a pop star. By the middle of the 1980s, he was one of the most popular performers in Hong Kong, part of an elite class that included Alan Tam, Jacky Cheung, Sally Yeh, Anita Mui, and Andy Lau. It was common (and still is) for pop idols to parlay their stage success into film, and so it was that Cheung found himself cast in movies, first in small roles, then in Patrick Tam’s Nomad, a 1982 film about disillusioned and directionless youth. For his role in Nomad, Cheung was nominated for a best actor award. Despite the nomination, his film career wasn’t really notable until 1986, when he landed a supporting role as the upstanding younger brother of career criminal Ti Lung in A Better Tomorrow.

His performance in Woo’s blood-soaked masterpiece is awkward. It doesn’t help that such a green actor is expected to hold his ground against Ti Lung, an experienced and charismatic veteran of the Shaw Brothers studio, and Chow Yun-fat, until then an easily ignored actor in easily ignored films who proved with his role in A Better Tomorrow that he was ready to emerge as one of the most beloved and iconic actors in Hong Kong cinematic history. Sandwiched in between the triumphant return of one actor and the triumphant ascension of another in a film that would become one of the most revered of all time, poor Leslie is in over his head. But he was popular, and A Better Tomorrow was successful enough that he scored a lead role in Stanley Kwan’s ghostly romance, Rouge, opposite powerhouse Anita Mui.

That same year, he reprised his role as Kit in the rushed, slapdash A Better Tomorrow II, and then starred in A Chinese Ghost Story. His performance in A Chinese Ghost Story is still awkward, but in this case, the role demands awkward. Ning is a nervous, uncomfortable person, and whatever limitations worked against Cheung in A Better Tomorrow are  strengths in A Chinese Ghost Story. Where the Ning in Pu’s short story was a righteous man, brave and “a good Confucian,” Leslie Cheung’s Ning is awkward, clumsy, and timid — but often brave despite it. His Ning is vulnerable, relatable, and is willing to face extreme supernatural peril despite the fact that he is scared witless.

The other half of the romantic couple was played by another relative newcomer, Taiwanese-born Joey Wong Tsu-hsien. Like Cheung, she appeared in a number of films with little success. Considered tall and lanky as a youth, her athletic father encouraged her to become a basketball player. It was while filming a commercial for a brand of sports shoes in Taiwan that she caught the eye of film producers. Mona Fong, the woman who made the Shaw Brothers studio work, recruited Joey and cast her in her first big film, Let’s Make Laugh II, opposite Derek Yee, the younger brother of studio legend David Chiang.  An unfortunate blow, to be sure, to the popularity of professional Taiwanese women’s basketball, but a fantastic break for Wong.

 A Chinese Ghost Story was Wong’s first major lead role, and as the ethereal beauty Hsiao-ch’ien, it’s hard to imagine anyone else being quite so effective. She moves with fluid grace and, like Leslie Cheung, manages to be both vulnerable and strong. Both are imperfect. Ning’s aspiration to be a courageous, righteous scholar is frequently undermined by simple human frailty. Despite this, he embarks on a strange and threatening adventure. When he succeeds, it is often by accident, but his accomplishments mean more because he isn’t a super-powerful, ultra-competent martial arts master who knows everything. He’s just some guy who has wandered into a strange scenario and does his best to deal with it. Similarly, Joey Wong’s Hsiao-ch’ien is in theory the story’s damsel in distress, and though she does indeed need help, it’s not a case of the men riding to her rescue. She plays an active role in her own salvation, fights the battles, and more often than not saves the well-meaning but inexperienced Ning’s hide. Ning is not a mighty hero; nor is Hsiao-ch’ien. They are just two people (well, one person and a ghost). Their imperfection is what makes them moving.

A Chinese Ghost Story made Joey Wong a star, but it was a double-edged sword. She was often typecast as a ghostly beauty, including an adaptation of another Pu Songling story, 1993’s Painted Skin, the final film from director King Hu. Despite her success, however, she never quite attained the status of other leading ladies of the time. She had better luck in Taiwan and Japan. She got a starring role in a Japanese television show and released CDs and photo albums there. Despite working steadily throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, by 1994 she was exhausted of the limelight and announced her retirement. She made only sporadic appearances in film and television and recorded only a couple more albums, including one in Japan and one in Mandarin, aptly titled Isolated From The World. In 2003, she starred in Shanghai Story, the film which beat out Zhang Yimou’s heavily favored House of Flying Daggers, for the Golden Rooster’s Best Picture award (Golden Rooster is China’s equivalent to Hong Kong’s Golden Horse, which is in turn the equivalent of the American Oscars). The experience was apparently good enough that Wong decided to return to filmmaking.

Then, on April 1, 2003, Leslie Cheung, with whom she had formed a close and lasting friendship, committed suicide.

When They Were Young: Anita Mui (1963-2003) and Leslie Cheung (1956-2003)

Despite his success, Cheung suffered from depression, a condition exacerbated by the tabloid press hounding him over his sexuality. H came out as gay in 1997 during a concert and starred as Tony Leung Chiu-wai’s lover in Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together. Relentless tabloid badgering made it impossible for him to get the privacy and medical attention he needed. According to his sister, Cheung’s depression only made him more depressed, as he was well aware of what a charmed life he led and could not understand why he was sad. His suicide note was heartbreaking in its simplicity. Tens of thousands traveled to Hong Kong for his funeral.

Joey Wong, greatly affected by the tragic death of her friend and co-star, cancelled her return to screen and remains to this day largely out of the public sight. In 2011, A Chinese Ghost Story was remastered and re-released to Hong Kong theaters. Ching Siu-tung had no idea where to find Joey, finally getting in touch with her family in Taiwan, who relayed to her the director’s invitation to attend the premiere. Joey, who was living in Vancouver, politely declined the invitation.

As did Wu Ma, a mainstay in Hong Kong film since the 1960s and who passed away in 2014. Originally a machinist by trade, for most of his career Wu Ma was a dependable character actor, appearing as a father, wily master, village elder, or sly con-man in dozens of films. He even stumbled into directing, when the work visa for an assigned director for a production shooting Japan didn’t clear in time. “Why not?” figured Wu Ma, when panicked producers pointed randomly at him to take over the job. He became one of the most recognizable faces in Hong Kong cinema. His role in A Chinese Ghost Story finally brought him the accolades he deserved.

A Chinese Ghost Story spawned two sequels, both of which are good but neither of which are the measure of the original. A Chinese Ghost Story II is a direct continuation of the story, with Leslie Cheung reprising his role as Ning and Joey Wong returning as a fierce female warrior who might be the reincarnation of Hsiao-ch’ien. It’s an enjoyable sequel, if somewhat lacking the heart as the original. A Chinese Ghost Story III is basically a remake of the original, with Tony Leung Chiu-wai taking the place of Leslie Cheung, this time as a monk rather than a tax collector. Joey Wong is once again the spectral beauty, and Jacky Cheung hams it up in the role of the swordsman. Aside from those sequels, A Chinese Ghost Story unleashed a flood of “ghostly lover” movies telling the same basic story and often featuring at least one member of the Chinese Ghost Story cast. During a slump in his career following the hand-over of Hong Kong to China, Tsui Hark himself revisited the franchise, albeit it in animated form. A Chinese Ghost Story: The Animation is a fun film, colorful and fast-moving, but it is much more a wacky kids’ adventure movie than it is anything in the bittersweet spirit of A Chinese Ghost Story. In 2011, the movie was remade yet again, this time by director Wilson Yip.

Of all the movies from that amazing decade of the New Wave, A Chinese Ghost Story is among the best. While the dazzling special effects that highlight it are certainly wonderful, it’s the story of doomed love at the center of the film that pulls one in and gives the film a soul that is absent from similar special effects spectacles. It does not depend on its special effects or wild choreography, and instead remains faithful to the central romance even when the most insane stuff is happening and Wu Ma is being attacked by a giant tongue. It’s a perfect storm of New Wave outrageousness and old-fashioned sentimentality anchored by strong performances and, it should be noted, a fantastic soundtrack composed by Romeo Diaz, James Wong, and David Wu with great theme songs sung by Leslie Cheung and Sally Yeh. It pays homage to both Enchanting Shadow and Pu Songling’s short story while still being something very different from them.

“The Magic Sword” is a modest story from which a massive tree demon sprung. Years after the initial release of A Chinese Ghost Story, it has lost none of its power. One is still easily carried away on those waves of billowing red silk and just as easily falls in love with Joey Wong all over again every time. Joey Wong may have glided elegantly off into retirement, Wu Ma may have passed on, and Leslie Cheung may have joined Betty Li Toh as sacrifices on the demanding altar of fame, but for a whole generation of film fans, and hopefully for generations yet to come, A Chinese Ghost Story remains one of the most iconic films from one of the most iconic eras in cinema history.

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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.

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