A Chinese Ghost Story

cast: Leslie Cheung, Joey Wong, Wu Ma, David Lam, and Lau Siu-ming

director: Ching Siu-tung

92 minutes (15) 1987 widescreen ratio 16:9
Hong Long Legends DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 10/10
reviewed by Tony Lee

Produced by Tsui Hark, this classic Hong Kong supernatural comedy-adventure is one of the greatest fantasy pictures ever made. I rate it among the all-time best screen fantasies, alongside John Boorman’s masterpiece, Excalibur (1981), Terry Gilliam’s highly imaginative The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen (1989), Ray Harryhausen’s mythological fable Jason And The Argonauts (aka: Jason And The Golden Fleece, 1963), John Milius’ swords ‘n’ sorcery epic Conan The Barbarian (1982) and Ridley Scott’s picturesque Legend (1985).
Loosely based on a collection of traditional spooky tales (originally published in book format as The Magic Sword), this tells the story of tax collector Ling Choi-san (played by gay Canto-pop singer Leslie Cheung, who makes for a somewhat effeminate hero), who rather foolishly spends a night alone in haunted Lan Yuek temple – simply because it offers free shelter from a rainstorm – where he endures attacks by hungry corpses (more like the mobile stiffs of Raimi’s Evil Dead than Romero’s grisly zombies), and falls in love with the enchanting Siu Sihn (played by starlet Joey Wong, who later appeared in God Of Gamblers and City Hunter) a beautiful flying ghost being held captive by a hideous tree demon – who plans to marry her off to the 1,000-year-old Dark Lord of Black Mountain. A formidable Taoist swordsman and priest, Lau Yat Dou (Wu Ma), who is later revealed to be the retired Mandarin judge Yin, attempts to intervene in Siu Sihn’s seduction of Ling, and save the young man from his own desires, but…
Unpredictable and dream-like, if not quite surrealistic, events lead to a descent into the very pits of hell, where Ling must save the tormented soul of his ladylove from the clutches of the Dark Lord. Hyperactive monk Yin delivers some amusing ‘rap poetry’. Hong Kong directors Wong Jing and Ronny Yu guest star in a scene at the magistrate’s courtroom. The naïve hero wanders into mortal danger in the smoke-filled woodlands lit by Chinese lanterns, while the heroine soars above the treetops, fighting the influence of a weird and wicked hermaphrodite antagonist. Sanskrit incantations and daylight are like weapons of mass destruction that may vanquish all evil. Nowhere else will you find a marriage of delirious slapstick and bizarre gender inversions such as this.

“The tongue is coming again!”

With immeasurable charm and style, A Chinese Ghost Story (aka: Qiannü Youhun) is a riot of colour and sound perfecting the crudely uncanny atmosphere of Hark’s directorial debut The Butterfly Murders (1979), while redefining the non-stop action pace of his Zu Warriors (1981), into a seamless wall-to-wall extravaganza of mayhem and magic that dares to include such self-parodying visions of monstrous evil as a stretching yards-long tongue, which relentlessly pursues our much harassed hero through a night bewitched forest. The film is a peculiarly intoxicating brew of amazing swordplay and expertly crafted aerial ballet, imaginatively designed creature effects, eerie occult spells and delightfully witty romantic comedy scenes, with a particularly memorable and evocative score by Romeo Diaz and James Wong. Daringly derivative, with iconic and theatrical caricatures bordering on generic pantomime instead of truly authentic characters, this film is wildly entertaining nonetheless, and demonstrates how extraordinary and breathtaking pure fantasy cinema may become when black magic is allowed out of the shadows of horror.
The tremendous international success of A Chinese Ghost Story resulted in two sequels A Chinese Ghost Story II (aka: Qiannü Youhun zhi Renjian Dao, 1990), and A Chinese Ghost Story III (aka: Qiannü Youhun III Dao Dao Dao, 1991), reuniting the director and producer if not the main cast.
The DVD offers a digitally restored and re-mastered anamorphic transfer with rich Dolby digital 5.1 audio, a typically helpful and interesting expert commentary by Bey Logan, a tribute to Leslie Cheung (who committed suicide early this year), exclusive interviews with Tsui Hark (in Master Of Illusion, 24 minutes), and Wu Ma (in The Warrior, 29 minutes, English subtitled), plus two trailers.