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January 12, 2014

Movie Review – A Chinese Ghost Story (2010)

by Master Pillow

I’m probably going to be in the minority here but Wilson Yip’s A Chinese Ghost Story remake of the 1987 classic of the same name, originally staring Joey Wong and Leslie Cheung, is more than a competent take on the tale that will achieve its primary goal – in bringing the story to a new generation of fans who, have no compunction to ever rent or buy a movie older than five years of age.  That is not to say this new version is in any way better than the original but it does at least attempt to mix things up with a radical revision to the primary love story that puts a new spin on old material.  Some will like it and others will rant at the dying of the light that this new version is sacrileges but they would be missing a decent tragic romance that at least is much more restrained than other recent fair that attempts emotional manipulation with the razor sharp skill of an abattoir butcher (I’m looking at you, The Sorcerer and the White Snake).

Admittedly it has been ages since I last saw the original film and though I have fond recollections of the final product I can’t say that it has occupied my thoughts for the past 25 years.  It was a great romance, no more, no less, but I’ve also seen many great genre films over time that have clearly surpassed it.  Its historical impact is surely untouchable as the original was that rare film that managed the next to impossible feat of fashioning a stunning tragic supernatural romance martial arts film that left audiences crying profusely on the way out of the theatre.  Chalk that up to some remarkably apt direction from Tony Ching-Siu Tung and obviously its two charismatic leads in Leslie Cheung and Joey Wong.

Yu Shaoqun is Ning Choi-Shan a happy go lucky naive wandering scholar who one day finds himself in a eerily grey and morose small town.  It turns out that the village well has suddenly dried up and that the inhabitants are basically dying a slow death through dehydration so with some prodding from the village chief Ning Choi-Shan leads an expeditionary group to a nearby mountain to ascertain if he can find the cause of the blockage or discover a new source of water.  As luck would have it his group stumbles upon a mysterious temple where lo and behold a massive fountain with running water resides.  Ecstatic, Ning Choi-Shan begins to test the water and attempts to measure its depth completely oblivious to the fact that the rest of his team have wandered off having been tempted by a bevy of nubile young women who all seem to want to, “get it on.”

chinese_ghost_story_2010_03

Oh, oh, we know where this is headed and soon the young women reveal their real identities, that of demons that suck the living energy right out of their victims leaving their bodies a mass of broken husks.  Ning, now wondering where everyone is, suddenly finds himself face-to-face with the beautiful fox demon Siu Sin (Liu Yifei) who has taken human form in an attempt to seduce him but is completely stymied in her advances due to his inherently good nature and purity.  Obviously, the audience can see where this is headed and the two slowly begin to fall in love even though they are beset by two third party entities that do not want to see the consummation of their romance.  The first is an ancient tree spirit who is revealed to have control over Siu Sin forcing her to suck human energy for her mistress’s use.  The other is a Van Helsing wannabe demon hunter named Yin Chek Ha (Louis Koo) who randomly appears to either stymie or help the young couple in their romantic adventures.

This new version manages to initially excite by essentially reworking the romantic story into your basic love triangle to add much intrigue.  Fans of the original will know that the narrative centered on the blossoming love between the Siu Sin and the bumbling scholar Ning Choi-Shan but here in the new version it has been totally reconstructed into a love triangle with the two aforementioned characters and the demon hunter Yin Chek Ha.

Any astute moviegoer will quickly come to grips with why this new setup is rife with possibilities as well as understanding within the first ten minutes the entire end game and how the tragic romantic angle will rear its ugly head.  The main differentiator here in this new love triangle is that the screenwriters have created two parallel storylines that act to force Siu Sin to decide between either Ning Choi-Shan and Yin Chek Ha by essentially mirroring their love.

You see, it is revealed within the opening scene that Siu Sin and Yin Chek Ha formerly fell in love long ago.  Being a demon hunter, Yin Chek Ha should have understood that love between demons and humans was an ill-fated gamble that always ended in tragedy but he did so anyways, attracted to Siu Sin’s ethereal charms.  The feeling is mutual yet fate is an ugly mistress and it is revealed that Siu Sin, as a demon, will always have a predilection for sucking the energy from human beings so Yin Chek Ha decides on the only honorable path which is to plunge his magic dagger into her head essentially wiping her memory of their time together.  Cue the violin music yet right away it isn’t hard to identify that Yin Chek Ha’s solution to their problem is only temporary and that it is probably going to come back to bite both him and his former demon lover in their posteriors sometime in the future.

Without any memory of her first true love she goes about her business until she finally meets Ning Choi-Shan in the temple and promptly falls in love with him over the course of the film as he constantly takes her side even though he discovers her true demon heritage.  What makes this new version exciting is that for once a movie at least tries to show how a woman can fall in love with two equally heroic people without resorting to traditional Hollywood ridiculousness by making one choice obviously better than the other.  Just think of some recent films like Midnight in Paris where the main character has a choice of two women yet one is so vaingloriously self-indulgent that the audience intrinsically understands who he will choose long before his epiphany.  Not so here in A Chinese Ghost Story and that makes for a wholly refreshing feel that is sustained for at least half the running time.

The movie at least makes a gamely attempt to show the blossoming love between Siu Sin and the scholar as the two constantly make decisions that benefit the other yet at the same time the entire film has a massively bittersweet flavour because we understand that whenever Yin Chek Ha sees the two together how his heart must be on the verge of collapse as he is basically watching his former lover fall for someone else.  At the same time, because she now has no recollection of him, she treats him as her enemy as every demon is well aware that the demon hunters are only there to wipe them from the planet. The tragic structure, obvious as it is, is frequently buffeted by some light-comedy yet in a pleasantly surprising move it never degenerates to slapstick humour that is geared to the lowest common denominator.

However, the problem with this new narrative is that it doesn’t hold up the longer the film plays.  The issue here is a script that wears itself out as well as the performance of Yu Shaoqun as Ning Choi-Shan.  Yu does a competent job playing the innocent clod in the first act making his pure zest for life appealing enough to at least create some justification as to how Siu Sin falls for him but as the film progresses Yu never grows out of this narrow acting range.  At the same time, as the movie hurtles towards its climax it becomes more and more apparent that Yin Chek Ha is the hero here not only through his physical skill but also his honor in trying to protect the young lovers all the while having a hole in his heart.  In other words, the equally balanced romance that is created in the first two acts completely breaks down in the finale making Siu Sin’s decision all the more easier.

The script also doesn’t do Ning Choi-Shan any favours as he is reduced to a third wheel with no intellectual or physical skill to help in the coming battle with the tree spirit.  Instead he keeps succeeding due to dumb luck which creates a jarring contrast whenever his exploits are intercut with Yin Chek Ha’s valiant deeds.

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That said director Wilson Yip manages to bring a keen eye to the visuals here especially with the glorious use of desaturated colours that create a wonderfully eerie yet ethereal atmosphere.  At the same time the prodigious CG is mostly of good calibre with a few inventive sequences such as one where the demon hunter Yin Chek Ha is stuck in a kind of supernatural realm filled with nothing but a sea of undulating leaves.  Yes, some of the CG enhanced flying effects are pedestrian due to some shoddy green screen work and a next to total lack of believable physics and momentum but these misses are balanced by some swanky martial arts superhero-like segments where the demon hunters can manipulate the trajectory of swords in dazzlingly fluid movement that make for some exciting shots.

Speaking of individual shot composition Yip falls prey to overusing Dutch angles including one shot in particular that for an inexplicable reason starts almost upside down but at least he understands how to utilize a film’s soundtrack as it is much more subdued, only rising when truly important narrative beats appear.  In a way I can’t help but compare it to The Sorcerer and the White Snake where the musical soundtrack went completely haywire and was a great contributor to ruining that film which comes as a shock because its director is Tony Ching-Siu Tung who fans will know made the original Chinese Ghost Story.  Ironic that he seems to have forgotten all he learned in his classic romance and decided on a totally bombastic score that is completely ill-advised.  Yip also shows some class by using the same vocal song from the original A Chinese Ghost Story here as well and thankfully it also is utilized sparingly to accentuate scenes instead of blaring at any chance it can get.

In the end this remake certainly has its fair share of flaws yet it has enough originality and gumption to recommend.

**1/2 out of ****

2010, China, 101 Min, Golden Sun Films, Panorama Corporation
Directed by Wilson Yip
Screenwriter Charcoal Tan
Story by Pu Songling
Produced by Lai Jun-Kei, Xu Jianhai
Original Music by Ronald Ng
Cinematography by Arthur Wong
Action Choreographer Yuk-Sing Ma
Set Designer Wai Yan Wong

Louis Koo: Yin Chek Ha / Yan Chi Xia
Liu YiFei: Siu Sin / Nie Xiaoqian
Yu Shaoqun: Ning Choi-Shan
Kara Hui: Laolao the tree demon
Louis Fan: Xia Xuefenglei
Elvis Tsui: The Village Chief

© 2014 The Galactic Pillow

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