This is the second chapter of a short series of articles featuring a personal selection of “alternative” movie and TV- recommendations for the “most wonderful time of the year”. My idea is to eschew the usual works that are brought up during the season every year.
The presented selections may be Christmas-themed, but not necessarily. Some of them I chose for being adequate to create a Christmas-y feeling even though they are not connected to the holiday, others just take place during the holiday but are not silent and holy at all.
My second entry is not related to Christmas at all… but spreads more seasonal spirit than many “regular” X-mas movies.
A Chinese Ghost Story (1987)
directed by: Ching Siu-Tung
China, somewhen during the 19th century. Ning Choi-San (Leslie Cheung) works in the unthankful position of a debt collector who travels the rural areas. Due to his naive and timid nature he cannot really live up to the demands of his job and gets constantly tossed around by the debtors.
When he lacks the money to afford a room at a tavern in a remote small town, the precarious situation forces him to stay in the infamous haunted forest temple over night, a decision that elicits a collective terrified gasp by the townsfolk. Another warning comes from the slightly crazy Taoist monk Yin Chik-ha (Wu Ma), who made it is his mission to fight the ghosts and demons he is convinced the temple is infested with. Unexpectedly though, Ning doesn’t meet any monsters or demons this night, but a beautiful young woman called Nip Siu-Sin (Joey Wong) the hapless romantic immediately falls for, with unforeseeable consequences. Because it is gradually revealed that Nip is indeed a ghost, doomed to seduce and kill men to harvest their life energy under the rule of the Tree Demonness. Does Nip reciprocate Ning’s love and can it save her? Ning has only two days left till Nip is married to the master of the underworld, but both the Tree Demonness and the crazy monk reveal to be obstacles in the path to happiness and salvation…
It’s impossible for me to write “objectively” about this movie -whatever that means and to be honest I am not sure if I ever did or would want to…. to cut a long story short: This is the movie that ignited my love for Asian cinema at the tender age of 9 years and boy, does it still hold up, unlike some other movies I deemed as masterpieces at that age- looking at you, Home Alone!
Anyway, this audacious mix of Horror, Comedy, Romance and Fantasy, that miraculously still ends up as a tonally consistent, well-rounded experience, was something I had never seen before and is still mostly unparalleled. This movie is truly a treasure trove of cinematic pleasures, from the hilarious interactions between the comedic naturals Wu Ma and Leslie Cheung, the beautiful and spooky visualization of the “Beyond” (see picture above), tree monsters inspired by Evil Dead and a sense of romance, sensuality and sexuality that is expressed in sometimes subtle (Ning’s ankle chainlet), sometimes grotesque (the Tree Demonness’ absurdly long tongue attacking the heroes) images. Several tiny subplots, for example one about the true identity of the Taoist monk, are weaved into the narrative but are actually enriching the story without making it collapse under their weight. FX-wise, this is a great example how to achieve a lot with a miniscule budget- only some even for this era and budget rather poorly realized stop-motion “zombies” in the first third are a little cringe-worthy.
Without the amazing, heartfelt performances by the leads A Chinese Ghost Story would be only half the fun. Wu Ma is simply a blast as the fanatic monk who doesn’t just live Taoism, no he has to “rap” (!) about it in one of the more outlandish moments of the film.
It’s almost impossible not to fall in love a little with the beautiful Joey Wong in her role as the reluctant seductress and you can’t help but root for her. And Leslie Cheung’s turn as the goofy but lovable debt collector is instantly endearing the moment he appears on screen. Sadly Cheung, who was also extremely successful as Cantopop-singer, committed suicide after suffering from severe clinical depression for years in 2003. Apart from his exceptional career, Cheung was remarkable in that he has been the only entertainment star from Hong Kong so far to openly come out as bisexual.
As I stated above, this film most impressive feat is the seamless interplay of several genres, but if I really, really had to pick out the strongest part, I’d be inclined to go with the romantic angle. When it comes to FX and action, Ronny Yu’s masterpiece The Bride with White Hair (1993) tops it, but the -warning!..slightly sad- love story from Chinese Ghost Story is the aspect that will win you over, rampant pathos or not, and stay with you forever.
Finally, the haunting theme song, performed by Cheung himself:
A Chinese Ghost Story was followed by two not as impactful, but very worthy sequels (in 1990 and 1991) and an acceptable, but also rather forgettable remake in 2011.
Magical, dreamy, romantic, bittersweet yet still “feel-good”… you will not even notice the absence of reindeers, snow and cookies (although one could make the point that Wu Ma looks like a badass Martial Arts Santa Clause, if one really wants to). But most importantly, the message is as Christmas-y as it gets: Love conquers all!
Read Part #1 of my series, featuring the underrated Dennis Quaid thriller D.O.A. (1988), here.