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Chinese Ghost Story: The Animation

Tsui Hark’s one modest ambition in life was to forever change the way movies were made in Hong Kong. Just that. A small order, right? The amazing thing is that he managed to pull it off. His work in the early 1980s served as one of the foundations of what would become known as the Hong Kong New Wave — that heady period of filmmaking from the 1980s through to the middle of the 1990s when new filmmakers and new styles of filmmaking were running rampant and turning Hong Kong into the most interesting movie making mecca in the world. It’s no accident that Hark found himself in the middle of this cinematic upheaval, just as it’s no accident that what happened in Hong Kong then so closely mirrored what had happened with American filmmaking in the 1970s. The old guard was puttering along, making movies that were out of touch with what young filmgoers wanted. The hungry new generation was waiting to bust out from under the thumb of their mentors and flood the market with bold new approaches and ideas. And finally it got to the point that the next generation could not be contained. They took control, and nothing was the same again.

In the United States, it had been a group of young filmmakers who all knew each other: Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese. They represented one of the first generations of filmmakers to come up through film school rather than learning the craft as a vocation via something like industrial training movies or working for the military. And along with a host of other directors who debuted in the 1970s, they were at the forefront of pushing for both a new way of making movies and a new way of selling them. Spielberg, in particular, was instrumental in the evolution of blockbuster marketing. The release of Jaws sparked a new way of seeing and selling movies. Certainly there had been blockbusters before; but Jaws was one of the first to really make that sort of film marketing the norm. Shortly thereafter, George Lucas blew the top off the industry when his sure-to-fail sci-fi romp Star Wars became one of the biggest movies of all time, spawning an entire and enduring cottage industry that turned Star Wars from a movie into a cultural cornerstone.

At around the same time, a young film student named Tsui Hark was toiling away in his classes at the University of Texas. When he saw what the Young Turks of America were doing, he suddenly found his mission in life: to bring this sort of filmmaking, these sorts of production values, these sorts of special effects back with him to Hong Kong and apply them to uniquely Chinese stories. Hark’s multi-cultural background made him a perfect candidate for melding these various influence. His parents were Chinese, but he grew up in Saigon. When he was thirteen, his family moved to Hong Kong, and later he ended up in Austin, Texas. After completing his education, Hark moved to New York, where he worked on documentary films, edited a Chinatown newspaper, founded a community theater group, and worked at one of the early Chinese language cable stations in the city. He was adrift in a sea of cultures, and pulling them all together would be the core of his filmmaking style.

By 1977, he was ready to return to Hong Kong. It was a year in which a lot was starting to change. The film industry at that time was just beginning a period of intense transformation. The Shaw Bros studio, which had so effectively ruled the Hong Kong film market for so long, was still going strong but cracks were beginning to show. Audiences were beginning to think that maybe they’d seen enough Chang Cheh movies where Ti Lung dies heroically after getting stabbed in the belly. Where they had once been at the forefront of cutting edge filmmaking, Shaw Bros. productions were starting to look old-fashioned. At the same time, more nimble studios were picking up bit players and could-have-beens from other studios and giving them a chance to step into the spotlight with considerably more creative freedom than they’d been afforded previously.

In 1978, things began to happen very rapidly. Accomplished Hong Kong director Lo Wei, his production company short on cash, loaned out one of his bigger failures to the Taiwan-based studio Seasonal Films. The failure was Jackie Chan, and Lo Wei had been frustrated by the goofy-looking young actor’s inability to become “as big as Bruce Lee.” Similarly, Chan was bristling with ideas and talent that were stifled under Lo Wei’s guidance. At Seasonal however, he was paired with a young director-choreographer named Yuen Wo-ping. They made two movies together — Drunken Master and Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow — pairing young Chan with the more senior Yuen Siu-tien. Yuen’s vision of what a kungu film could be seemed perfectly matched with Chan’s ability to deliver that vision, and the resulting films instantly made all other kungfu films seem quaint and plodding by comparison. Chan and Yuen brought a frenetic, breakneck speed and complexity to their fight scenes the likes of which had never been seen before.

Around the same time, two actors who had studied at the same Peking Opera school as Chan and been stymied by the same stalled careers, were finding an outlet for their own creativity. Sammo Hung had been on the scene for a long time, both as a choreographer and extra, but with 1979’s Magnificent Butcher, he became a superstar and showed the world just what sort of acrobatic wonders the fat man was capable of executing. Similarly, Yuen Biao arrived on the scene via Knockabout. Both of these groundbreaking films were, somewhat ironically, part of the oldest series in Hong Kong film history: the Wong Fei-hong films starring venerable Hong Kong movie legend Kwan Tak-hing. At least it seems ironic at first. But it was Kwan and his movies that revolutionized Hong Kong action film making in the early days of the industry, introducing the concept of fight choreography and less static cameras. With that knowledge, it seems only proper that the series, near the end of its life, would birth yet another game changing stylistic shift.

Although not working together at first, Chan, Hung, and Yuen Biao all came from the same background and seemed to share a common vision of how to take the action film to undreamed of levels. Once their combination of precision choreography, eye-popping acrobatics, bone-shattering stunts, and Three Stooges-esque comedy hit screens, there was no going back to the staid and steady style that had served the Shaw Bros. so well before. However, the Shaw Bros. weren’t entirely left in the wake of the these young innovators. A director by the name of Chu Yuan had begun, in the mid-70s, to break away from the Chang Cheh mold of stoic, serious kungfu epics. Yuan’s films were fanciful, playful, almost delicate. They were also heavy on elements of the fantastic and the supernatural.

Looking back to the wuxia – or swordsman — movies of the 1960s, Chu Yuan filled his movie with smirking warriors flying across highly stylized and artfully decorated sets, calling on esoteric magical kungfu styles and strange powers to aid in their adventures. After years of Chang Cheh’s bare-chested, no-nonsense manliness, Chu Yuan’s more stylish, more delicate (but no less bloody) movies were quite a change of pace for the studio. Ti Lung, who had been the manliest of Chang Cheh’s manly heroes and did not own a shirt from 1971 through 1977, was remolded as a sly, playful swordsman who survived as much by his wits and charms as he did his prowess as a swordsman. And unlike Chang Cheh, Chu Yuan seemed partial to strong female characters as well — something that had been common in the wuxia of the 1960s but had become increasingly rare as the Bruce Lee/Jimmy Wang Yu/Chang Cheh style of film became popular.

That’s a gross oversimplification of the landscape at the time of Tsui Hark’s arrival, but you get the general idea. When he returned to the east, Hark found an industry ripe for revolution and a home at Seasonal Films, where he directed two very interesting failures — 1979’s The Butterfly Murders and 1980’s We Are Going to Eat You. Neither film found an audience at the time (though both have become highly regarded by cult film fans since), but they showcase Hark’s ambition to introduce a new type of film to the Hong Kong market, something a little different from kungfu films, slapstick comedies, or yet another movie where a noble washerwoman is mercilessly pursued by a corrupt bald warlord with a handlebar mustache.

The Butterfly Murders is a bizarre mixture of martial arts fantasy, science fiction, and murder mystery — not entirely unlike the films Chu Yuan was making during the middle of the 70s. We Are Going to Eat You was an equally bizarre mix of kungfu, black comedy, and Italian exploitation gore film. Both wear their Western influences on their sleeve, but just as Hark wanted, both are keenly Chinese stories. Unfortunately, they had been too big a leap forward, too suddenly unfamiliar to audiences. Too weird. Too bleak. Jackie Chan and Yuen Wo-ping had revolutionized Hong Kong filmmaking by revolutionizing a very familiar aspect of it — the kungfu film. They changed the way fights and heroes were handled, but they left much of the essentials in place, so that audiences were not confronted with something they’d never seen so much as they were confronted with something they’d never seen done in quite so unbelievable a fashion.

Hark’s next film was a comedy (All the Wrong Clues), and that was followed by the cynical, nihilistic Don’t Play with Fire — a film whose super-charged political content and plotline involving student radicals and terrorism got Hark in hot water with the Hong Kong government. Like his other films, Don’t Play with Fire was a flop that later garnered a substantial number of admirers. Although it’s still little seen, those who have seen it generally consider it one of the most ambitious and important films of the modern Hong Kong film era. It was certainly the most overtly confrontational and challenging of this “new wave” of Hong Kong cinema, and it gave audiences a glimpse into another side of Tsui Hark’s personality — the manic depressive misanthrope — that was hard for some to deal with. In fact, that cynicism and tendency toward scathing critiques of the human condition infuses much of Hark’s work, even his more fanciful and seemingly frothy films, such as his next one.

Frustrated by his failure to fully realize the vision of sweeping special effects fantasies that he’d brought back with him from America, Hark convinced his new bosses at Golden Harvest (pretty much everyone responsible for the Hong Kong New Wave ended up at Golden Harvest at the beginning of the 1980s) to shell out money to bring over four American special effects experts — Robert Blalack (Star Wars), Peter Kuran (Star Trek: The Motion Picture), Arnie Wong, and John Scheele (both animators from Disney’s TRON). Hark put them to work on his next film, an ambitious martial arts fantasy film called Zu that would throw everything Hark had learned and wanted to do on screen in one massive free-for-all. It was a substantial gamble for a director who, up until that point, had nothing to his name but a string of failures. But Golden Harvest must have recognized the potential in Hark, and they let him go wild.

The result was a mega-hit. Zu garnered multiple awards, both for effects and performances. It was a lavish spectacle, and if all the effects weren’t perfectly realized, the movie made up for it with the sheer number of them it crammed into its running time. Zu salvaged Hark’s career and ushered in the era of big budget Chinese fantasy films. But Hark was dissatisfied with the results. He felt that some of the effects were poorly executed. And indeed there had been considerable tension between Hark and his imported special effects gurus. According to Hark, they were simply not able or willing to adapt to the more seat-of-the-pants way films were produced in Hong Kong. According to the effects people, it was a case of crummy working conditions, limited funds, and a director who’s personality was, to be coy about it, somewhat mercurial. Such is often the case with driven artists, but the fact that it’s common doesn’t make them any easier to work with.

The success of Zu allowed Hark to both direct and produce a string of hits that included the third in the highly popular Aces Go Places action-comedy series as well as another of the most influential films in Hong Kong film history, the John Woo directed A Better Tomorrow. Like many films of the New Wave, A Better Tomorrow was a film comprised of past failures. Ti Lung was considered a has-been. John Woo was the disappointing director of disappointing comedies and kungfu films. Leslie Cheung was a pretty face with no acting ability. And who the hell was Chow Yun-fat? But Woo’s directorial flare guided by Hark’s producer’s instincts resulted in a ground-breaking film. Unfortunately, rumors of Hark’s temperamental personality seemed to be true, and despite the incredible success the two men enjoyed working together, Woo and Hark didn’t enjoy working together and soon parted company.

At the same time as Hark and Woo were inventing the “heroic bloodshed” movie out of the pieces left over from old gangster and Chang Cheh kungfu films, Hark was partnering with another up-and-coming director/choreographer named Ching Siu-tung. The two men collaborated on Hark’s next special effects extravaganza, A Chinese Ghost Story. Unlike Zu, Hark intended to use an entirely Chinese crew, 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. It was another mega-hit for Hark, and another stormy relationship with his director. Like the relationship with Woo, Hark’s partnership with Ching Siu-tung would result in some of the greatest films in Hong Kong history, then end in tatters and bitterness. Most of it seems to have revolved around Hark’s unwillingness to acknowledge where the producer’s desk ends and the director’s chair begins.

There is, of course, much more to Tsui Hark’s career than we’ve covered so far, but let us divert at this point and actually turn our attention to the movie we’re here to discuss. A Chinese Ghost Story is one of my all-time favorite movies. It is a perfect blend of jaw-dropping choreography, stunning effects, comedy, horror, action, and genuine human emotion. Plus, you know, Joey Wong. It was one of the first Hong Kong New Wave movies I ever saw (the same night as I first saw Project A), and I think the second DVD I ever bought (the first was Conan the Barbarian; the third was This is Spinal Tap — unless I’ve claimed otherwise elsewhere, in which case, well, who really cares, right?).

Part of what I loved about it, aside from the sheer spectacle and Wo Ma’s song, was that it’s still informed by Tsui Hark’s sense of nihilism. Don’t Play With Fire was too up front about its anger to be palatable to mainstream audiences, but Hark found a way to communicate the same basic message by wrapping it in a psychedelic light show. Zu is a frantic visual festival, but beneath all the candy coloring is a tremendously downbeat message. Despite the monumental efforts of our heroes, despite risking their lives to battle pure evil, the good guys realize that their quest was more or less a failure when they return to earth and discover that it was all for naught. The armies of humanity are still intent on butchering one another over petty grievances no one can even clearly recall. A Chinese Ghost Story has that same kind of world weary fatalism wrapped inside a colorful shell. And most of Hark’s best work, both as director and producer, has that same sense of melancholy about it: the Swordsman films, Green Snake, The Blade — all of them share a common theme about heroic struggle being nothing more than a few won battles in a war that human nature has doomed us to lose.

I liked the Chinese Ghost Story sequels as well, though neither of them captured the same sense of magic or ennui as the original. After the third film in the series, with the partnership between Tsui Hark and Ching Siu-tung seemingly at its end, and with the third film basically being a remake of the original anyway, there seemed nowhere left for the franchise to go. But Tsui Hark had another idea. Having successfully introduced the big budget effects film to Hong Kong, Hark set about establishing a Hong Kong animation industry. Cartoons had always had a place on Chinese television, but they were exceptionally cheap — if popular — affairs most of the time, and even with the presence of Old Master Q, the Hong Kong animation market was dominated by Japanese imports. Why go through all the trouble of creating your own shows when there were eleven billion episodes of Dragonball already made, with a built-in fanbase? Hark, however, wanted to do with animation what he’d done with special effects: learn from the masters (in this case, Disney and the Japanese studios like Ghibli), then apply what they’d done to a Chinese story. And heck, why not make that Chinese story a Chinese ghost story?

Chinese animation, or at least what small amount is available for sampling, has proven to be high on imagination and somewhat rudimentary in execution. Actually, OK. I’m no Chinese animation expert. Before seeing A Chinese Ghost Story: The Animation, my only exposure to an animated Hong Kong movie was the same as pretty much every other American Hong Kong movie fan’s exposure: Bruce Lee and the Chinese Gods. But heck, what that movie lacked in terms of accomplished animation it more than made up for with sheer weirdness. I mean, there you were with Chinese deities ripping around ancient China on motorcycles made of clouds. People were getting burned alive, and then Bruce Lee shows up with a third eye, makes weird noises, and battles all sorts of multi-headed demons and dragons. Indeed the quality of animation was on par with those “Stories from The Bible” shows, but maybe if those had been less about Jesus helping people and more about Jesus battling a saucy fox spirit, we would have overlooked the shoddy animation in those as easily as we overlook it in Chinese Gods. Hell, it’s not as if The Bible doesn’t have enough weird stuff in it. I’d pay good money for animated feature film of the Book of Revelations, especially if Bruce Lee shows up in it at some point.

So no, in terms of judging the greater body of Hong Kong produced animation, I don’t have much to go on besides Chinese Gods and a couple of episodes of Old Master Q. And perhaps that’s because there just isn’t much to watch. Certainly the number of animated feature films from Hong Kong is mighty, mighty small. So for all intents and purposes, Tsui Hark was doing something relatively unique when A Chinese Ghost Story: The Animation began its four-year-long production process. Hark chose to mix traditional 2D cel animation with CGI, at the time still a new and usually awkward experiment. He called in the assistance of Tetsuya Endo, a relatively obscure cog from the Japanese anime machine. A nobody by the name of Andrew Chan was hired to direct, presumably so Tsui Hark could do his usual “producer who is basically the director” shtick with a guy who wasn’t experienced enough to raise much of a fuss. Other animation duties were handled by Justo Cascante and Bart Wong, neither of whom had any professional experience with animation. It was, to be honest, something of a dubious line-up, as far as experience goes, but it was well within one’s expectations for Tsui Hark. If you are making a new type of movie, who cares if your people are inexperienced so long as they’re enthusiastic?

A Chinese Ghost Story: The Animation is, like A Chinese Ghost Story III, partially a remake of the original, and partially a new story. Once again, we are following the misadventures of a hapless young tax collector named Ning (voiced by either boy band pop idol Jan Lamb or boy band pop idol Nicky Wu, depending on whether you are listening to the Cantonese or Mandarin soundtrack). Ning is wandering the Chinese countryside in a quandary after being spurned by his true love, Siu Lan (voiced by Charlie Yeung — I’m sticking with Cantonese language voice acting credits for now, since that’s the language in which I watched it). Siu Lan didn’t seem quite as in love with the daydreaming young scholar as he was with her, leaving the chump lost with the only remaining symbol of his love for her: a puppy named Solid Gold. Since Tsui Hark was looking in part to Disney for inspiration, it goes without saying that we would get a sassy animal sidekick, though thankfully this one does not sing or talk (though all the barking and whimpering was provided by Tsui Hark himself).

Still following the plot of the original live action movie, Ning seeks shelter for the night in an abandoned temple, only to discover that it’s infested with ghosts. Two ghost hunters arrive: the stoic monk White Cloud (Raymond Wong) and his ambitious young protoge Ten Miles (Eric Kot). The perpetually terrified Ning (seriously, he spends like 90% of the movie with a look of confused horror on his face) finds himself caught in the crossfire as the two warriors take on a legion of Foul Odor demons. Things improve little for the young man with the arrival of a third ghost buster, Red Beard (Wong Jim), a bitter rival of White Cloud and Ten Miles but a generally nicer guy. Oh, and he also has the medieval equivalent of a giant flying robot, because let’s not forget that anime was an influence on this movie, as well.

Having narrowly survived his brush with the warring ghost busters and some clusters of green gaseous eyeballs, Ning wanders to the next town to collect some taxes. And here the movie departs from the original and begins to resemble something more like Miyazaki’s 2001 supernatural fantasy, Spirited Away. Because it turns out that using a map you got from a ghost buster is a bad idea, since it only leads to towns infested with ghosts and demons. Ning and Solid Gold find themselves in the middle of an exquisitely drawn colorful metropolis of bizarre spirits — the sheer weirdness of which calls to mind the old Japanese yokai movies. Terrified at the prospect of being eaten should it be discovered that they are alive, Ning and Solid Gold disguise themselves as corpses and do their best to avoid consuming a bowl of human hand soup.

Which is when beautiful female ghost Siu Sin notices the duo. She’s not the least bit fooled by their lame disguises (they smear red stuff on their faces and bug out their eyes) and is intent on harvesting Ning’s soul to feed her mistress, Trunk, a tree demon who maintains her youthful female appearance by absorbing the souls of the living. Ning, on the other hand, falls instantly in love with Siu Sin, since that’s what young lads do when they are courted by sexy female ghosts. Neither the budding romance nor the plan to serve Ning’s soul up on a platter get very far, though, as Red Beard shows up to smash the town and shoot his talisman cannon. In the ensuing mayhem, Ning and Siu Sin help one another escape, and it seems like the ghost is having second thoughts about sacrificing the awkward but charming young tax collector. He, of course, is completely convinced of her innate goodness and is willing to do anything for her — even be snorted up the nose by a tree demon. But nothing is easy when a man loves a ghost woman. Siu Sin happens to already fancy herself betrothed to Mountain Evil (Jordan Chan), an obnoxious demigod giant. And she also has a rival named Butterfly (also Charlie Yeung), who has decided that if Siu Sin can’t successfully deliver Ning to Madame Trunk, then she will. And then there’s White Cloud and Ten Miles to deal with as well.

One of Tsui Hark’s trademarks is that he rarely lets his films pause and take a breath. That holds true here. For starters, he packs the movie with action. And even when the action slows down, the incredible detail and eye-popping color of the backgrounds is enough to keep the viewer engaged just trying to take it all in. This is not advanced animation. It is more advanced than anything else Hong Kong had ever done (and still remains the pinnacle of their animated output), but it’s not on par with feature film animation from the United States or Japan. That’s not to say that it’s bad, per se; simply that it isn’t cutting edge. But while certain aspects of it may be a bit crude, other aspects of it are truly a sight to behold. As he did with both Zu and the live-action Chinese Ghost Story, Hark seems determined to use every single color ever in as many scenes as possible. His ghost city is a dizzying kaleidoscope of vivid hues, and at times it seems like he’s channeling Mario Bava, casting his shadows in supernatural purples and greens. So while character design may be a bit childish in spots, the overall achievement is really quite impressive. And frankly, as I think I’ve established before, I prefer the slightly rougher hand-drawn look. It’s part of the reason why I like old anime more than new.

One thing working in animation allows Tsui Hark to do is really cut loose with his monsters. The human characters are pretty standard designs — a bit of anime mixed with a bit of Chinese style artwork. Nothing all that great or all that bad. But once Ning arrives in the city of ghosts, Tsui Hark and his crew can indulge their every monstrous whim. Many of the ghosts are based on creatures from traditional Chinese folklore. Many more seem to be inventions purely of the filmmakers’ imaginations. Cleaver-wielding pigs with pencil thin mustaches, skull-headed little goblins, prancing devils, and lots of ghosts with one giant eyeball for a head (because everyone in the afterlife appreciates The Residents). The live-action film was a wonder of special effects and monsters, but freed from the requirement of physically creating each and every ghoul and goblin, the animated movie pulls no punches with its spirits and spooks.The pacing of the story matches the character of the animation. It’s a breathless swirl of activity. It never becomes as convoluted or difficult to follow as some of Hark’s live-action films, but neither does it slow down to let viewers catch up if they lose their place. I don’t think the script has the emotional resonance of the live-action film. It certainly lacks the air of doomed melancholy that runs through so much of Hark’s other work.

But as frothy entertainment, it’s… well, not quite a home run, but definitely a triple. It’s just a lot of fun.Most of the acting is good. Although the dearth of homegrown animation means that there are very few professional cartoon voice actors in Hong Kong, there’s no shortage of regular actors who know how to dub a movie. Until very recently, most Hong Kong films were not shot with sync sound. That is, the sound recorded during filming (if any at all was recorded) was not the sound that actually appeared in the movie. All of the sound effects and dialog were recorded and dubbed in later. This was done for a few reasons, though the two chief motivations were that Hong Kong is a small and noisy place, and it’s a lot cheaper to loop in your sound afterward. This means that a lot of stars had experience recording sound after the fact, just as you would as if you were making a cartoon. Many stars actually didn’t do their own voice work, though. Heck, for years we all though Jet Li sounded like Wong Fei-hong, with a booming and commanding voice that would convince you drop everything and go do kungfu workouts on the beach at dawn. We would have been a lot less likely to fall in line if we knew then what we know now: that he has the voice of a chipmunk.

Voice acting is not as easy as people thing, especially not as easy as many regular movie stars think. The world of dubbed anime is littered with dreadful performances by otherwise decent actors who simply didn’t know how to turn in a credible voice acting job. The most common offense is the “muttered scream,” when a character is supposed to scream but the actor doesn’t really know to just let lose. The result is a mangled sort of “Noooooo!” said in slightly exaggerated fashion, with maybe a bit of hoarseness thrown in, but all done at the volume of a regular speaking voice. Ample examples of the muttered scream can be found in Keifer Sutherland’s performance in the dubbed version of Armitage. Then there’s also the fact that many movie stars moonlighting as voice actors read their lines like they are reading their lines — witness some of the performances in the dubbed version of Princess Mononoke.

Which is why the United States and Japan have such a large population of professional voice actors. When you hear a good voice actor working, it’s really impressive. And that’s not to say that some regular actors don’t successfully make the transition — Katy Sagal went from television star to voice actor with ease, and she had to hold her own against Billy West, who’s one of the best in the business. While Hong Kong doesn’t have that same cadre of cartoon voice actors as the US or Japan, their regular actors have a lot more experience working in cartoon-like dubbing environments thanks to movies not being shot with sound, so turning to established stars was something more than mere stunt casting. Jan Lamb does an able job as Ning, and Raymond Wong, Eric Kot, Kelly Chen, Wong Jim, and Jordan Chan all turn in credible performances. Jordan Chan in particular threads the minefield of the muttered scream, since almost every one of his lines are supposed to be bellowed Brian Blessed style.

Anita Yuen and Charlie Yeung are two of my favorite actresses, and on multiple occasions they proved they were far more than just pretty faces. But I think both of them sound slightly lost working on an animated feature. Some of their lines are delivered too fast, as they try to keep up with the action on screen, and others are delivered with less emotion than what’s going on around them seems to call for. They hit their marks most of the time, but it seems like they’re slightly less comfortable in their animated skins than the rest of the cast.But neither Yuen nor Yeung are off enough to ruin the movie. What comes close, however, is the ill-advised use of really crude, clumsy looking CGI. Hark’s 2D animation is rough around the edges, but that lends it a certain charm that actually fits well with the folk story style of the movie. But since, in 1997, everyone was farting around with CGI, and since Hark is, like the American directors who influenced him, easily infatuated by new filmmaking technology, he felt the need to shoehorn computer generated animation into his movie. The results are not as disastrous as the infamous helicopter sequence from Golgo 13, but they are still pretty terrible. If Hong Kong had little experience with 2D animation, they had even less with CGI. Even people who had a lot of experience with CGI failed more times than they succeeded to integrate it with more traditional cel animation.

This is, of course, because CGI — even good CGI — looks almost nothing like cel animation. And bad CGI looks like someone slapped in from an entirely different movie. The CGI in A Chinese Ghost Story: The Animation is an unwelcome and jarring intrusion into the low tech but beautiful animated world the rest of the movie creates. From time to time, it’s used wisely — to augment the skies, or flesh out backgrounds. But when the CGi takes center stage, it’s painful. They almost pull of Red Beard’s giant bamboo robot tank thing, but only almost. The golden dragon train that carries ghosts to the reincarnation gates is a failure, as is the tree form of Madame Trunk. None of these things called for CGI. All of them could have been wonderfully realized using the same style of animation employed by the rest of the film. Cramming needless and poorly done CGI into the movie was its one major misstep, and while it’s not so grievous an error as to ruin the movie, it still feels like getting slapped in the face when you were right in the middle of enjoying something.

You know how a lot of directors go back to their old films and replace old effects with new CGI versions? Well, it’d be nice if other directors also went back to old films and replaced ill-advised CGI with something more practical. Honestly, though, that’s my only real complaint about the movie. Held up against the three live-action Chinese Ghost Story movies, this one is obviously lightweight. It lacks, as I said, the emotional punch. Nor is it as good as, say, the Miyazaki films that served as one of the obvious influences. It never achieves the complexity of story and character that the best of Japanese feature film animation achieves. But as a colorful light-hearted supernatural adventure, it succeeds pretty handily. And as a first real foray into the world of animated feature films, it’s both a noble and enjoyable effort. Tsui Hark doesn’t get it entirely right, but he does get it right more often than he screws it up.

The finished movie garnered a number of award nominations, including a Golden Horse at the 1997 Golden Horse Awards (aka “The Chinese Oscars”). Despite the crossover nature of the film, though, it found little purchase outside of Hong Kong and Taiwan. American anime importers Viz bought the rights to distribute the movie in the United States, but they didn’t seem to know quite what to do with it. Attempts to market it to American anime fans were largely unsuccessful. A movie like this simply didn’t appeal to them. Although possessed of a voracious appetite for pretty much every single piece of crap that Japan ever drew, American anime fans are not prone to crossing over into other areas, even ones that are closely related to anime. The fact that A Chinese Ghost Story was a little rough around the edges, and the fact that it was a Chinese story told in a way that, while familiar to anyone who knew Tsui Hark’s work, was fairly unfamiliar to anime fans, kept it from garnering much attention. Even the professional anime press, questionable though the quality of it may have been at the time, didn’t seem to know what to make of the movie. Very few of them seemed to put much effort into learning anything about its origins or its creators. It was (and remains) a stark contrast to Hong Kong film fans in America, who are hungry for any and every meager scrap of information they can dig up about their obsession.

The only real market for the movie in the United States was, naturally, Hong Kong movie fans. But Viz didn’t really seem to have them in mind, or at least didn’t know where to find them and how to market to them. The result was that A Chinese Ghost Story: The Animation sort of just came and went in the US without garnering as much attention as it could have. 1997 was a heady year for importers with an eye on the Hong Kong market. Dozens of popular Hong Kong movies were being purchased by America studios who would then either sit on the titles and keep them off the market, or release them to DVD in horribly butchered, dubbed, and edited editions no Hong Kong film fan would waste their money on. All of this at a time when fans were hungry for decent releases of the movies and had the disposable income to pay for them. If Viz had their finger on the pulse of that population, they might have had a bigger hit on their hands. Sadly, it was not to be. The disc quickly went out of print, and even now, there’s very little written about this ambitious and enjoyable movie.

The failure of A Chinese Ghost Story: The Animation wasn’t solely in the American arena, either. If Tsui Hark had been hoping to kick off an era of new Chinese animation, he didn’t pull it off. Although critics enjoyed it, no one really followed in its footsteps, including Tsui Hark himself. After his foray into animation, he made two crummy American films — one saddling him with Dennis Rodman, the other saddling him with Rob Schneider, and both of them saddling him with Jean-Claude Van Damme, since part of the treaty that returned Hong Kong to Chinese control in 1997 stipulated that any Hong Kong filmmaker who left Hong Kong to try their luck in the United States would have to make at least one movie with the Muscles from Brussels.

His Hollywood career officially a failure, Hark returned to Hong Kong in 2000 with the live action gangster film Time and Tide. The next year he served as executive producer for Master Q 2001, an attempt to port the old Chinese cartoon into the world of 3D CGI characters placed in an otherwise live-action setting. The CGI was acceptable, but that couldn’t change the fact that the movie was just plain terrible. Hark continued to experiment with CGI, having seemingly abandoned the 2D animation that made A Chinese Ghost Story: The Animation so gorgeous. The culmination of his obsession with CGI was The Legend of Zu, a beautiful but soulless and unengaging follow-up to his much more charming 1983 original.In fact, Hark never seemed to find his footing again after the 1997 handover, though this may have less to do with him and more to do with the fact that the whole Hong Kong movie industry went into free fall right around that time. Some of what happened is attributable to anxiety over the handover itself; For a century, Hong Kong had been a British colony, and while many were excited to see British rule finally come to an end, just as many were hesitant to welcome the Communist Chinese government as their new lords and masters.

But even more potent than that was the fact that, for decades, the Hong Kong film industry had been hopelessly entangled with organized crime, who bled the business dry and left it basically nothing more than a hollowed-out, rotten shell. Suddenly, studios that had once ruled one of the world’s biggest film industries were collapsing, and no one had the money to step in and save them. Theater attendance plummeted as quickly as the quality of the movies, reaching an absurd new low when the movie Psychedelic Cop failed to break the hundred-dollar mark. After a week in the theaters, only ten people had bothered to see Psychedelic Cop, and it became a symbol of the collapse of the once mighty Hong Kong movie making machine.

In such an environment, it’s not surprising that A Chinese Ghost Story: The Animation, despite being a fun movie, sparked no interest in the pursuit of a Chinese animation renaissance. Animation is just too hard. It’s too labor intensive. And the Hong Kong industry had been totally gutted. It was easier to just bring cartoons in from Japan, as had always been done, and crank out the occasional modest effort like My Life as McDull. It’s a shame, really, because A Chinese Ghost Story: The Animation was more than a promising start; it was a delightful success. And while the animation style was far simpler, My Life as McDull was a cute and appealing piece of animation as well. If it hadn’t come at such a dismal time in Hong Kong film history, A Chinese Ghost Story: The Animation could have been the start of something really cool.

But it just wasn’t meant to be, even if Chinese mythology and comic books offered up ample source material ripe for animated films. Despite the historic nature of the effort, A Chinese Ghost Story: The Animation ended up a footnote instead of a touchstone. Hark would give it another try over ten years later, in 2008, with the animated film The Warrior, based once again on a previous live action Tsui Hark series, Once Upon a Time in China. But it went almost totally unnoticed, and the more juvenile character design mixed with throwing Wong Fei-hong into a supernatural/fantasy setting just didn’t capture anyone’s attention.But hell, Tsui Hark gave it his all. Not everything in A Chinese Ghost Story: The Animation was a success, but he certainly didn’t hold anything back or give anything less than a full effort. And despite the foibles — almost all of which can be summed up with the letters CGI — A Chinese Ghost Story: The Animation really is entertaining: fast paced, colorful, playful, occasionally childish, and always exciting.

Release Year: 1997 | Country: Hong Kong | Starring: Jordan Chan, Ronald Cheng, Kelly Chen, Sammo Hung, Vivian Lai, Jan Lamb, Tsui Hark, James Wong, Charlie Yeung, Anita Yuen | Screenplay: Tsui Hark | Director: Andrew Chan | Music: Ricky Ho | Producer: Tsui Hark | Original Title: Xiao Qian

5 thoughts on “Chinese Ghost Story: The Animation”

  1. Re: CGI and 2D animation. I’m not an afficianado, but I think FUTURAMA did a nice job of merging the two since CG was used most of the time to realize the space ships and fancy galaxy hopping. It seems to be a bit of a rarity to get that to happen if the awful CG used on the Dini/Timm JUSTICE LEAGUE or even THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD are any indication.

  2. Yeah, Futurama did pull it off well, didn’t it? On the other hand, my favorite new anime is Bartender, and it features some gratuitous CGI that looks like a high schooler did it in 1996, so people are still getting it wrong.

  3. I remember seeing this in the theater in 1997-1998. The exhibitors were really hyping it up but the thing I remember most is the awful dragon train scene. I even had flashbacks to it when watching the Polar Express later.

    Don’t forget the role of bootleg DVDs and VCDs played in the rapid decline of Hong Kong’s movie industry as well. I’m sure organized crime was heavily inlolved in that as well.

  4. 1997? that was just 2 years right after the first cgi feature film “Toy Story” was release. The machines and software during that time was not fully develop , It’s probably a nightmare to handle a feature film resolution during those time.

  5. I actually got to see this film in the theater in Dallas back in 1997 along with a few of my fellow members of a local anime club. We saw a subtitled version as part of an asian film festival and I remember absolutely loving how creative and colorful the film was and how it was a nice breath of fresh air from what I had been watching at the time. Then again, I’ve always been a fan of both HK films and anime so seeing an interesting merger of the two (even if there was only anime influence on the film) really appealled to me. I have sadly never found a copy of the film subtitled (a friend owns a dubbed VHS promo copy from Viz) but I would love to get it. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

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