There is little in the short story “The Magic Sword,” part of the compiled writing of Chinese author Pu Songling known as Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, that sets it apart from any other story in the collection. Written over the course of many years in the latter portion of the 1600s, Pu’s stories explore the world of ghosts, demons, monsters, spirits, and otherworldly folklore, usually with an eye toward tsk-tsking its audience over immoral, non-Confucian indiscretions. “The Magic Sword” takes up just a few pages and relays the tale of a young scholar named Ning who, upon finding himself unable to obtain lodging for the night, takes up residence in an abandoned temple. In the temple, he encounters another traveler, a man named Yin, and later that night witnesses a meeting between a couple mysterious people before being visited by a beautiful young woman named Hsiao-ch’ien who attempts to seduce him. Because Ning is righteous and has a sick wife at home, he banishes her from his makeshift chamber. He learns during a subsequent visit that she is a ghost cursed to prey upon men for her boss demon, and that Yen is a magical swordsman who fights devils. Impressed by the purity of his heart, the ghost implores Ning to help free her from her ghoulish master. From this rather humble story has grown practically an entire film genre, the leading light of which is Ching Siu-tung’s 1987 masterpiece of the Hong Kong New Wave, Chinese Ghost Story.
My introduction to Hong Kong cinema came in the form of a crash course between the years of 1991 and 1993, when I began to discover and voraciously devour a seemingly endless parade of mind-blowing films made in the past decade. Finding the movies was hard. Finding information on them was even harder, but there was an explosion in the popularity of these films among cult film fans in the United States around that time, so though it took some leg work, we soon found that we were not alone. Together, then, we stumbled through the dark, trading tapes, raiding Chinese grocery stores that stocked videos, writing reviews for one another, publishing fanzines, and doing our best to spread, pre-internet style, every scrap of information we were able to dig up on these amazing movies. In the course of two weeks (maybe less), I think a few friends and I huddled around my massive 10-inch screen TV and watched A Better Tomorrow, The Killer, Swordsman, Zu, Once Upon a Time in China, and A Chinese Ghost Story. We sat there another week and just drooled. Though I love each of those movies, there was something about the elegance, beauty, and melancholy of A Chinese Ghost Story that made it stick out as my favorite of the time. Decades later, it’s still one of my absolute favorite movies.
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.