Enchanting Shadow

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.

Other than what I saw on the screen, though, I didn’t know much about the movie — though I quickly learned who Joey Wong Tsu-hsien was. Some things just inspire a man to do his research. Eventually, I learned that it was based on “The Magic Sword” (sometimes also “The Magic Sword and the Magic Bag”), a story in Chinese author Pu Song-ling’s anthology horror novel Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, a collection of nearly five hundred ghostly tales written some time during the early days of the Qing Dynasty. As best people can guess, Pu finished the book either in 1679 or 1707. The earliest existing published copy of it dates from 1766. Similar in many ways to classic Japanese yokai stories, Pu’s collection revolved around tales of fox spirits, ghouls, and bizarre creatures from rural folklore.

Pu himself was a sort-of failed civil servant who harbored at least some size chip on his shoulder, and his critical view of what was then modern society is reflected in many of the tales, where the monsters are revealed to be far nobler and more trustworthy than the human characters. Bitterness over the Qing dynasty was rampant during those early years (serving as the backdrop for pretty much all of your favorite kungfu films from the 1970s), owing to the fact that the Qing were foreign invaders from Manchuria, to China’s north. Although the rotten and corrupt nature of the late Ming dynasty contributed substantially to Manchuria’s ability to conquer China, whatever short-comings the Ming had were quickly forgotten amid anti-Manchurian cries to “restore the Ming!” It never happened, though, and the Qing ruled for so long that they became pretty much indistinguishable from native Chinese. My old Chinese lit professor claimed that people used to say that the only difference between a Chinese and a Manchurian was the nail on his little toe.

It’s likely that the civil dissent regarding the Qing empire (as well as the lingering corruption of the last Ming court) colored Pu’s opinion of his fellow man as expressed in his writing. Centuries later, the phantasmagoric weirdness of his stories inspired dozens of Hong Kong film makers — among them, Ching Siu-tung and Tsui Hark. Or so I believed at the time. What I didn’t know was that A Chinese Ghost Story wasn’t exactly an adaptation of one of Pu’s strange tales. It was, it turned out, a remake of an earlier Shaw Brothers movie that was an adaptation of one of Pu’s stories. For most of the 80s and 90s, however, at least in the United States, our knowledge of the Shaw Brothers back catalog was woefully inadequate. Except for some dubbed versions of films by Chang Cheh and Liu Chia-liang, almost no Shaw Brothers films existed on home video. Common knowledge held, in fact, that almost everything in the Shaw Brothers catalog had been destroyed by a fire that swept through the studio’s storage facilities.

When I started renting video cassettes from Chinese stores, I began to discover more Shaw Brothers films, mostly fantastical wuxia films from the studio’s waning days in the early 1980s, and occasional swordsman films from the 1960s. These were pretty crappy versions of the movies, brutally cropped so that half the movie — the right and left sides of the screen — no longer existed. And they had those pale white subtitles, the ones where only the middle four words were visible, when they weren’t disappearing below the bottom of the picture. But it was all I had at the time, so I dealt with it. After all, the originals had all been destroyed in a fire… except that they hadn’t.

In the early 2000s, fans of the old school were delirious with joy when it came out that not only did the Shaw Brothers’ original prints still exist, but a company named Celestial was going to release the whole damn warehouse on DVD. At first, it sounded too good to be true. But then the movies started coming out, and suddenly it was like discovering Hong Kong cinema for the first time. Many of the movies had never been seen since their initial theatrical runs. People like me who previously only knew Chang Cheh and Liu Chia-liang were suddenly turned on to Chu Yuan and Li Han-Hsiang. Although modern Hong Kong cinema had gone into the toilet, the ability to explore the vast and colorful past filled the void. At least for a few years.

Anyone who understands the tastes and economic tendencies of the average Chinese person knows that they don’t really like to spend a lot of time or money on old entertainment. Although the Celestial Shaw Brothers experiment delighted people like me, it (as well as the similar Cathay Studio experiment) largely flopped among Chinese. “Why would you want to waste time on movies that are so old?” I was asked frequently by Chinese friends and family old enough to remember such movies. It was like trying to convince the average American to watch an old black and white film, actually. I guess no one really cares about old movies except us niche markets. Celestial must have suspected this would be the case, and from the very outset, their products were geared toward a Western audience — with English subtitles and very often English language commentary tracks and documentaries. But that’s catering to a niche market within a niche market, and you can’t build a sustainable business on that. Celestial’s release schedule went from aggressive to conservative to modest to a trickle, and then seemed to stop entirely. A deal with an American distributor meant that some of their releases found their way onto domestic region one discs, but really, we were all forced to go into “it was fun while it lasted” mode, forever pining for those tantalizing future releases that never came to pass.

But the good news is that Celestial’s early aggressiveness means that they got a whole lot of movies released before the economics curtailed their efforts. And it was as a result of the releases they did manage to get out that I first heard of 1960’s Enchanting Shadow, the film A Chinese Ghost Story turned out to be a remake of. Needless to say, I was excited to sit down and watch the original. And while it turns out that I still like A Chinese Ghost Story better, Enchanting Shadow is itself an extremely enjoyable movie for fans of old style supernatural tales. Story-wise, A Chinese Ghost Story is almost identical to the original, but where as the new wave movie is full of frenetic energy and insane special effects, Enchanting Shadow has the feel of an older Japanese horror film, something along the lines of the samurai ghost tales by Nobuo Nakagawa, and in some places, even a Hammer horror movie.

Enchanting Shadowtakes place in the dying days of the Ming Dynasty, with war between the collapsing remnants of the Ming and the conquering Qing ravaging the countryside. A young civil servant named Ning (prolific Shaw Brothers star Zhao Lei) is making his away through the battered kingdom in order to fulfill a promise to his dying mother. Unfortunately, the town he finds himself in at sunset one night is stuffed tot he gills with refugees, travelers, and soldiers, leaving nary a room to be rented. Ning figures he’ll just do the “backpacking across Europe” thing and find himself a local temple to crash in for the night. He doesn’t much mind that the local temple is abandoned and in a state of decay, nor does he put much value in the opinion of the locals that the place is haunted. After spending a hefty sum of money to find a rickshaw carrier to get him close to the temple (no one will actually go to it, regardless of how much money Ning offers), Ning makes himself at home in the dilapidated old structure. he soon learns, however, that he is not alone.

Camping out in the old temple as well is a Taoist swordsman named Yan (Yeung Chi-Hing). Enchanting Shadow differs slightly from the later A Chinese Ghost Story in that the swordsman isn’t initially antagonistic toward the happy-go-lucky Ning. A bit puzzled by the young lad, perhaps, stand-offish at first, maybe amused, but generally, Yan seems to welcome the company. Nor is he a dedicated ghost buster, as Wu ma’s version of the character is, taking a “live and let live” attitude toward ghosts. However, both versions of the swordsman do get to sing and practice their sword technique, though the scene that appears in A Chinese Ghost Story is somewhat more dynamic and hyperactive.

Yan and Ning have talks about the state of the country and why each of them is not fighting in the war — Ning because of piety toward his mother, and Yan because he seems to have rejected the conflicts and political machinations of man. When the subject of haunting comes up, Yan just gives a non-committal shrug, remarking that even if there are ghosts, some of them are probably substantially more honorable than men.

Ning soon discovers that Yan is not his only neighbor. A villa next to the old temple is also hopping, with a group of attractive young women lounging about the place. One in particular, Hsiao-Chien (Shaw Brothers mega-star Betty Loh Tih), catches Ning’s attention with her guzheng playing, painting, and poetry composing — all artistic pursuits that are near and dear to the scholar’s heart. Ning gets busted sneaking into Hsiao-Chien’s room to help complete an unfinished poem, and the young woman doesn’t take too kindly to the lad’s prowler behavior. Still, after a stormy start, the two become closer, eventually even falling in love — which would be sweet if Hsiao-Chien didn’t turn out to be a ghost, her well-appointed villa an illusion covering a decrepit haunted house, and her mistress (Tong Yeuk-Ching) a demanding old ghoul with a taste for the flesh and souls of young scholars.

While Enchanting Shadow isn’t particularly scary most of the time, it does achieve an effectively creepy atmosphere. Director Li Han-Hsiang was famous for his attention to detail, and his obsession with art direction and sets means that Enchanting Shadow takes place in a well realized, highly stylized universe. The decaying temple is drenched in cobwebs and dust and ruined old furniture, making it feel very much like a decrepit old temple rather than a movie set of a decrepit old temple. Even if you didn’t already know the story, there’s something undeniably wrong and supernatural about the place.

1958 and 1959 saw the introduction of “Hammer horror” to the world in the form of The Horror of Dracula and The Curse of Frankenstein. I’d bet good money — though not a lot of it — that at least someone involved in the making of Enchanting Shadow was influenced a great deal by the new style horror films emerging from England’s Hammer Studio, especially The Horror of Dracula (the Shaw Bros. studio would eventually collaborate with Hammer on a number of films, most notably The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires). There are several scenes in Enchanting Shadow that but for the costumes could have come right out of Hammer’s Dracula movie. Ning’s ride to the haunted temple is very much a “I will not take you to Castle Dracula!” moment, as is the reaction of everyone to his insistence on going to the temple. I’m surprised that Ning didn’t walk into an inn and order a pint of ale from Michael Ripper. The close attention to detail, sets, and props was also a hallmark of the Hammer horror films, and the final showdown between Ning, the swordsman, Hsiao-Chien, and devil granny feels exactly like the finale of a Dracula film, right down to the smoking skeleton lying behind “The End.” Even the camerawork calls to mind the more dynamic style of filming that was defined by Hammer’s early horror output.

Other aspects of the film recall the work of Japanese master of horror Nobuo Nakagawa, who made a name for himself directing eerie period pieces featuring vengeful ghosts and ghouls. Nakagawa’s films would have also used many of the same cultural shorthand signs to communicate the strange and eerie — the primary one being the use of colors, especially green lights to let you know when something is ghostin’ around. Enchanting Shadow, I think, mixes together Nakagawa’s supernatural samurai with the Hammer horror style, plus a dash of local seasoning to create a movie that is both uniquely Chinese and yet still speaks the international language of spooky cinema. No matter what your experience with Chinese culture may be, once the scares begin, you will be familiar territory.

If there’s a problem with the film — and this one is minor — it’s that the ending is a bit rushed and abrupt. A nighttime journey through an increasingly haunted looking woods achieves a considerable amount of tension, with Ning hurrying to return Hsiao-Chien’s body to a proper graveyard so she can break the granny’s spell over her. The mood and escalating sense of desperation is reminiscent of one of your finer Hammer films, and even though you expect granny to catch up with them, it’s still a tense and frightening moment when it happens. Unfortunately, the finale suffers from the too-sudden kind of resolution that marred the otherwise exceptional Nosferatu decades before, leaving me with a bit of a, “Huh, that wrapped up quickly” reaction. However, it’s not nearly enough to ruin the movie, the rest of which is absolutely fantastic, and once again, anyone who is a fan of Hammer horror will recognize the tendency to get the credits rolling before Dracula’s corpse is even done dissolving.

Director Li Han-Hsiang had been puttering around the Shaw Brothers studio for a few years before directing Enchanting Shadow. His big break came in 1959, with the romantic epic The Kingdom and the Beauty starring tragic Shaw Bros. leading lady Linda Lin Dai. A year later, Enchanting Shadow would cement Li’s position as one of the preeminent directors at the studio. He specialized in opulent costume dramas and huangmei opera adaptations, and for years his style defined the studio. Working with his Enchanting Shadow leading lady, Betty Li Toh, he directed some of the biggest and most respected hits in Hong Kong history, most notably The Love Eterne.

As huangmei films began to lose popularity, Li decided to seek his fortunes elsewhere. Unfortunately for the director, things didn’t work out, and he soon found himself back at Shaw Brothers. Things had changed, though, and Li soon found himself tasked with directing skin flicks for the studio. Not one to be deterred by smutty material, however, Li dove into them with full force, bringing the same sort of sprawling lavishness and craftsmanship to his erotic films as he’d practiced with his epics the previous decade. In 1982, he directed Passing Flickers, a nudity-filled exploration of the film-making industry that was both a scathing indictment and uproarious celebration of the business in general, and the Shaw Brothers studio in particular.

Betty Loh Ti’s life was one filled with tragedy and triumph. She was raised by her grandmother after both parents died. She developed an early interest in the performing arts, eventually winning a contract with the Great Wall Film Studios in 1953. Her time at Great Wall passed uneventfully, however, and it wasn’t until she contracted with Shaw Brothers that her star began to rise. She appeared in several of the studio’s biggest films, and eventually married Shaw Bros. leading man Peter Chen Ho (a fixture in many of Inoue Umetsugu’s best musicals for the studio). In 1964, she left Shaw Brothers for Motion Picture and General Investments Limited, where she worked for another four years before an untimely death. Most everyone reports it as suicide, but details are sketchy, at best. During her time at Shaw Brothers though, and thanks to films like Enchanting Shadow, The Love Eterne, and Dream of the Red Chamber, she came to embody everything audiences expected a leading lady to be.

Unfortunately for leading man Zhao Lei, he’s trapped between one of the greatest leading ladies in Hong Kong cinema history and one of the Shaw Brothers greatest supporting actors (Yeung Chi-Hing) giving what has to be one of his best performances as the world-weary warrior-monk and part-time expert on the supernatural, swordsman Yan. Against such elegance on one side, and such boisterous charm on the other, Zhao Lei’s affable scholar sort of gets lost in the mix. It’s still a solid performance, however. Like director Li Han-Hsiang, Zhao enjoyed a long career that saw him, like many long-lived actors, struggling to adapt to changing trends. He performed in a number of big films from the 1960s, including A Story of Three Loves starring Grace Chang, several other Betty Loh Ti films, and a few of Li Han-Hsiang’s other major films of the period, including Empress Wu, Dream of the Red Chamber, and Beyond the Great Wall. In the 1970s, he pops up in a number of my favorite kungfu films, including King Hu’s The Valiant Ones and the utterly ridiculous but entertaining Monkey with 72 Magic. By 1982, his career was winding down, but before his death in 1989, he came out for one more go-round in John Woo’s Just Heroes, a veritable who’s who of past their prime veterans and, for some reason, Stephen Chow.

If you are a fan of A Chinese Ghost Story, or if you simply enjoy a solid supernatural film, there’s a lot to love in Enchanting Shadow. It’s the sort of elegant, artfully crafted sort of film you don’t see much of any more, with an attention to detail that wouldn’t be matched until Chu Yuan started directed wuxia movies for the same studio. Enchanting Shadow is one of the first significant films in the fledgling Hong Kong horror scene and would be worth seeing for historical importance alone. Luckily, it has a lot more to offer the viewer than a mere film history lesson. It’s a beautifully acted, beautifully crafted, genuinely creepy high point in the long tradition of good old fashioned ghost stories.

Release Year: 1960 | Country: Hong Kong | Starring: Zhao Lei, Betty Loh Tih, Tong Yeuk-Ching, Yeung Chi-Hing, Su Chiang, Lee Kwan, Hao Li-Jen, Simon Li Kuo-Hua, Lok Kei | Screenplay: Wong Yuet-Ting | Director: Li Han-Hsiang | Cinematographer: Hoh Luk-Ying | Music: Yao Min | Producer: Run Run Shaw | Original Title: Ching nu yu hun