Chinese Ghost Story

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.

Chinese Ghost Story is one of the first Hong Kong films I watched, and certainly one that got me interested in the incredibly vibrant and imaginative cinema of that small island nation. I knew, at the time, basically nothing about Hong Kong or the Hong Kong film industry, but a tape containing Project A, Once Upon a Time in China, the final shoot-out from A Better Tomorrow 2, and Chinese Ghost Story launched me into a crash course on both the films and the history of what is now the former British colony of Hong Kong. Throughout the earl 1990s, I devoured Hong Kong cinema with a voracious appetite, often to the exclusion of just about any other type of cinema. And in doing so, I started learning more about the history of Hong Kong in general and the Hong Kong film industry in particular. Pu Songling’s short stories have served as the source for a number of films, but none seem to have stuck quite as tenaciously as “The Magic Sword,” though to be fair, that probably has more to do with people aping Chinese Ghost Story than having any sort of fondness for Pu Songling.

“The Magic Sword” first found its way onto screens in 1960, when the Shaw Brothers studio adapted it into the gorgeous film The Enchanting Shadow starring Betty Loh Ti. It’s a fairly faithful adaptation, though like the adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe short stories made by American International Pictures during the 1960s starring Vincent Price, screenwriter Wang Yue-ting and director Li Han-hsiang were tasked with taking a very brief story and embellishing it enough to create a feature-length film. A quarter of a century later, New Wave luminaries Tsui Hark and Ching Siu-tung were looking for inspiration. One of the hallmarks of the Hong Kong New Wave was taking stories and films from the past and giving them a twist (usually in the form of more dynamic choreography and more sensational special effects). Enchanting Shadow came across their radar, and it was that movie, more than Pu’s original story, that inspired them to make Chinese Ghost Story.

Ching Siu-tung grew up in a film family. His father, Ching Gong, was a director at Shaw Brothers, making movies that ranged from solid kungfu films (Sword of Swords, the classic Fourteen Amazons) to James Bond style spy adventures (Kiss and Kill) to social awareness exploitation and crime films (Kidnap, The Call-Girls). Ching Gong even served as action director for one of my all-time favorite “what the hell did I just witness” movies, Golden Queens Commandos. And like director Chu Yuan, Ching also worked as an occasional actor, appearing in The House of 72 Tenants, The Tea House, and several of his own films. Ever the journeyman, he also wrote a huge pile of scripts for both his own films as well as those of other Shaw Brothers directors. He was a man with an exceptional number of enjoyable films under his belt, though he gets mentioned a lot less than higher profile contemporaries like Chang Cheh, Liu Chia-liang, and Chu Yuen (who admittedly only started getting talked about in the 2000s, when the Shaw Brothers library started getting rereleased on DVD by Celestial Home Video).

Young Ching Siu-tung grew up not just around the Shaw Brothers backlot, but also trained at a Peking Opera School, where he picked up skills as a performer and choreographer. His first job as a filmmaker was working as action director on his father’s landmark 1972 film, Fourteen Amazons, a martial arts epic starring many of the studio’s leading ladies, including Ivy Ling Po, Li Ching, Lisa Lu, Tina Chin Fei, Teresa Ha, and an “on the eve of her Bruce Lee scandal” Betty Ting Pei. It was remade in 2011 by Franke Chan, best known as a director of Sammo Hung/Jackie Chan style action films in the 1990s (often starring himself, sometimes alongside Teleport City darling Yukari Oshima) who also directed, A Warrior’s Tragedy, a pretty solid throwback to the old wuxia mysteries of Chu Yuan and actor Ti Lung. As with the original, Chan’s remake is a virtual who’s who of grand dames of the kungfu film, including more recent stars like Cecilia Cheung alongside veterans like Yukari Oshima, Kathy Chow, and the legendary Cheng Pei-pei.

Ching Siu-tung continued throughout the 1970s to work as an action director on a string of solid films, first at Shaw Brothers and, as the wheels began to come off that cart, at Raymond Chow’s upstart Golden Harvest Studio. It was at Golden Harvest that the Hong Kong New Wave was born, with everyone from Tsui Hark to Jackie Chan to John Woo all thrown together into one insane cauldron of inspired creativity and dissatisfaction, not unlike that legendary film school class that included Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and John Milius (among others). Hungry, freed from what many thought was the corruption of the Shaw Brothers studio system, these filmmakers flocked to Golden Harvest, where they were promised the money and freedom to do whatever insane stuff they could dream up. The result was, just as had happened in the United States in the 1970s, a cinematic revolution.

Ching worked as action director on the film that served as sort of the calling card for the new generation, Tsui Hark’s Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind, also known as Don’t Play with Fire. It was a vicious, angry, cynical film that rejected or challenged everything, from cinematic convention to Hong Kong politics. While not a hit upon its release, it has since become regarded as one of the most important films of the Hong Kong New Wave. In 1983, Ching got his first job as full director. The result was Duel to Death, an eye-popping swordsman fantasy which, along with Tsui Hark’s Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain, forever changed the way special effects and fanciful choreography were handled. In 1986, he directed his second feature, a mind-bending supernatural adventure called Witch from Nepal, starring Chow Yun-fat, a former nobody turned megastar thanks to his role in the wildly popular A Better Tomorrow, directed by John Woo.

Shortly after that, there was an uprising at Golden Harvest, with many of the luminaries of the New Wave feeling the studio was taking advantage of them or putting too many restrictions on their projects. Tsui Hark, already at odds with the studio over the failure and censorship issues with Dangerous Encounters, went to work for Cinema City, sort of a Hong Kong version of United Artists that had been founded by actors Raymond Wong, Karl Maka, and Dean Shek. Shortly thereafter, Hark founded his how production company, Film Workshop. Ching Siu-tung soon began working for them, and in 1987, he and Tsui Hark collaborated on Chinese Ghost Story. Tsui Hark and the founders of Cinema City, influenced by American contemporaries Steven Spielberg and George Lucas (hard to remember a time when those two were considered maverick outsiders), established the template for the Hong Kong blockbuster, and few films were as well-suited to enjoy the success of such a template as Chinese Ghost Story.

Ching Siu-tung’s version of the classic tale remains about as faithful to Pu’s original story as did Enchanting Shadow, at least for about half of the film. It stars Leslie Cheung, an astronomically popular pop star at the time who was fresh off the success of a supporting role in A Better Tomorrow, as Ning, here a hapless tax collector in a semi-lawless part of China who meets with very little success in his career and is, not surprisingly, unwelcome at the local inns. Where as the Ning in Pu’s short story was a righteous man, brave and “a good Confucian,” Leslie Cheung’s Ning is awkward, clumsy, and timid — but often brave despite it all. Unable to find a room in town, he is forced to sleep in a creepy abandoned temple that is rumored to be haunted. And indeed, things at the temple are pretty high on the creep factor, including (unbeknownst to Ning) a bunch of corpses lying restlessly in the basement and two rival Taoist ghost hunters (Lam Wai as Hah Hau, and Wu Ma as Yin Chik-ha, in a performance that turned the venerable old hand into a bona fide superstar).

Ning also soon discovers a neighbor in a nearby pavilion, a woman named Hsiao-ch’ien, played by Joey Wong Tsu-hsien. Swept away partly by her beauty, but also by his desperate desire to be a gallant gentleman, Ning is oblivious to the fact that Hsiao-ch’ien is trying to seduce — and kill — him. Eventually, of course, Ning discovers Hsiao-ch’ien’s ghostly nature and stumbles upon the fact that she is forced to suck the souls out of men for her master, a flamboyant tree demon that has attracted the attention of swordsman Yin, who is there to slay devils and perform amazing musical numbers for his own amusement. Despite the gulf between them, Ning and Hsiao-ch’ien fall in love, and though he is convinced that nothing but tragedy can come from a romance between a human and a ghost, Yin becomes the uneasy ally of the two lovers against the wrath of the Tree Demon (played by Lau Siu-ming) and Hsiao-ch’ien’s scheming ghost sisters — an effort that leads to a special effects laden raid on Hell by the valiant Yin and Ning to save Hsiao-ch’ien’s soul from eternal damnation. It is at that point that Chinese Ghost Story veers pretty wildly away from Pu’s story, the finale of which involves nothing more outrageous than Hsiao-ch’ien’s demon master getting singed by a tiny magic sword in a bag hanging over Ning’s window (assorted other subplots, like Ning mistaking Yin for a famous bandit and his somewhat slapstick adventures with the hungry corpses of Hsiao-ch’ien’s previous victims, are original to the movie and barely seem to intersect with the main plot).

Despite being the biggest pop star in Asia at the time, Leslie Cheung was still a rookie when it came to acting. One of ten children in a broken home, and the son of a prominent Hong Kong tailor, Cheung eventually found himself going to school and working as a bartender in England, during which time he chose the Western name Leslie for himself since he liked Leslie Howard as Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind. In his spare time, he started singing. After returning to Hong Kong to care for his ailing father, Cheung caught fire as a pop singer. By the middle of the 1980s, he was one of the most popular performers in Hong Kong, part of an elite class that included Alan Tam, Jacky Cheung, Sally Yeh, Anita Mui, and Andy Lau. It was common (and still is) for pop idols to parlay their stage success into film, and so it was that Cheung found himself cast in movies, first in small roles, then in Patrick Tam’s Nomad, a 1982 film about disillusioned and directionless youth. For his role in that, Cheung was nominated for a best actor award. Despite the nomination, his film career wasn’t really notable until 1986, when he landed a supporting role as the upstanding younger brother of career criminal Ti Lung in A Better Tomorrow.

His performance is unsteady and awkward. It doesn’t help that such a green actor is expected to hold his ground against Ti Lung, an experienced and charismatic veteran of the Shaw Brothers studio who experienced a career revival thanks to A Better Tomorrow, and Chow Yun-fat, up until then an easily ignored actor in easily ignored films who proved with his role in A Better Tomorrow that he was ready to emerge as one of the most beloved and iconic actors in Hong Kong cinematic history. Sandwiched in between the triumphant return of one actor and the triumphant birth of another in a film that would become one of the most legendary films of all time, poor Leslie is simply in over his head. But he was popular enough, and A Better Tomorrow was successful enough, that he scored a lead role in Stanley Kwan’s ghostly romance Rouge, opposite the legendary Anita Mui. That same year, he reprised his role as Kit in the ill-advised slapdash sequel to A Better Tomorrow, and then appeared in Chinese Ghost Story in the lead role of Ning. His performance is still awkward, but in this case, the role plays to his skill level as an actor. Cheung still seems a bit uncomfortable and nervous in a lead role, but Ning is a nervous, uncomfortable character. Whatever limitations Cheung had at the time as an actor worked against him in A Better Tomorrow, but in Chinese Ghost Story, they become strengths. His Ning is vulnerable, relatable, and is willing to face extreme supernatural peril despite the fact that he is scared witless.

The other half of the romantic couple is played by another relative newcomer, Taiwanese born Joey Wong Tsu-hsien. Like Cheung, she’d appeared in a number of films in the 1980s with little success. Chinese Ghost Story was her first major lead role, and as the spectral, ethereal beauty Hsiao-ch’ien, it’s hard to imagine anyone else being quite so effective. She moves with an effortless, fluid grace, and like Leslie Cheung manages to be both vulnerable and strong. It also helps that both Cheung and Wong are just two of the most beautiful people to ever grace the screen, but both in a way that seems very real — beautiful, real people instead of beautiful models or mannequins. Considered somewhat tall and lanky as a youth, her athletic father encouraged her to follow in his footsteps and become a basketball player. It was while filming a commercial for a brand of sports shoes in her native Taiwan that she caught the eye of film producers. Mona Fong — the woman who made the Shaw Brothers studio work — recruited Joey and cast her in her first big film role, Let’s Make Laugh II, opposite Derek Yee, the younger brother of studio legend David Chiang. An unfortunate blow, I am sure, to the popularity of Taiwanese women’s professional basketball.

Her role in Chinese Ghost Story made her a superstar, and though she enjoyed success in Hong Kong (and was typecast as a ghostly beauty in many films, including another adaptation of a Pu Songling short story, 1993’s Painted Skin — the final film from legendary director King Hu), her stock really soared in Taiwan and Japan. She had a starring role in a Japanese television show and released CDs and photo albums there. Despite working steadily throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, by 1994 she was exhausted of the limelight and announced her retirement. It stuck, more or less, and Joey made only sporadic appearances in film and television, and recorded only a couple more albums, including one in Japan and one in Mandarin, aptly titled Isolated From The World. In 2003, she starred in Shanghai Story, the film which beat out Zhang Yimou’s heavily favored, star-studded follow-up to Hero, House of Flying Daggers, for the 2004 Golden Rooster’s Best Picture (Golden Rooster is China’s equivalent to Hong Kong’s Golden Horse, which is in turn the equivalent of the American Oscars). The experience was apparently good enough that Wong decided to return to filmmaking.

But then, on April 1, 2003, Leslie Cheung — with whom she had formed a close and lasting friendship after working together on Chinese Ghost Story and its sequel — committed suicide. Despite his sustained success, Cheung suffered from clinical depression, a condition thought to have been exasperated by the tabloid press hounding him over his sexuality (he came out in 1997 during a concert and starred as Tony Leung Chiu-wai’s lover in Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together) and making it impossible for the troubled star to get the privacy and medical attention he needed. According to his sister, Cheung’s depression only made him more depressed, as he was well aware of what a charmed life he led and could not understand why he was so sad despite his success. His suicide note was heartbreaking in its simplicity, and tens of thousands traveled to Hong Kong for his funeral. Joey Wong, greatly affected by the tragic death of her friend and co-star, cancelled her return to screen and remains out of the spotlight. In 2011, Chinese Ghost Story was remastered and rereleased to Hong Kong theaters. Ching Siu-tung had no idea where to find Joey, finally getting in touch with her family in Taiwan, who relayed the director’s invitation to attend the premiere to Joey, who was now living in Vancouver. She politely declined the invitation.

As did Wu Ma, a mainstay in Hong Kong film since the 1960s and who passed away in 2014 after a period of prolonged poor health. Originally a machinist by trade, for most of his career Wu Ma was a dependable and much-loved character actor, appearing as a father, wily master, village elder, or sly con-man in dozens of films. He even stumbled into directing, when the work visa for an assigned director for a production shooting Japan didn’t clear in time. “Why not?” figured Wu Ma, when panicked producers pointed randomly at him to take over the job. Although never a superstar, he never the less became one of the most recognizable faces in Hong Kong cinema. His role in Chinese Ghost Story finally brought him the accolades he deserved. As the swordsman Yin, Wu Ma was the archetypal “warrior with a broken heart,” a man who has retreated from the world yet cannot stop himself fighting for it. He is comical, tragic, and compassionate. And back in the early 1990s, when American film fans were belatedly discovering the wonders of the Hong Kong New Wave, there were four scenes guaranteed to be on every “you will not believe this shit” compilation tape fans would make for one another: the shopping mall fight from Jackie Chan’s Police Story, the final shoot-out from A Better Tomorrow 2, the ladder fight from the end of Once Upon a Time in China, and Wu Ma’s “Taoist Rap” from Chinese Ghost Story.

Both Ning and Hsiao-ch’ien and great characters because they are imperfect. Not in a rotten way, but simply a human way. Ning’s aspiration to be a courageous, righteous scholar is frequently undermined by simple human frailty — or more accurately, plain common sense. And yet, despite this, he embarks on a strange and threatening adventure. When he succeeds, it is often by accident, but his accomplishments mean more because he isn’t a super-powerful, ultra-competent martial arts master who knows everything. He’s just some guy who has wandered into a strange scenario and dos his best to deal with it. Similarly, Joey Wong’s Hsiao-ch’ien is in theory the story’s damsel in distress, and though she does indeed need help, it’s not a case of the men riding to her rescue. She has to play an active role in her own salvation, fight the battles, and more often than not save the well-meaning but inexperienced Ning’s hide. There is a long tradition of powerful female characters in Hong Kong cinema, but often times the story undermines those characters (look at Moon Lee’s unfortunate swordswoman in Tsui Hark’s Zu — a theoretically cool and competent character who is forced by the script to act like a petulant child rather than a grown, experienced woman). Ning is not a mighty hero; nor is Hsiao-ch’ien. They are just two people (well, a person and a friendly ghost), and their imperfection is what makes them interesting, and it’s what makes their romance moving.

For years, among American fans and at a time before widespread internet usage, this film’s direction was mistakenly credited to its producer, Tsui Hark, and the name Ching Siu-tung remained relatively obscure or unknown even as we thrilled to his films. In fact, I clearly recall most of Ching’s output — including Duel to the Death and the first two Swordsman films, often being credited to Tsui Hark. It’s not surprising. Not only were fans operating with very little information, but Tsui Hark had a reputation as an overbearing producer, often forcing himself into the director’s seat even if it didn’t say so in the credits. Chinese Ghost Story certainly boasts a Film Workshop “house style” that is often attributed to Hark, but doing so ignores the rather substantial role Ching Siu-tung himself played in developing and defining that style. The production of Chinese Ghost Story is sometimes likened to the production of Poltergeist, a similarly flashy ghost story that ended up being a tug-of-war between its director, Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and its more famous and powerful producer, Steven Spielberg.

To be honest, how much of that is rumor and embellishment and how much of it is true is inconsequential to me. What is important is just how much I love the finished product. And so did other people. It is rightly regarded as one of the classics of Hong Kong cinema, so much so that it spawned two sequels. The first is a direct continuation of the story, with Leslie Cheung reprising his role as Ning and Joey Wong returning as a fierce female warrior who might be the living reincarnation of Hsiao-ch’ien. It’s a pretty enjoyable sequel, if somewhat lacking the same heart as the original. At the very least, it’s not an abomination that undoes the power of the first film (as was, say, Bride with White Hair 2). Chinese Ghost Story III is basically a remake of the original, with Tony Leung Chiu-wai taking the place of Leslie Cheung, this time as a monk rather than a scholar and tax collector, Joey Wong once again as the spectral beauty, and Jacky Cheung hamming it up in the role of the swordsman. It’s also an enjoyable, if somewhat pointless, film. Rebooting a popular franchise only a few years after the original is a folly best left to the Spider-Man movies.

Aside from those two official sequels, Chinese Ghost Story spawned a veritable subgenre of “ghostly lover” movies telling the same basic story and often featuring at least one member of the original’s cast. During a relative slump in his career following the post-1997 hand-over of Hong Kong to China, which played a role in the collapse of the Hong Kong film industry as a whole (though was not the sole cause — an aging population of stars with no real stand-out next generation, and massive piracy gutting the market also contributed substantially). Tsui Hark himself would revisit the franchise, albeit it in animated form. Chinese Ghost Story: The Animation is a fun film, colorful and fast-moving, but it is much more a wacky kids’ adventure movie than it is anything in the bittersweet spirit of Chinese Ghost Story. In 2011, the story was remade yet again, this time by director Wilson Yip. I have yet to see that version, however, so I will reserve any sort of comment on it other than to say it features Kara Hui and was written by someone who decided his first name was going to be “Charcoal.”

Of all the movies from this amazing period, Chinese Ghost Story is probably my favorite. Although you know me as a cold and calculating man of adventure for whom true love is an unwelcome stranger, the truth is I am an unrepentant romantic beneath my steely exterior. And while the dazzling special effects that highlight Chinese Ghost Story are certainly wonderful, it’s the story of doomed love at the center of the film that really pulls me in and gives the film a heart that is absent from other, similar special effects-laden spectacles. It’s a perfect storm of Hong Kong New Wave outrageousness and old-fashioned sentimentality anchored by strong performances and, it should be noted, a fantastic soundtrack composed by Romeo Diaz, James Wong, and David Wu with great theme songs sung by Leslie Cheung and Sally Yeh (The Killer, Golden Queens Commandos). The cinematography and art design perfectly compliments the story, full of lush visuals and billowing red silk and strange camera angles that augment the otherworldly nature of the story. It pays homage to both Enchanting Shadow and Pu Songling’s short story while still being something very different from them (and thankfully, every filmed version of the story leaves out the bit where Ning returns home, where Hsiao-ch’ien is employed as his servant until Ning’s long-suffering wife dies, allowing Ning and Hsiao-ch’ien to marry, for her to become human, and for her to start bearing him children).

“The Magic Sword” is a modest story from which a massive tree demon Sprung. Years after I first saw it, Chinese Ghost Story has lost none of its power. I still pop it in regularly and find myself carried away on those waves of red silk. I fall in love with Joey Wong all over again every time. I still thrill to the finale and maybe even experience a misting of the eyes during the final scene. It is a perfect blend of spectacle and soul, of tragedy, comedy, and adventure. Time has dampened none of the film’s appeal, and in fact, the tragedy surrounding Leslie Cheung’s suicide and Wu Ma’s passing due to lung cancer only serves to heighten the impact of the film. And while it boasts the shift in tones that was the hallmark of many a Hong kong film, it never does so jarringly. The slides from comedy to tragedy happen organically, and the jokes are never so over-the-top that they kill the overall moody, supernatural atmosphere permeating the whole film.

Truly a classic, and a film any fan of Hong Kong cinema needs to have seen. Its energy is boundless but never overwhelming or out of control. It does not depend on its special effects or wild choreography and instead remains faithful to the central romance even when the most insane stuff is happening and Wu Ma is being attacked by a giant tongue. Joey Wong may have glided elegantly off into retirement, but for a whole generation of film fans, and hopefully for generations yet to come, the image of her sitting amid the silks streaming across an otherworldly pavilion remains one of the great, iconic images from the heyday of the Hong Kong New Wave.