Sunday 8 September 2019

1,001 Films: "A Chinese Ghost Story" (1987)

Produced by Tsui Hark for director Ching Siu Tung, A Chinese Ghost Story might more accurately be titled A Chinese Love Story or A Chinese Shaggy-Dog Tale, although there are elements of all three titles in there: it's the highest-profile Hong Kong martial-arts movie to bear comparison to those Bollywood masalas throwing everything at the screen save the kitchen sink. A klutzy, unworldly debt collector (played by Leslie Cheung, later the star of Farewell My Concubine) elects to spend a night in a temple even the locals describe as "creepy and old". With good reason, it turns out: his fellow guests include duelling Taoist monks, Harryhausen-esque hordes of the undead, and an otherworldly female spirit (Joey Wang) with an unfortunate knack of killing her lovers. Supporting characters include a man in drag known as the Old Dame, an effete homosexual who gets pushed off his horse, while one of the monks performs his own synth-based musical number before blowing up a vampire. (This, admittedly, is awesome.) Though it's never remotely scary - surely a prerequisite of a proper ghost story? - it manages to be oddly sexy (our boyish hero becomes a man after a close encounter with the heroine in a bathtub), pacy, supremely playful and inventive (characters are repeatedly attacked by a giant tongue), baffling in the best way (governed as it is by an arcane set of rules regarding the relationships between ghosts and mortals; "this case is too complicated," a magistrate can be heard complaining at one point, and in many ways he's right) and above all else very funny, even if you're never quite sure whether you're laughing at or alongside the film. A free-for-all, in other words, but never less than entertaining.

A Chinese Ghost Story is not currently commercially available in the UK, though a Blu-Ray rip with English subtitles can be found on YouTube.

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