Jilted by his girlfriend, Chinese tax collector Ning (voiced by Jan Lamb) and his lovable dog Solid Gold (Tsui Hark!) narrowly escape death by soul-sucking demons thanks to venerable ghost-busting monk White Cloud Reverend Bai Yun (Raymond Wong) and his hot-tempered disciple Ten Miles (Eric Kot). En route to collect more taxes, the hapless scholar stumbles into an entire city of ghosts and goblins. Ning is instantly smitten with lovely lady ghost Siu Sin (Anita Yuen), unaware she is an agent of evil immortal tree spirit Madame Trunk (Kelly Chen) intent on stealing his soul. Moved by Ning's kindness and decency, Siu Sin betrays her cruel mistress and goes on the run aided by her ghost sister Butterfly (Charlie Yeung). Realizing their best chance for happiness is to literally start a new life, Ning and Siu Sin race after the Immortal Golden Dragon Train that ferries souls from the underworld to be reborn on Earth. Hot on their trail are two teams of exorcists, not only White Cloud and Ten Miles but their bitter rival fiery, formidable Taoist warrior-mage Red Beard (Wong Jim) and Tao of Taos, his steampunk ghost-busting giant robot.
If there was one thing that could have made Tsui Hark's original live-action A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) even more awesome it would be a steampunk ghost-busting giant robot. So naturally, Hark chucked one in to this trail-blazing animated remake. Never one to misuse the limitless possibilities of animation he also crammed in all sorts of crazy creatures, mind-blowing laser battles and surreal set-pieces too. Typical of an auteur who could not stop himself throwing in everything AND the kitchen sink. When the British handed Hong Kong back to mainland China in 1997 live-action film production was in jeopardy albeit briefly as things turned out. So as an alternative Tsui Hark sought to jump-start the local animation industry by remaking one of his biggest blockbusters.
The history of Hong Kong animation is spotty at best although local animators contributed heavily to the Japanese anime juggernaut. A couple of feature film outings for children's comic character Master Q and the bizarre oddity The Story of Chinese Gods (1977) were pretty much it before the animated version of A Chinese Ghost Story came along. Tsui Hark's innovative effort was a domestic hit but Hong Kong animation remained a non-starter for several more years until the McDull franchise and films like Butterfly Lovers (2004) finally caught on. Among western HK film fandom, where any deviation from the chopsocky norm is viewed as heresy, the reaction was pure hatred. Hark was already seen as a villain for making wire-fu fantasies like Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983), now he was stirring anime into the mix?! Hell no!
However the less reactionary, more open-minded Asian film fan could appreciate Hark was not simply replaying the original plot in a new medium but in fact putting an entirely new spin on those ideas inherent in the classic Pu Song-Ling story. Working with co-director Andrew Chan and anime veteran Tetsuya Endo, Hark combined computer animated giant monsters with traditional cel animated characters to dazzling effect. While the CGI effects have inevitably dated they remain eye-catching. The film is a feast for the eyes that flows quite beautifully. It is worth watching for the spectacular battle between giant robot Tao of Taos and rampaging the rampaging tree demon alone, although the climactic race through the reincarnation gate remains the most ingenious sequence. Written by Hark himself the screenplay echoes themes from his past films. Ning repeatedly asks why all the warring factions don't simply unite to face their common enemy and counters Red Beard's argument all ghosts are evil by insisting compassion is universal. Despite the addition of a new enemy in Siu Sin's towering silver-haired demonic rock star (!) boyfriend Mountain Evil (Jordan Chan), the story's true villain is actually the self-righteous White Cloud. He is a bigoted bully much like the monk Fa-Hai in Hark's earlier, superb fantasy Green Snake (1993). A political filmmaker at heart, Tsui Hark refashions the supernatural love story as a message to the anxious youth of Hong Kong. Here a divided nation, split between mortals and ghosts, must learn to set aside their differences to forge a brighter future.
On the downside the animated film downplays the romance for the sake of more breakneck chase sequences and ever-escalating battles. However it predates Hayao Miyazaki's Oscar-winning Spirited Away (2001) in depicting a fun-loving community of wacky, albeit menacing, ghosts and goblins that parodies a sprawling modern Asian metropolis, complete with flying taxis, haunted neon signs and bat-shaped cell-phones. As well as voicing the dog himself Hark assembled a stellar voice cast of some of the biggest names in HK cinema at that time. All inhabit their roles with gusto although the English dub is quite accomplished and makes the extra effort of re-interpreting the Cantopop soundtrack.
Hong Kong director, producer, writer and actor and one of the most important figures in modern Hong Kong cinema. Hark majored in film in the US, before returning to his homeland to work in television. Made his directing debut in 1979 with the horror thriller The Butterfly Murders, while 1983's Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain was a spectacular ghost fantasy quite unlike anything in HK cinema at the time. Other key films of this period include Shanghai Blues and the brilliant Peking Opera Blues.