One dark spooky night green-faced ghouls invade the home of lovely lute-playing Shen (Sharla Cheung Man). During a vicious sexual assault Shen unmasks the head ghoul as the local Magistrate (Lung Fong). Meanwhile two dopey Taoist scholars, Feng Yung Tin (Mark Cheng) and Chow Ka-Wei, are hoping to score the commission to carve a sacred idol. After a run-in with a mischievous older and wiser Buddhist monk (Wu Ma), the pair arrive in town just as Shen botches a knife attack on the evil Magistrate. Whereupon he brutally beats poor Shen to death right before a horrified Yung Tin. Shortly thereafter the hapless scholar discovers the log he felled to carve his masterpiece is inexplicably inhabited by Shen's ghost. And she wants revenge.
Sharla Cheung Man, one of the most underrated Hong Kong stars of the Nineties, headlines this obscure horror-fantasy. By 1993 the genre spearheaded by Encounters of the Spooky Kind (1980), Mr. Vampire (1985) and especially A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) was starting to wind down. Hence The Buddhist Spell does not bring any new ingredients to a well-worn formula. In its favor Sharla slots into the stock Joey Wong ghost girl role very well, emoting earnestly and wringing no small amount of sympathy for the luckless Shen. Co-star Mark Cheng (real life husband of cult martial arts diva Yukari Oshima), although saddled with a rather pious and tiresomely sulky hero, does get to show off some range when the plot pulls an All Of Me (1984) style twist. That's right: Shen takes over Yung Tin's body, whereupon Cheng switches winningly back and forth from stoic incredulity to swanning around all ladylike.
Whereas A Chinese Ghost Story spun an achingly romantic tall of star-crossed love, The Buddhist Spell plunges down a far grimmer route. Despite a brief detour into domestic comedy in its second act, the story revolves around rape, murder (the grueling sight of Shen flung out a window before having her head repeatedly bashed against a log is tough to shake) and revenge. Followed by a third act descent into full-blown apocalyptic horror involving a black magic cult (led by Lau Shun - the monk with the amazing extendable magic ear-lobes in A Chinese Ghost Story III (1991)) - and Pauline Wong, reoccurring ghost girl in the Mr. Vampire films) and a severed head regenerating into a naked screaming rat-eared man-demon. Along the way Wu Ma, a fixture of Hong Kong ghost stories as both actor and director, playing a shaven headed Buddhist variant on his rapping Taoist ghost-buster from A Chinese Ghost Story, performs a fiery act of self-immolation whilst singing the theme song in his own, er, unique, croaky fashion. Right before the demon meets a psychedelic fate at the hands of almighty Buddha, leading to a melancholy fade-out for Shen and Feng Yung Tin.
Many Hong Kong fantasies do a remarkable job interweaving seemingly disparate tones (sometimes even genres). Here however the doggedly downbeat plot and undeniably delirious horror imagery sit uneasily besides tedious time-wasting comedy and a romance that proves more depressing than enchanting. Once the Magistrate has been dealt with (surprisingly early into the film), a grateful Shen gives Yung Tin her father's old workshop and uses her Mary Poppins-like powers to tidy the place up and help him outwit an unscrupulous rival. Before long they are making eyes at each other until Yung Tin learns once the idol is finished Shen will vanish forever.
Chiu Lo-Kong, a prolific assistant director on many better known films, also wrote the screenplay for Exorcist Master (1993) which was directed by Wu Ma. Buddhist Spell was among only three films he directed himself including kung fu comedy A Wily Match (1980) and Iron Monkey 2 (1996), a poorly received sequel to the Donnie Yen fan favourite. Here he brings a definite visual flair to proceedings. Striking imagery abounds, including rows of glistening golden Buddha statues, trippy cel animated special effects, a tree that gushes blood and a giant UFO-like multicolored death wheel chasing after the good guys. Especially memorable is a sequence where Shen inhabits a flying tree trunk that fights off the town guard while the dastardly magistrate flings his own men, one after another, into its path.