A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) is a sublime masterpiece of Hong Kong fantasy/horror. Part two is certainly its equal, and with added political subtext, might even be the greater film. After a quick recap of part one, we rejoin our hero, kindly tax collector Ning (Leslie Cheung), barely twenty-four hours after he lost his ghostly love Hsiao-Tsing (Joey Wong) and parted company with Taoist swordsman Yan (Wu Ma). Returning to his poverty stricken home town, poor Ning stumbles into an inn where human meat is on the menu and barely escapes with his life. But a gang of bounty hunters mistake him for goateed outlaw Bing Chow (even though Ning is clean shaven), and throw him in jail. “Is there no reward for being a good man?” ponders Ning, sadly. His cellmate, Chu, an elderly political writer laments that no matter what he writes, the government bans everything because they think it’s revolutionary.
Time passes, and Ning grows a long goatee (yup, it makes him look even more like Bing Chow). The old writer helps him escape, but remains behind. With the world in turmoil, he’d rather stay and work in peace. After a run-in with Autumn Leaf (Jackie Cheung) - a Taoist scholar who travels underground like a supersonic mole - and a short stay at a haunted temple (where Ning reprises the famous Taoist rap song from part one), Ning unmasks a band of freedom fighters disguised as ghosts, led by lovely, sword-swinging sisters Windy (Joey Wang) and Moon (Michelle Reis). In a Life of Brian-style mishap, they’re convinced Ning is the legendary Elder Chu, and enlist his help to rescue their father Lord Fu, unjustly imprisoned by the government. Ning complies, taken by Windy’s startling resemblance to his beloved Hsiao-Tsing. Has she been reincarnated? Amidst a dizzying pace there is love and loss, poetry and horror, a slapstick encounter with a slime-dribbling demon, a treacherous golden Buddha, and the crowd-pleasing return of Swordsman Yan. Finally, a head-spinning revelation, as Ning and friends discover that the government and religious elite are being controlled by giant, super-intelligent, insect-monsters out to take over the world.
A fairytale on an epic scale, part two finds the Tsui Hark/Ching Siu Tung partnership firing on all cylinders. Dreamy slow-mo visuals underline the heartrending love story, the “freeze spell” gag is a brilliantly sustained slapstick set-piece, and the amazing action reaches a delirious highpoint when our heroes ride atop a gigantic centipede. There are gloopy monsters and grotesque touches to satisfy horror fans, including the cannibal tavern (where a dog gnaws a human hand) and an Exorcist nod that turns romantic, when Windy gets possessed and Ning saves her with a heartfelt kiss. Part one may pack a more concentrated charge, but two features a deeper story.
As with the original, Siu Tung choreographs the fights and handles the fantasy sequences, while Hark handles the comedy, drama and romance. He was later revealed to have written the original stories, re-shot special effects and supervised the editing on all three Chinese Ghost Story films. The political subtext is entirely his; an indictment of censorship, religious and governmental totalitarianism, and an examination of contrasting attitudes towards social problems. The writer Chu is so disillusioned he prefers to remain in his self-contained fictional world. A fearless swordsmen (Waise Lee) blithely serves a corrupt government, and realises his mistake too late. Windy, Moon and Autumn Leaf are headstrong idealists who rush in without thinking. Ning, the reluctant revolutionary, an average Joe who just wants to reunite with his girl and settle down, emerges as a real hero this time. Quite different from the hapless weed we met in part one. Led by the heart, he is considerate of other people’s feelings and struggles to do right by everyone.
A theme of mistaken identity runs through part two. Ning is mistaken for Elder Chow. Windy is mistaken for Hsiao-Tsing. The freedom fighters disguise as ghosts. The centipede-monster poses as the holy Buddha. In order to get by in this turbulent world, characters have to look beneath surface appearances and judge people by their deeds. Only in this way, the film argues, can we discern a “good man”, whose reward is ultimately goodness itself.
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.
Like many Hong Kong directors, Hark gave Hollywood a go in the late nineties and directed Jean-Claude Van Damme in Double Team and Knock Off. He returned home soon after to continue directing and producing movies like Time and Tide, the epic effects-fest Legend of Zu and romantic adventure Seven Swords.