A Chinese Ghost Story was one of the first Hong Kong movies to really break through to a Western audience in the form it was made – ie. subtitled – finding considerable success on the UK and US arthouse circuits back in the late 80s. Since then, über-producer Tsui Hark has gone on to make dozens of films in the horror, martial arts and action genres, but few combine these elements with quite the same breathless aplomb as this top-rate romp.
The late Leslie Cheung is on great comic form as Ning, a young scholar making some cash by debt collecting. When his debt book is damaged he heads to a seemingly deserted temple in the woods outside town, even though the townsfolk are convinced he may never return. At the temple he encounters a strange bearded monk engaged in combat with another man, but that's nothing compared to the zombies lurking under the floorboards and the beautiful ghost by the name of Nie, who sits by the lake playing haunting melodies on her harp. Being somewhat bumbling, Ning fails to spot the zombies and falls in love with Nie (Joey Wong), blissfully unaware that she's a spirit forced by her evil mistress to seduce men and feed them to the dark lord of the underworld, to whom she is also betrothed.
A Chinese Ghost Story takes place in a world where ghosts exists and people's main concern is staying out of their way. The film isn't scary as such, but throws all the right horror elements at the screen – ghosts, zombies, evil trees, huge demonic tounges, even a bit of head-lopping and blood-letting – and there's some neat martial arts tossed in for good measure. It's all one big rush of ultra-stylised energy that holds together brilliantly so long as you don't question the logic of anything you're watching – Hark and director Ching Siu-Tung seem to delight in the fact that their plot frequently makes little sense.
For all its spectacle however, this is actually quite a small-scale film. Most of the action takes place around the temple and concerns only a handful of characters, principally Ning, Nie, and Master Yan, the bearded monk who turns out to be a retired Mandarin judge and the only man capable of defeating the lord of the underworld. Yan is played with gusto by veteran martial arts star Wu Ma, and he gets to shoot laser beams from his palms and perform a bizarre Taoist rap. Central to the story is Ning and Nie's blossoming romance and this is played out in a series of amusing, quite touching scenes, the best being the sequence in which Ning is forced to hide in a bath tub from Nie's evil sister and mistress. Ning and Yan's quest to rescue Nie from her intended husband takes them into the underworld for a bistering climax, and the film ends on a impressively melancholy note. Outrageous fun.
Hong Kong director and skilled action choreographer. Started working as a fight arranger on films including Tsui Hark's Peking Opera Blues and directed influential kung fu flicks Duel to the Death and The Nepal Affair. 1987's A Chinese Ghost Story was a masterful slice of supernatural lunacy, and Siu-Tung went on to helm two sequels, all for producer Hark. Siu-Tung's other key films include Swordsman 1 & 2 and the stylish New Dragon Gate Inn, and as an action choreographer has worked on modern classics such as The Heroic Trio, A Better Tomorrow II, Shaolin Soccer, Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Recently directed sexploiter Naked Weapon for prolific producer Wong Jing.