Failed pop singer and suicide victim Tsui Han-Pan (Maggie Cheung) is in heaven awaiting her chance at reincarnation, which the heavenly host (ace director Tsui Hark in one of his occasional acting stints) assures her will bring the fame and fortune she lost out on first time around. Unfortunately, Han-Pan’s reincarnation is inadvertently botched by the antics of earthbound happy ghost Scholar Pik (Raymond Wong). Stuck on earth in her spirit form, a furious Han-Pan makes life hell for Pik’s human alter-ego, hapless girls’ school teacher Sam Hong (also Wong).
Of all the Happy Ghost sequels, part three is probably the most fondly remembered because it features one of the most beloved Hong Kong film stars: Maggie Cheung in an early role. Her delightful comedic performance is among the many highpoints that elevate Happy Ghost III to the front rank of this popular series. Star Raymond Wong had greater creative input this time around, co-directing for the first time as well as scripting, but a lot of part three’s success is due to the unprecedented involvement of some of the finest filmmakers from the Hong Kong New Wave. Ching Siu-Tung, director of A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), choreographed the amazing action sequences, Johnnie To served as a second unit director whilst Tsui Hark, besides playing a key supporting role, took charge of the special effects. As a result the set-pieces are among the most astonishing in the series: a car runs up and along a skyscraper then burrows underground (a jaw-dropping sequence that arguably bests a similar scene in Timur Bekmambetov’s CGI-laden Day Watch (2006)), a trippy reincarnation segment combining imagery from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Han-Pan airlifts Sam so he can fly like Superman (1978) over Hong Kong, and a showstopping nod to Carrie (1976) wherein a triad boss is assailed by flying cutlery. All this plus those series staples the Happy Girl Troop dressed as sexy majorettes and Maggie Cheung at her most adorable.
Poor Scholar Pik really met his match this time. Han-Pan uses her diabolical powers to foil his efforts to help his students triumph on the football field in a special effects set-piece that likely influenced Shaolin Soccer (2001), then turns some innocent everyday objects into evidence of Sam’s infidelity, thus further enraging his perpetually pissed-off girlfriend, Mona (Joh Yin-Ling). Eventually, Sam realises the only way he can foil this foxy female spirit is with love. This proves especially complicated after Han-Pan possesses the body of schoolgirl Tai Cheuk-Yee (Fennie Yuen Kit-Ying), leader of the Happy Girl Troop. When Sam professes love in the school auditorium, unaware his boss, all his students and Mona are watching from the balcony, everyone not unreasonably reckons he is a pervert.
Inevitably the feuding pair fall in love for real, in a manner that actually proves rather sweet. Sam manages to get Han-Pan’s one and only recorded single to the top of the charts and ends up on a date with a ghost girl only he can see. Aside from causing chaos at their local restaurant, this results in a showstopping musical number which features lovely Maggie Cheung swishing a cel animated dress and dancing along with cartoon feet! Apart from one misjudged reference to a then-ailing Rock Hudson, the gags are punchy while the plot is engagingly oddball with Maggie wringing more pathos from her role than even Raymond Wong managed with his similarly melancholy backstory in the first Happy Ghost (1984). While the film might seem atypically light-hearted for co-director Ringo Lam given he is best known for gritty crime thrillers like City on Fire (1987) and Full Contact (1992), the plot does play like a parody of his more serious supernatural romance Espirit D’Amour (1983).
Typically for a Hong Kong production, the tone wavers from knockabout farce to melodrama with a subplot involving cocky new kid in class Cheung Chi-Kit (Danny Poon Wang-Ban), whose inconsistent characterization is a minor flaw. Some of the humour gets a little risque for what is essentially a children’s film, as Cheung embroils the Happy Girls in sleazy goings on at a triad run brothel! Luckily, Han-Pan’s magical powers save the day, empowering Cheuk-Yee to trash the place, free the captive sex slaves and possess the triad boss (Wong Ching) long enough for him to turn himself into the police. The climax has Han-Pan once again aid Sam in his efforts to save Cheuk-Yee from the vengeful triads, after which there is a race against time and the pursuing cops, so she can make it back to the hospital for her last chance at reincarnation.