Li Han-hsiang was the most respected filmmaker working at Shaw Brothers. Celebrated for his historical epics and award-winning dramas, he was a Hong Kong David Lean. Now imagine if David Lean suddenly decided what he really wanted to do was make softcore porn. Well, that’s what Li Han-hsiang did in what were known as his fengyue movies, a mixture of sophisticated Eastern erotica and earthy comedy. While films like Illicit Desire (1973) and That’s Adultery! (1975) sound tawdry and lowbrow, they’re actually closer in tone to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life, often mining the rich vein of Chinese literary erotica. Here, he adapts a classic text (The Dark Tales, filmed more faithfully two decades later with Adam Cheng) that mixes sex with supernatural horror.
A peasant crowd gather around an elderly storyteller (Yueh Hua in old-age makeup), as he recounts a strange tale. In Ming Dynasty China, General Wang (also Yueh Hua) and his army take refuge at an old inn run by sultry Madame Hua (Hu Chin) and her lovely sisters, Miao Fen (sexploitation favourite Shirley Yu) and Miao Fang (Lam Yeung Yeung). Every night, a horny soldier sneaks away to shag one of the ghostly beauties. Whereupon, at the point of orgasm, each victim magically transforms into a steer that crafty Madame Hua sells at the meat market. Eventually, General Hua wises up to her supernatural scheme and turns the tables on Madame Hua.
Several hundred years later, it’s reincarnation time. A winsome beauty (Hu Chin again) attracts a young, married scholar (it’s that man, Yueh Hua again). With his wife (Chiao Chiao - star of Shaw Bros. swordplay classic Heads for Sale (1969)) away, he lures her back to his place for some hot loving. Several, sex-filled weeks later, the scholar chances upon the girl putting on her human skin disguise and glimpses her true form: a rotting, maggot-ridden corpse. Eek! That’s right, buddy! That’s what you’ve been screwing! Horrified, he seeks help from a randy exorcist (Lee Kwan) who announces: “If she’s beautiful, I’ll need to have sex with her to restore the yin/yang balance.” Mm-hmm. Heard that one before. After a magical duel wherein they strip away each other’s clothes, the exorcist gets to make it with the dishy demon, but has his pecker turned into a crab that scuttles away. That’ll learn him. As the vengeful ghost unleashes her full supernatural fury upon the hapless scholar, his remarkably understanding wife begs a wise Taoist priest (Yeung Chi Hing) for help.
Li Han-hsiang’s sluggish, theatrical direction and a general lack of sympathetic characters (even the wife is a doormat) make The Ghost Story a bit of a slog at times. While the first two thirds are full of nudity and strangeness, there is little of the surreally sensual atmosphere that makes the films of Han-hsiang’s lesser known compatriot, Chu Yuan so compelling. Stick with it though, because things really pick up for the frenzied final third wherein Hu Chin’s phantom menace rips out a beating heart, turns into a gigantic, multi-armed, snow white goddess and summons a horde of bare-breasted sword maidens to battle the Taoist priest. Lookout for an early appearance from martial arts diva Kara Hui Ying-Hung and Jamie Luk Kim-ming, future director of Robotrix (1991).