Ghostly Village is a secret hiding place for criminals across ancient China. Anyone with a price on their head is welcome, provided they pay the fee and abide by the strict rules set by masked mastermind, Old Hawk. However, the 8th Prince (Cheng Miu) comes to suspect the inhabitants are plotting to usurp his throne. So he enlists the aid of dashing detective and martial arts master, Chu Liu-Hsiang (Ti Lung). In a shock twist, Chu seemingly stabs the prince in bed, only to discover him alive and well at another palace the next day. With Chu on the run for his assassination attempt, the prince’s most trusted aides: Teacher Long Wu (Dang Wai-Ho) and Master Lan Meng (Kwan Fung) despatch their three most fearsome fighters to bring him to justice. But these men are swiftly slain by Liu Changjie (Goo Goon-Chung), a mysterious swordsman in black who claims the bounty on Chu’s head.
Meanwhile Chu meets an old rogue named Dugu Mei (Yeung Chi-Hing), who leads him to the Ghostly Village high atop a mist-shrouded mountain bathed in the golden sun. As per the rules, all guests keep their identities secret, but Chu gradually gets to know some of the more eccentric inhabitants: seductive femme fatale “The General” (Choh Seung-Wan), zany gambling addict Fourth Light Xuanyuan (Lo Lieh, well into the wacky comedy relief phase of his prolific career), camp homosexual “Cousin” (Lau Siu-Gwan), and Zhong Ling (Tai Liang-Chun), a waif-like beauty who was born in Ghostly Village and claims to be Old Hawk’s daughter. In classic Gu Long mystery tradition, no-one is what they seem. Stranger still, the village is haunted by a real ghost spying on all their activities. It seems the tables have been turned on the intrepid Chu when Liu Changjie surfaces as his next-door neighour and Old Hawk announces he will play an integral part in their planned assassination of the 8th Prince.
Strangely this Chu Yuan wu xia fantasy was originally titled: Perils of the Sentimental Swordsman even though it is not a follow-up to his previous hits The Sentimental Swordsman (1977) and Return of the Sentimental Swordsman (1981) but actually the third instalment in yet another franchise starring Ti Lung, preceded by Clans of Intrigue (1977) and Legend of the Bat (1978). Quite why Shaw Brothers chose to market this as a bogus entry in an unrelated series is something of a mystery given the Chu Liu-Hsiang movies were every bit as popular and the third film features several subplots explicitly referencing the last two. Then again, by this stage Chu Yuan was making so many swordplay fantasies with Ti Lung, it is little wonder the marketing department got confused.
Ghostly Village exhibits all the usual Chu Yuan traits: quirky characters, literate dialogue, cool death-dealing gadgets, insane plot twists and amazing sets drenched in gorgeous candy-coloured lighting reminiscent of Italian horror maestro Mario Bava. Much like Bava, Chu Yuan has a reoccurring preoccupation with the deceptive nature of surface appearances that climaxes when Old Hawk unveils an army of identical doubles and the heroes have to figure out which of them is real. Unlike Bava, Yuan has a more benevolent view of human nature. Villains are as likely to turn out to be allies as vice-versa. Sadly, the director’s trademark strong female characters are more superfluous than usual. Former beauty queen, nightclub singer and model Choh Seung-Wan makes an impression and shares an amusing comic scene playing strip poker with Lo Lieh, but is otherwise ill-used. Lieh directed her in the ropey horror film Black Magic with Buddha (1983), after which she retired from the industry. Taiwanese actress Tai Liang-Chun retired around the same time. Hong Kong starlets rarely continue acting past their twenties. She made eight films during her two-year stint at Shaw Brothers, but remains better known for her affair and short-lived marriage to studio superstar Liu Yung on the set of Passing Flickers (1982), an amusing comedy set behind the scenes at Shaw’s.
While admittedly convoluted (name me one Chu Yuan film that isn’t), the crafty plot keeps viewers on their toes while the frantic action and striking visuals maintain the high standard set by his past productions. Even after the wrap-up there are still a few surprises for Chu to unravel, which leads to a fantastically surreal bout of hide and seek where one character wearing a strap-on fake wall! One slight letdown is master detective Chu seemingly relies less on his keen deductive reasoning and simply waits while the ranting villains spell everything out.