Perky schoolgirls Bonnie (Bonnie Law), Juliet (Loletta Lee) and Venus (Sandy Lam) cavort on the beach, flirting with some boys camped nearby, when a sudden storm drives them to seek shelter in an old Buddhist temple. After a spooky night, Bonnie returns to her dorm room to find the length of rope she innocently brought back from the temple holds the spirit of Scholar Pik (Raymond Wong), a luckless scribe from the Ching dynasty whose suicide transformed him into the so-called Happy Ghost. Scholar Pik’s supernatural powers allow Bonnie to make mischief around her Catholic school campus and help her troubled friends, until their antics arouse the suspicion of stern nun Sister Lee (Teresa Carpio), who decides an exorcism is in order.
Co-scripted and produced by star Raymond Wong, Happy Ghost struck a chord with young cinemagoers in Hong Kong. It proved the first instalment in a string of popular children’s films that dominated the Eighties and early Nineties and was recently revived, with a returning Wong, as the effects-laden Magic to Win (2011). Wong began his career as a television comedian then later co-founded the influential Cinema City studio along with fellow comedians/actor-producers Dean Shek and Karl Maka, launching such talents as Chow Yun-Fat, John Woo and Tsui Hark with an array of ambitious, innovative smash hits. Although the partnership dissolved after Shek and Maka retired from filmmaking, Raymond Wong remains one of the most important figures in the Hong Kong film industry.
One imagines Wong had a passing familiarity with the Disney comedy Blackbeard’s Ghost (1967), given the first third of Happy Ghost steals a whole bunch of its gags as Scholar Pik uses his powers to help Bonnie trounce her rival at the school sports day. However, the plot unfolds quite differently, featuring a slightly saucier sense of humour and a disarmingly sincere empathy with the problems of teenage girls. Venus is pressured by her parents to live up to the standards set by her over-achieving siblings, and eventually attempts suicide. Meanwhile Juliet shacks up with a bespectacled lothario named Joe (Ng Siu-Gong) who promptly dumps her when she falls pregnant. The film is surprisingly frank about such matters for a family movie, although Scholar Pik spends as much time doling out sage advice as he does playing supernatural pranks. There is a faint subtext at work as stalwart Buddhist Pik defends the girls from cruel Catholic Sister Lee, but the overriding message is that the wayward girls need to take control over their lives.
As much a fixture of the series as Scholar Pik, the “Happy Ghost Girls” were often played by the top teen idols of the day. Among the cast, eighteen year old Loletta Lee went on to have the most successful screen career, uniquely balancing steamy turns in Category III sexploitation films like Remains of a Woman (1993) and Sex & Zen II (1996). She returned to the series in both Happy Ghost IV (1990) and the franchise reboot Magic to Win. Arguably the film’s most vivacious and appealing performance comes from young Bonnie Law who was similarly popular throughout the Eighties, though sadly nowadays remains most known for her husband’s real-life troubles with the triads. After a long absence she recently made a comeback onscreen in what insiders claim was an attempt to pay off her husband’s gambling debts.
Some of the humour in Happy Ghost is particular to Cantonese culture, including wordplay, puns and historical references, but the slapstick proves universal. Although the best Happy Ghost entries were yet to come, the original retains a lot of charm. Where else can you see a Ching dynasty scholar disguised as Eighties pop tart Boy George?