Once upon a time in ancient China, dedicated demon hunter Yin Chek Ha (Louis Koo) spared the spectral life of lovely lady ghost Siu Sin (Crystal Liu Yi-Fei) having fallen hopelessly in love. Knowing that ghosts and mortals can never find happiness together, Yin Chek Ha used an enchantment to erase all memories of their romance from Siu Sin’s mind. Years later, gormless but good-hearted scholar Ning Choi-San (Yu Shao-Qun) arrives in the village at the bottom of Black Mountain and promises to find a new source of water somewhere atop the demon-infested forest peak. His expedition goes awry when his scouts find an ancient temple where gorgeous ghost maidens seduce them then drain their lifeforce to sustain ravenous tree demon Lou Lou (Kara Hui Ying-Hung). Ning grows smitten with Siu Sin who, recognising the goodness in him, spares his life as they fall in love. Which is when Yin Chek Ha reappears on the scene, driven to save Ning’s life and the world from the evil entity, even though his love for Siu Sin burns brightly.
Proving Hollywood does not hold a monopoly on remake fever, the past few years have seen Chinese and Korean filmmakers revisit several classics from the Hong Kong New Wave with invariably mixed results. Current king of HK cinema Wilson Yip Wai-Shun, the man behind Ip Man (2008), Dragon Tiger Gate (2006) and Flashpoint (2007) to name a few of his hits, faced no small task mounting this remake of one of the most beloved and influential Hong Kong films of all time. On a personal note, both the original A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) and its excellent sequels were a cornerstone of my childhood so newcomers to the material may want to take these opinions with a grain of salt. That the remake is not a patch on its outstanding forebearer comes as no surprise, but neither is it the desecration of a classic many were expecting.
To the filmmakers' considerable credit the remake forges its own distinctive path by tweaking the original story. Its foremost innovation is the realignment of the original star-crossed love story to include ghost hunter Yin Chek Ha. Most likely because Louis Koo is the biggest star in the cast, save for former Shaw Brothers kung fu diva Kara Hui Ying-Hing (it’s great to see her here). While this new love triangle counterbalances the plot against soppy scholar Ning, turning him into a strangely superfluous character, Louis Koo pitches a powerful performance that lends weight to the romantic tragedy that unfolds. Young leads Crystal Liu Yi-Fei, a rare Chinese actress discovered in Hollywood via Disney’s The Forbidden Kingdom (2008) before she broke through to HK cinema, and Yu Shao-Qun fall short of charismatic original stars Joey Wong and Leslie Cheung, but are engaging enough in their roles.
Working with master cinematographer Arthur Wong, who shot a great many of the greatest HK movies ever made including A Chinese Ghost Story II (1990), Yip Wai-Shun recreates the tilted angles, swooping camerawork and blue-tinted cinematography which will delight nostalgists, yet he fumbles the original heady, intoxicating pace. As yet another HK blockbuster betraying the stifling influence of mainland Chinese filmmaking, this dials down the first film’s off-kilter combination of comedy, horror and romance that drew criticism from some western viewers back in the Eighties, but now stands as HK cinema’s most distinctive asset. No rapping Taoists or other goofy gags here, leaving the film perhaps overly earnest in tone.
Exquisite art direction combines with an inevitable avalanche of CGI which, in all fairness, proves pretty spectacular yielding poetic images such as Yin Chek Ha floating on a river of leaves and Siu Sin’s soul embodied as a remarkably lifelike fox spirit. The action choreography by veteran Ma Yuk Sing is very strong and remnants of the original wistful romance survive intact and prove affecting. Where the remake truly stumbles is with the late hour, inexplicable introduction of two new characters: a second, more ruthless demon hunter named Thunder (Fan Siu-Wong, onetime star of cult splatter-fest The Story of Ricky (1992)) and his rather butch sister Ha Bing (Wang Danyi Li - who wears a single pained expression throughout). Their presence and constant speechifying none too subtly realign the anti-authoritarian satire Tsui Hark and Ching Siu Tung brought to the original into a strange sort of pro-nationalist statement that must have pleased the mainland censor. At one point, Ha Bing berates the three principle protagonists for being preoccupied with their romantic troubles when they ought to be uniting behind the oppressed villagers (who, to be honest, come across a rather venal and foolish lot). Towards the finale, Thunder reminds his sister that love between ghosts and mortals is impossible and therefore what they witnessed was only an illusion to distract stoic types like themselves. Right on, comrade. Wisely, the film retains the original theme song performed by the late Leslie Cheung which is liable to instil feelings of wistful nostalgia for seasoned HK film fans.