THE GOLDEN ERA OF HONG KONG CINEMA – A CHINESE GHOST STORY (1987)
A Chinese Ghost Story is a 1987 Hong Kong romantic-cross-horror film starring the forever gorgeous Leslie Cheung, the once stunning Joey Wong and the hilarious Wu Ma. The movie was directed by Ching Siu Tong and produced by the superbly talented Tsui Hark.
The movie was hugely successful and iconic, which spawned two sequels; but we all know, nothing beats the original. I remember watching the movie on late night SBS when I was very little, and the tree monster used to scare me so much that I could not sleep at night. In my mind, A Chinese Ghost Story was a HORROR film. And I don’t watch horror films.
In 2009, I came across the movie again, I gave the movie another try, for Leslie.
And I loved it.
I don’t know why the tree-monster used to scared me, because the ‘special’ effects were so fake. Granted, the movie is 23 years old so you don’t watch it for the stunning effects. However, I loved it because – this time I realised – it is a love story.
A love story between Ning Caichen (played by Leslie Cheung), the hapless poor debt collector and a beautiful and alluring ghost, Nie Xiaoqian (played by Joey Wong). As a debt collector, Ning travels between towns and he often seeks shelter in deserted rural areas when he is in-between towns.
The movie begins with Ning, arriving at a town but is forced to seek shelter in a deserted temple in the forest on the outskirts as the inns are fully occupied. That night in the temple, Ning meets a beautiful and alluring young maiden called Nie Xiaoqian and falls in love with her. However, when he later recalls last night’s events the next day, he becomes increasingly fearful and superstitious. That night, he returns to the temple to spend his night there and confirms his theory that Nie is actually a spirit.
Nie tells him her story of how she became eternally bound to the servitude of a sinister Tree Demon. She explains that as long as her remains are buried at the foot of the tree, her spirit will be forever bound to the Tree Demon. Ning attempts to free her from her suffering. He seeks the help of a powerful Taoist priest and master swordsman called Yan Chixia, whom he met earlier. Yan battles the Tree Demon and attempts to free Nie’s soul but fails. Nie’s soul is taken to the Underworld for betraying her master.
Ning is unwilling to give up on Nie and insists that Yan helps him. Yan manages to open a temporary portal to the Underworld. Ning and Yan enter the Underworld and attempt to free Nie’s soul from suffering once more. They are unable to find her in the midst of thousands of other spirits. Eventually, Ning and Nie are able to see each other briefly near dawn when sunlight shines on the urn containing Nie’s cremated remains. Nie tells Ning that the only way to save her soul is to place her remains to rest at another more auspicious burial site before she returns to the darkness. Ning follows her instructions and with Yan’s advice, Ning buries Nie’s remains near the crest of a hill. He burns a joss stick for her and prays for her soul while Yan watches solemnly behind him.