It’s impossible to not love this Tsui Hark masterpiece. It opens with a solitary scholar in a moon-drenched abandoned monastery, tempted by a beautiful girl swathed in soft white chiffon. Her drifting veil pulls the scholar to her, and as his paper lantern floats in a bowl of water, the scholar proves himself susceptible to her wiles. Alas for our scholar, he is but a bit-player in this beautiful fable, as his temptress turns out to be the point woman for a demon with more tongue than Gene Simmons.
From beginning to end, this film is lovely. Costumes composed of acres of soft chiffon are draped around lovely young women as they (the women, not the costumes) fly through a night-time forest and lounge in tranquil lakeside pavilions. The music, with melancholy vocals by (I think) Sally Yeh and the excessively talented Leslie, supports the story with a light touch. The evocation of a mythical China past is credible without being pedestrian, and makes a historical world we want to believe in.
The characters too are lovely: Joey Wong, as Siu Sin, gives us a virtuous girl co-opted after death into servitude to a Tree Demon, while Leslie manifests a scholar of such naive innocence as only he is capable. Although he was around 26 or 27 when this film was made, Leslie looks about 14, and manages to create a guileless and gormless hero who is wildly endearing.
Minor characters also shine. In particular, watch the rubber-faced comic actor Wu Ma, who dons traditional leather and bamboo armour as well as some frightening facial hair. He gives us the grumpy Taoist warrior whose intention of retiring from the world to the ruined monastery is thwarted, first by another warrior who comes to test his skill, then by Leslie, seeking shelter at the monastery.
Ching Siu Tung, renowned martial arts director, is credited as both director and action director for this film, and has certainly left his stamp all over it. The action, when it happens, is fast and eye-catching, without ever disturbing the mythical feel of the whole. The wirework deserves particular mention: the girl ghosts fly in a langorous floaty way, while the swordsmen travel in prodigious vertical leaps. Leslie, of course, remains solidly earthbound, as the only non-martial or non-magical character in the film.
I can only sum this film up by saying this: A Chinese Ghost Story is one of the best Asian films ever. Indeed, it’s one of the best anything films ever. This one film, wirework, chiffon, crumbling buildings and all, is worth a good dozen of any explosion-and-car-chase-filled spectaculars. It’s also responsible for the conversion of a good many people to a passionate love for Asian film. I haven’t met anyone, either in cyberspace or in meatspace, who doesn’t love this film, so see it on the big screen while you can, and find out what we’re all raving about.