A Chinese Ghost Story 倩女幽魂
Costume action fantasy
2011, colour, 2.35:1, 100 mins
Directed by Wilson Yip (葉偉信)
By Derek Elley
Wed, 16 November 2011, 09:15 AM (HKT)
Simply bigger and better, on most levels, than the famous 1987 version. Asian events, plus niche theatrical and ancillary.
Ancient China. Yan Chixia (Louis Koo) is a professional demon-hunter in the Black Mountains who falls for beautiful young demon Nie Xiaoqian (Crystal Liu) but cannot bring himself to kill her, even though he realises humans and demons cannot co-exist. However, with the help of fellow demon-hunter Xiaxue Fenglei (Louis Fan), who sacrifices his left arm, he does manage to "imprison" Xiaoqian's mistress, the Tree Demon (Kara Hui), beneath Lanruo Temple. Years later, young government official Ning Caichen (Yu Shaoqun) arrives in the area and offers to go up the mountain to find out why the village's water source has dried up. The village head (Elvis Tsui) sends along some prisoners to help him. At Lanruo Temple, the prisoners are seduced by two beautiful demons (Lin Peng, Miu Miu), who suck out their life energy to pass on to the Tree Demon so she will gather enough strength to escape her bonds. Caichen meets Xiaoqian and falls for her. After unblocking the water source under the temple, Caichen is feted as a hero by the villagers, but returns up the mountain to find Xiaoqian. Meanwhile, however, Chixia has reappeared on the scene and warns him not to get involved with Xiaoqian. And then Xiaxue Fenglei turns up, with his younger sister Xia Bing (Wangdan Yili), both intent on settling the demon question in light of Chixia's hesitancy.
Dedicated to the memory of iconic Hong Kong actor-singer Leslie CHEUNG 張國榮 — star of the 1987 version, directed by Tony CHING 程小東 and produced by TSUI Hark 徐克 — this latest version of the short story by Qing dynasty writer PU Songling 蒲松龄 (from his collection Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio 聊齋誌異) got an undeservedly rough ride by some Hong Kong loyalists on release. But like that earlier version, itself pre-dated by LI Han-hsiang 李翰祥's stagier The Enchanting Shadow 倩女幽魂 (1960) for Shaw Bros., this A Chinese Ghost Story 倩女幽魂 (2011) is absolutely of its era, with production in China, a mixed Hong Kong/Mainland cast, largely Mainland money, and a technical crew (including director Wilson YIP 葉偉信) from Hong Kong.
At the time, the Ching/Tsui version galvanised audiences with its wire-work, sheer energy, stylistic excesses (all sensual drapes and misty blue light) and Cantonese comedy-romance; nowadays, it all looks rather late '80s and very cartoonish on the effects side. Almost a quarter-century on, and viewed objectively, this latest version by Yip (SPL 殺破狼 (2005), Ip Man 葉問 (2008)) sports tip-top visual effects by South Korea's Digital Studio 2L, two leads who are just as good as Cheung and Joey WANG 王祖賢 in a more realistic way, and a storyline that's far richer in supporting characters and plot.
However, what this version lacks, at least until its climax, is a sense of sweeping emotion, though that's never been Yip's strong point. It's also burdened with a major piece of miscasting in Hong Kong's Louis KOO 古天樂 as veteran demon-hunter Yan Chixia: though Koo has shown signs recently of developing some character beyond his matinee-idol looks, he simply looks out of place here as a conflicted warrior, especially opposite the excellent Louis FAN 樊少皇 as a fellow demon-hunter. Koo's attempts at stirring some comedy into his conflicted ghostbuster seem awkward compared with the sly touches by veteran Elvis TSUI 徐錦江 (who had a small role in the 1987 film) as a pompous village head.
In the Cheung role as an ingenuous government official, YU Shaoqun 余少群 (so good as the young Mei Lanfang in Forever Enthralled 梅蘭芳 (2008)) hits the right note of wide-eyed awe, and teams well with fellow Mainlander Crystal LIU 劉亦菲 in Wang's role. Liu, who made her name as Little Dragon Lady in the superb 2006 TV drama series The Return of the Condor Heroes (神鵰俠侶) but also showed a talent for modern rom-com in Love in Disguise 戀愛通告 (2010), is especially good with her multiple mood changes in the early going, though loses some traction as the story progresses. That's partly because she's overshadowed later on both by Fan and veteran action star Kara HUI 惠英紅 (Wu Xia 武俠 (2011)), who's way over the top as her evil mistress, the cackling Tree Demon.
As well as the visual effects, everything else in this 21st-century version is simply bigger and better. Kenneth MAK 麥國強's production design, moving from realistically grungy exteriors to imposingly detailed interiors (such as the main temple set), and Bobo NG 吳寶玲's equally varied costumes ground the story and comment directly on the characters, without becoming campy or over-extravagant.
As he showed in Ip Man, and the earlier Juliet in Love 朱麗葉與梁山伯 (2000), Yip has always been an actor's director even when dealing in mainstream genres, and the film as a whole explores the central theme of the human/demon divide much more. What he (and the film) lacks is the ability to fully let go and sweep an audience off its feet with sheer romantic passion, such as a director like Ronny YU 于仁泰 was capable of at his best (The Bride With White Hair 白髮魔女傳 (1993), The Phantom Lover 夜半歌聲 (1995)).
In China the film had the English title A Chinese Fairy Tale to get round the SARFT proscription on "ghosts". The 1987 film also had a limited re-release there on 30 April 2011 in a digitally remastered version. As well as the 1960 Shaw Bros. movie, Pu's short story has also inspired many other similar ones, including SUNG Tsun-shou 宋存壽's excellent Taiwan production, Ghost of the Mirror 古鏡幽魂 (1974), with SHIH Chun 石雋 and a young Brigitte LIN 林青霞 in her first costume role.
ContactSales: Golden Sun Films (email@example.com)
Theatrical release: China, 19 Apr 2011; Hong Kong, 28 Apr 2011.
Presented by Golden Sun Century (Beijing) Multimedia (CN), Beijing Forbidden City Film (CN), CHS Media (CN), TIK Culture Development (CN), Huaxia Film Distribution (CN), Golden Sun Films (HK), HolyTown Media (CN), Asia Bright Investment (CN). Produced by Golden Sun Films (HK). Executive producers: Ketsarinh Lan, Zhang Qiang, Yau Kin-ming, Lung Chau-wan, Gu Guoqing, Lai Tsun-kei, Wong Wai-yu, Chan Wai-lun. Produced by Ketsarinh Lan, Lai Tsun-kei, Hui Kin-hoi, Pang Yik.
Script: Carbon Cheung. Photography: Arthur Wong. Editing: Cheung Ka-fai, Tang Man-to. Music: Ronald Ng. Production design: Kenneth Mak. Costume design: Bobo Ng. Sound: Ruan Weijiang, Shi Chun-min, Kinson Tsang. Action: Joe Ma Yuk-shing, John Chui, Fan Chin-hung. Visual effects: Im Jeong-hun, Han Tae-jeong (Digital Studio 2L).
Cast: Louis Koo (Yan Chixia), Crystal Liu (Nie Xiaoqian), Yu Shaoqun (Ning Caichen), Kara Hui (Tree Demon), Louis Fan (Xiaxue Fenglei/Thunder), Li Jing (Iron Teeth), Elvis Tsui (village head), Lin Peng (White Snake), Miu Miu (Green Snake), Wangdan Yili (Xia Bing), Fung Hak-on (deputy village head), John Chui (prisoner), Ma Xiaolong, Zhao Yu, Zhai Quanhui (demon hunters), Sun Lin, He Xun, Lu Yi, Ma Sise, Wang Fei, Jiao Yuqiao (demons), Zhang Yaguo (deputy village head's niece).