December. The time of the year when we all look forward to the Christmas holidays, grabbing a few days off work to be with family, and reflect on the absence of loved ones who are no longer with us. It's also a month when many of us like nothing better than to settle back and read a good old fashioned ghost story, or to watch a particularly spooky film. I thought it would be nice to take a look at a few of my own favourites and hope you enjoy my choices. First up is this offering from 1987 directed by Ching Siu-Tung
A CHINESE GHOST STORY
Leslie Cheung, Joey Wong, Wu Ma, Jin Jiong, Wai Lam, Sui Ming Lau, Jing Wong, Zhilan Xue
The recurring theme of 'Love From Beyond The Grave' invariably provokes a dewy-eyed response from cinema-goers everywhere, and A Chinese Ghost Story also features tear-stained moments of romance from a love that can never blossom. Ching Sui-Tung's remake of The Enchanted Shadow (1960) certainly has a few of those lump-in-your-throat scenes, but it also moves like an express train at times, combining action, humour and amazing pre-CGI effects.The much-missed Leslie Cheung takes the central role of Ning Tsai-Shun - a debt collector down on his luck - who seeks shelter from the rain and ends up at the Lan Yeuk temple. It's here he encounters the beautiful Siu Sihn (Joey Wong); a girl with "cold hands and a pasty complexion"."You seem really kind. It's a shame you came to the wrong place", declares Sihn. Before long, this heartfelt admonition casts a shadow over Shun and his newfound ally, Master Yan (Wu Ma); a Taosist swordsman who will soon risk life and limb in a duel between two worlds. The deal here is that Sihn is a ghost who is forced to lure young men into the temple where a tree demon is waiting to devour their souls. An arranged marriage to the evil Lord Of The Black Mountain places a seemingly irremovable object between Sihn and her earthly lover, leading to a battle royale in the underworld.Horror/fantasy cinema has been responsible for some chilling visions of Hades, from the barren landscape of The Beyond to the fluorescent colours in Mario Bava's Hercules In The Haunted World. The Hell depicted in A Chinese Ghost Story must rank as another major achievement, as a single soundstage is transformed into a mist-shrouded abyss of the damned. It's here the fertile imagination of producer Tsui Hark really goes into overdrive, constructing a series of pulsating set pieces that may well leave you out of breath.Hark really does throw some blistering scenes of mayhem into the mix, while reminding us that he's a master of subtle changes of pace when the script demands: listen out for numerous lines of madcap humour, and feast your eyes on some beautifully lit scenes accompanied by a gorgeous swirling soundtrack which occasionally shifts gear to reveal cues reminiscent of David Bowie's 'Low' album.Widely acknowledged as a classic slice of Eastern delight, A Chinese Ghost Story casts its net further afield, with zombie riffs (albeit of the more docile kind) and nods to the tree horrors of Sam Raimi's Evil Dead.This really is a visual treat, and the Region 2 DVD from Hong Kong Legends does it full justice. HKL's presentation looks remarkably crisp and colourful with blue ground mists, the warm glow of candlelight and those different shades of green in the New Territories exterior scenes all looking better than ever. Blacks are also spot on, and there's plenty of detail in night-time scenes - check out the 'company of wolves' scene in the forest.This sumptuous transfer gives plenty of bang for your buck, and there are further praiseworthy aspects to consider.The ubiquitous Bey Logan travels solo on an audio commentary that's a mixture of historical background, anecdotes and sharp observations drawn from his considerable experience as a writer and an actor. We learn about Poo Song Ling ("The H.P.Lovecraft of his day") whose novel, 'The Magic Sword', inspired the original film and this remake; the careers of cast and crew - included the 7 DOP's Tsui Hark employed for this film - and get the lowdown on the revised ending.This wealth of information is delivered at something approaching breakneck speed, yet it's easy on the ears and greatly increases ones admiration for the film and its cast and creators.Logan is never slow in making personal observations regarding the various production techniques employed here, expressing a preference for physical props as opposed to CGI, admiration for the stop-motion and steadicam work, and great enthusiasm for the performances of the main players. Logan's talk also takes in a few cultural sidebars, revealing that the supernatural is widely accepted as solid fact by the Chinese people.HKL have also thoughtfully provided two interviews. The first is an informative 23 minute chat with Tsui Hark who expresses his admiration for Cheung (who initially refused the role of Shun); explains why Joey Wong wasn't first choice for playing Siu Sihn, and offers his reasons for frequently casting singers in many of his films. The second interview - a 29 minute Q&A with Wu Ma - is just as enlightening, revealing this actor/director has worked in the industry for 41 years. Wu Ma tells us why he feels Hark is an incredibly demanding person to work for; gives his reasons for believing that aspiring actors should begin their careers in TV rather than movies, citing Chow Yun Fat, Tony Leung and Andy Lau as prime examples of the benefits of this route, and like Hark, chats about Leslie Cheung, hoping that his spirit is at rest.The remainder of this disc contains trailers for some mouth-watering releases from Hong Kong Legends and Premier Asia - including clips from The Warrior, Zu Warriors From The Magic Mountain and Naked Weapon - and all of them look in excellent shape. You'll also find 2 trailers for A Chinese Ghost Story: the UK version has a female voice- over which works really well, and makes a refreshing change from the norm.There is one more feature to tell you about, and my advice is to make this your last port of call. 'A Star Shines In The East' is a short text and stills tribute to Leslie Cheung. Here, the words of Bey Logan convey the sadness surrounding Cheung's suicide, and pays tribute to his short time amongst us. It's a sad note to end on, but reminds us that this talented actor/singer left so much to be remembered for.
It's a sobering thought that it's 20 years ago since this made a splash on the cult circuit in the UK. Nice to remember it here. Next week, I'll be taking a look at the ghost stories of an absolute master, MR. James.