The Weird History of A Chinese Ghost Story Franchise: Horror Comedy at its Wildest
The cult classic A Chinese Ghost Story launched a film franchise that heralded a new genre for Kung Fu Horror Comedy.
When A Chinese Ghost Story premiered in 1987, it was already part of a unique category – the fusion of horror, comedy, and Kung Fu. Asian horror films are known as jiangshi, which is the name of a specific spooky hopping ghost found in Chinese folklore that proliferates these films.
Part zombie, part vampire, jiangshi are corpses that are usually reanimated by demons or Daoist sorcerers. They hop along mindlessly with their arms outstretched like sleepwalkers, and feed on the life essence – or qi – of the living. Often a jiangshi is blind but can smell breath. This makes for great comic hijinks as hapless characters struggle to hold their breath while gruesome jiangshi shove their rotting noses close to their mouths trying to pick up the scent.
Comedy is a common horror film device. It releases tension and leaves the audience unguarded for the next jump scare. The addition of Kung Fu is purely Hong Kong and can be traced to Sammo Hung’s groundbreaking Encounters of the Spooky Kind in 1980. Adding martial arts action comes naturally because in Chinese culture sorcerers and exorcists are Daoist or Buddhist Kung Fu masters. In the wake of that film, Kung Fu Horror Comedies became a thing of its own with plenty of franchises, most notably Mr. Vampire.
If the horror, comedy, and Kung Fu menage a trois wasn’t enough, A Chinese Ghost Story was one of the first films of a then-burgeoning period genre called FantAsia. FantAsia is the Chinese answer to sword and sorcery flicks. It includes superhuman Kung Fu (which means lots of wirework and flying about), magic spells and supernatural beasts. FantAsia is based on a longstanding body of fiction in movies and literature known as Wuxia, which means ‘martial heroes.’
A Chinese Ghost Story was produced by Tsui Hark, who spearheaded FantAsia with his Zu: Warriors From The Magic Mountain four years prior to A Chinese Ghost Story, and followed with many other FantAsia classics like The Swordsman, Once Upon a Time in China and Green Snake. Ching Sui-tung directed all three A Chinese Ghost Story films and continues to deliver FantAsia films like The Sorcerer and the White Snake, but Tsui is the undisputed father of the genre.
The Chinese Twilight Zone from the 1800s
A Chinese Ghost Story retells a beloved Chinese tale of star-crossed romance. All these Chinese Ghost Story films are titled Qian Nu You Hun in Chinese, which translates into “beautiful woman dark spirit.” This is the story of Nie Xiaoqian, drawn from a 1740 short story compilation titled Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio by Pu Songling. These were stories of the supernatural world with covert social commentary, akin to The Twilight Zone today.
Tales from Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio have been depicted in countless Chinese films and TV shows, most recently in last year’s CGI-drenched FantAsia flick The Knight of Shadows: Between Yin and Yang where Jackie Chan played Pu Songling. Nie Xiaoqian’s tale is a favorite having been retold in over a dozen TV shows and the films mentioned here.
In the original tale, Nie is a beautiful ghost, doomed to haunt an abandoned temple and hunt for souls for a demon that has enslaved her. She tries to capture a milquetoast travelling scholar, Ning Caichen, who manages to free her from her curse and takes her home to help his sickly wife. After Ning’s wife dies, he marries Nie and redeems her. In Chinese folktales, supernatural beings often strive to become human. It’s a device to analyze what being human means, akin to the journeys of Data, Seven of Nine, and T’Pol in Star Trek.
There was a notable adaptation of Nie’s tale in 1960. For that film, Qian Nu You Hun was translated as The Enchanting Shadow and was Hong Kong’s submission for Cannes and the Academy Awards. In the lead roles were two of the most popular actors of their generation. Nie was Betty Loh Ti, who died tragically to an overdose at just 31. Betty was a classic beauty, perfect for Nie, and this was her most celebrated role. Ning was Zhao Lei who enjoyed a long career of over a hundred films from the early 50s to the late 80s.
The Enchanting Shadow is a gorgeous film with sumptuous sets and costumes, which is what gave it such international appeal. It plays out almost like a European gothic horror in its gradual pacing and eerie Theremin soundtrack. With its international acclaim, The Enchanting Shadow set the stage for A Chinese Ghost Story 27 years later.
The Chinese Ghost Story Trilogy
A Chinese Ghost Story casts the alluring Joey Wang as Nie and heartthrob Leslie Cheung as Ning. Also in the cast are Wu Ma as the Daoist exorcist Yin and Lau Siu-ming as the androgynous Tree Demoness (Lau is male). The Tree Demoness steals the show like she plucks the hearts of her prey. Shifting between male and female voices, she attacks with entangling roots reminiscent of The Evil Dead (although she penetrates her victims through the mouth not other orifices). Her main weapon is her tongue, which grows so long that it wraps around her prey, cuts down trees and mutates into fangs and tentacles of Lovecraftian proportions.
Joey is entrancing, a seductive portrait of long flowing locks wrapped in diaphanous silk gowns. Everything is always blowing in the wind like Beyonce’s hair, lending a mysterious grace to Joey in every scene.
And Leslie is adorably naïve. Who can’t but sympathize for him getting smitten by mystical Joey and her luxurious eyebrows, even if she was trying to eat him? A Chinese Ghost Story was pre-CGI so the special effects are dated: stop motion zombies, puppet tongue prosthetics, post-production glowy effects and lots of wire work. But there’s a certain charm to the cleverness of the effects. It’s old school filmmaking and although it looks dated now, it still works.
Three years later, the cast was reunited for A Chinese Ghost Story II. It picks up where the original left off. Leslie is still the innocent Ning, thrust in a horrid world. To show the brutality of his environment, there’s an early homage to Yojimbo, with a stray dog fetching a severed human hand.
Ning is in trouble from the start. He accidently sits down in a restaurant for cannibals, and then gets thrown in jail. After Elder Chu (Ku Feng) helps him escape, Ning gets mistaken for Chu by his gang of rebels. One of the gang members is Windy, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Nie because she’s played by Joey Wang. Ning is smitten again.
New to the cast is another Daoist wizard named Autumn (Jacky Cheung) and his frenetic energy ramps up the comedy and action.
The sequel quickly goes to a lot of fun places with absurd fight choreography, Daoist and Buddhist magic, amorous naked hijinks, crazy flying sword blades and a hysterical giant gloppy demon puppet that’s tenuously held captive by a Daoist freezing spell. And the reveal of the main demon is over-the-top strange and hilarious.
A Chinese Ghost Story III came out the following year, but it’s a break from the narrative. In the first film, the Tree Demoness was banished for a century, so the threequel skips forward to a century later, outliving Ning and the other good characters. Lau Siu-Ming reprises his Tree Demoness role and Joey Wang returns as another beautiful ghost named Lotus. She’s joined by her sister ghost Butterfly (Nina Li, Jet Li’s wife). Jacky Cheung returns but as a different character, the Taoist exorcist Yin. It’s the same name as Wu Ma’s character in the first film because Jacky plays Yin’s rejected student.
Replacing the lovelorn Ning is a bumbling Buddhist disciple, Shifang (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) and his master Bai Yun (Lau Shun). Their relationship adds its own comic relief. Early on, Shifang is splattered with blood while witnessing a random roadside sword fight, just like what happened to Ning, while Bai Yun meditates obliviously.
Although the weakest of the trilogy, the special effects have improved over the years. The Tree Demoness’ tongue lickings are more vicious, including a tongue’s eye-view as it deep throats its prey and swims down to pluck out its heart. Lotus attacks with her entangling locks and Butterfly uses telescopic fingernails.
Instead of Daoist sorcery, there’s more Buddhist magic: restraining sutra wraps, flying carpet cassocks, magic malas, and blood so pure that it is gold. And who can forget Bai Yun’s enchanted earlobes? The finale demon reveal is the strange bastard child of a Transformer and a Kaiju that doesn’t quite work but by then, things have gotten so outrageous that it doesn’t really matter.
More Haunting Chinese Ghost Stories
Tsui Hark returned to the romance of Nie and Ning in 1997 for A Chinese Ghost Story: The Tsui Hark Animation. That was during a pivotal year for Hong Kong because it was the handover when it ceased being a British colony and was returned to China. Consequently, Hong Kong cinema was on fire. Filmmakers had no idea what would become of their industry under communist China, so they were producing their edgiest political work as many tried to immigrate to other countries in fear of having their artistic vision oppressed.
Hark had been working on the project for years and the animated format allowed him to unleash his vision like never before. This story stands independent of the others, but revisits characters developed for the threequel.
Ning and Nie are the same, although Nie is translated as Shine. Nie Xiaoqian translates to “whispering little lovely” so it’s unclear why Shine was chosen for the English language version. Other characters are translated literally like White Cloud and Ten Miles (translations of Baiyun and Shifang). Also appearing are Butterfly and the Tree Demoness, renamed Madame Trunk, along with her creepy bald minor demoness entourage.
Replacing Master Yin is a new Daoist exorcist named Red Beard who travels in the bizarre magical giant transformer with temple bells for arms, a drum for a torso and barrels for legs. There’s also Mountain Evil, a giant rock star like demon that holds a concert and is obsessed with his hair. There’s a lot of music in this installment.
And Ning has a dog sidekick, Solid Gold, who serves as a comical canine conscience. For the Chinese versions, Tsui Hark voiced Solid Gold, which is funny because he only makes dog noises like barks and whimpers.
Like the threequel, Ning finds himself in a cannibal restaurant but this time, it’s not in the normal world. This one is filled with demons. A Chinese Ghost Story: The Tsui Hark Animation is a deep dive into the yaoguai world.
Yaoguai means “supernatural and strange.” Fans of Asian cinema know it better from the Japanese term Yokai. It’s the world of magical creatures – fairies, demons, ghosts, immortals, enchanted snakes and foxes – different from the elves and gnomes found in Western folklore.
Hark’s animated film was echoed in Hayao Miyazaki’s Oscar-winning Spirited Away four years later. A Chinese Ghost Story: The Tsui Hark Animation transitions between conventional and CGI animation, which was groundbreaking then but comes off awkward today. It has its visionary moments but pales in comparison to the artistry of Spirited Away.
In 2011, a remake came out, appropriately titled A Chinese Ghost Story 2011 and answered the question “What would A Chinese Ghost Story look like with today’s eye-popping CGI special effects?” Sadly, it doesn’t help despite a stellar cast.
Nie is played by Crystal Liu, who just appeared in the titular role in Mulan, but she falls short. Crystal is China doll cute, but she lacks the mystery needed for a haunting ghost. Ning is Yu Shaoqun. Like Leslie Cheung, Yu is a pretty boy singer, but doesn’t add much to the role beyond eye candy.
The Tree Demoness is veteran actress Kara Hui, who usually delivers gripping performances, but here she reduces the character to a cackling maniacal wicked witch that is strangely unsatisfactory.
There’s some redemption in the Daoist exorcists, which have a completely different and complex story arc. There are two, Yan Chixia, played by a brooding Louis Koo, and the one-armed Xia Xuefenglei, played by Louis Fan. The remake doesn’t capture the charm of the originals and the effects are unimaginative.
This isn’t to say that this version is totally negligible. It has some moments like the villagers getting infected after rerouting water from the tree demon’s pool which makes them grow leaves. The villagers provide good comic relief. The sword fights are amusing too. The duel between the two Louises is high flying Kung Fu fun. The film is dedicated to the memory of Leslie Cheung, who tragically committed suicide by jumping off a building in 2003.
Despite the title, A Chinese Ghost Story isn’t frightening. There’s nothing in any of the films that might keep one up at night. It’s a haunting tale of undying romance, retold with visionary action and hilarious slapstick moments that, apart from some splattered demon ichor, is family friendly, with about the same level of frights as the Ghostbusters franchise. But be warned. A Chinese Ghost Story opens the portal to the psychotropic genre of FantAsia Kung Fu horror comedies. Once entered, there are hundreds of films in this genre that can possess a viewer for months of binging.
A Chinese Ghost Story and A Chinese Ghost Story II are available on Amazon Prime.