♡ Ahhhhh♡…. that contented happy sound can mean only one thing… it’s finally here!! Yes….. I’m giddy with the knowledge that your Favorite Catgirl Princess can at last sate her intense need for fantasy romance with a look at the 2011 remake of the Chinese classic “A Chinese Ghost Story”. Be still my trembling heart….♡
Synopsis? You mean you don’t already know the touching timeless love story of righteous young scholar Ning Choi-san and the lovely ghostly maiden Nip Siu-sin? Tsk, tsk…. We’ll have to fix that wont we? So alright… here’s our story this time around: “Aspiring to be the top demon hunter in all the land, Yan Chixia (Louis Koo) ventures into the sinister Black Mountain, taking it as his training ground. There, he has slain all kinds of evil spirits and monsters in countless dangerous battles, but when the young exorcist encounters the enchanting fox spirit Siu-sin (Liu Yifei) and falls helplessly in love with her, he can’t get himself to kill her. Later, as our story begins, the village at the bottom of Black Mountain is faced with a serious drought, and the villagers are forced to find a new source of water on the demon-infested mountain. Part of the search team, a good-natured scholar named Ning Cai-chen (Yu Shaoqun) becomes smitten with Siu-sin, who is still being enslaved by the powerful and bloodthirsty Tree Demon (Kara Hui) all these years later …”
Those of you familiar with the classic original will immediately recognize the changes in plot, and to some purists, this will be seen as the ultimate in blasphemy…. to have the nerve to mess with a cherished classic. Still, as someone who’s watched enough of these wonderful romances over the years, it bears reminding people that even Tsui Hark’s version from 1987 was itself a remake of an even earlier telling of this classic tale, 1960’s Shaw Brothers classic “The Enchanting Shadow”. Given that… I’m more inclined to approach this more as a “re-imagining” than a “remake’…. and who knows? Maybe I’ll like it just as much as I do both those earlier films.
Want to find out for yourself? Why then follow this lil’ Catgirl into the deep dark woods of cursed Black Mountain and meet me in the ruins of the Haunted Orchid Temple and I’ll tell you all about it…..
This film, like it’s famous predecessors is based on one of the 500 or so stories from the Chinese collection, “Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio” aka “Strange Tales of Liaozhai” by Pu Songling, written back in the 17th century. It’s been the inspiration for many of the classic films of Chinese fantasy cinema, but wasn’t really known here in the West until popularized by the success of Tsui Hark’s 1987 film “A Chinese Ghost Story”. I first encountered that film my freshman year in college and from the very first moment was entranced by it’s romantic fairy tale quality meshed together with Asian mysticism and wuxia combat to create something so uniquely outside my experience with any film that had come before. Combined with John Woo’s “The Killer” and “The Bride With White Hair”, and my childhood memories of Saturday morning Kung-Fu movies, they probably formed the basis for this lil’ lady’s ongoing obsession with Asian film to this very day. Most certainly it was the film that I most vividly remember from Hong Kong’s 80’s-90’s explosion of movies that followed it.
So it’s not surprising that it would eventually get remade… as all films that really are truly memorable usually do. However…. as experience has taught us though, that’s not always such a good thing. It’s just soooo darn hard to try to top perfection….. In many ways, “A Chinese Ghost Story” is afflicted by this very “curse”…..
Originally, the tile for this one was going to be “A Chinese Fairy Tale”… and I’m thinking that they sorta knew that it was going to have a tough time of it when looked at in comparison to the original. Not that this is, by any sense of the words, a bad film. Having watched it, I can honestly say that it is actually a pretty good film….. but it’ll never become a classic in it’s own rights. That… unfortunately… is a shame, but it’s also the truth.
Where did it go so tragically wrong and somehow lose the magic? I’m thinking that it was in the decision to change the overall dynamic of the story from a tragic doomed romance between a mortal and a ghost into a rather clumsy effort at a “love triangle” between two mortal men and the ethereal demon fox spirit they’ve both come to love. Simply put…. it just doesn’t work all that well. For one thing, this time out the more appealing suitor for lovely fox spirit Siu-sin isn’t our old familiar scholar Ning Choi-san, instead it’s hunky tragic demon killer Yan Chixia. Poor Ning, so central to the original story, becomes nothing more than a poor substitute for the real thing and once the audience knows that, which we do, from almost the start, that side of the love story loses the tragic poignancy of the relationship as seen in the 1987 original. Mind you… Louis Koo’s Demon Hunter is sooooo much more an interesting character than Ning (who even in the original, paled in sheer over-the-top fun to the Taoist wizard of that film) , but there’s almost no background to him and his history with our story’s other Demon Hunter, Thunder. Unfortunately… a goofy amnesia subplot that isn’t resolved till the very end of the story ruins any chance of real romantic conflict or entanglement between our leads. For that to be successful, I’m thinking Siu-sin should have recovered her memories… or fragments of them at least… earlier in the story, but the “twist” for dealing with the Tree Demon makes that impossible. In essence…. the writers wrote themselves into a corner trying to be clever for our finale.
Other elements that seemed jarring was the fact that much of the film takes place in the light of day….. 2011’s Siu-sin (played by Liu Yifei) isn’t a ghost this time out…. she’s an immortal fox spirit and not subject to the rays of the morning sun melting her away like mist. Although she’s a startling beauty and very reminiscent of Joey Wang, she’s given a lot less chance to show the complex emotions of an unearthly amoral spirit discovering the very human emotions of love and desire. Gone too are the haunting bluish shadows that imbued our spirit with an unearthly beauty and the lovely flowing gowns that could be used as everything from caressing tendrils to deadly whips and strangling tentacles, replaced by quite a bit of CGI shapeshifting and very little of the wirework that sold us on the gravity defying ghostly powers of the original film. Overall… the effects here are more polished and make one almost laugh at the primitive practical effects of those in 1987… but still somehow, they lack the power and charm of those old practical cinema effects.
Good elements? Hmmmm? Well… as I’ve said, Demon Hunter Yan Chixia is a character I really liked. If only they had had more time to properly introduce things instead of the clumsy flashback intro used to give us our “backstory”, I’m thinking he’d have worked fine as our romantic lead. Louis Koo does a great job here, and the scenes between him and Liu Yifei are very believable, if a bit short and few between. The real show stealer has to be Kara Hui as the evil Tree Demon…. so campy and cartoonish, but also sooo fun for all that. There are more demon girls too… this time out Siu-sin’s rivals for Tree Demon Lu-Lu’s favors are two scheming snake spirits, right from another old classic “Green Snake”, but given again, very little screen time to wow us with their demonic antics. Most of the minor demon beauties seem to exist only as cannon fodder for our Demon Hunters to waste like so many low level threats in a video game. 😦
So…. how do I rate this one? Well…. if 1987’s “A Chinese Ghost Story” is the one thing up against which it must be measured, then it would score only 2 “Meows”, losing too much by comparison with that classic. Looked at on it’s own merits however, and ignoring the original, it fares better… it’s a flawed film, but still a worthwhile one worth at least a look by fans of the genre, I give it 3 “Meows” out of 5 and wish it could have been the amazing heart melting tragic romance I remembered from all those years past.
The DVD? It comes in lots of flavors… from a Deluxe Blu-ray disc to a two DVD collector’s edition, all the way to the budget conscious single DVD version. All have their appeal, but I’m thinking most of us will be able to settle for that single disc HK version which retails at about 16-20$ US most places.
As always, there’s a Trailer…. (There’s always a Trailer, silly….. 😉 ) So do your best to get all romantic and warm and long for some forbidden love of your very own, Gentle Visitors….