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QIAN NU YOUHUN (A CHINESE GHOST STORY) (1987)
aka Sinnui Yauman

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"I don’t believe you. I know that girl! She lives behind the monastery."
"Behind the monastery is a cemetery!"
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Director: Ching Siu Tung

Starring: Leslie Cheung, Wang-Tsu Hsien (Joey Wang), Wu Ma

Screenplay: Yuen Kai Chi

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Synopsis: A young man staying the night at an abandoned monastery is seduced by a beautiful woman (Joey Wang). The woman shakes her anklet, ringing the tiny bells attached to it. A mysterious force races through the forest and into the monastery, and the young man screams in terror as it engulfs him.… Ling Choi-Sun (Leslie Cheung), a debt collector, is caught in a torrential downpour. When he arrives in the town where he is supposed to collect money owing, he finds to his dismay that his records have been ruined. Penniless, he asks one of the townspeople where he might find a free lodging for the night, and is told about the monastery. Choi-Sun thanks him, not noticing the horrified looks on the people nearby. As he walks from the town, a portrait of a beautiful woman catches his eye. At the monastery, Choi-Sun finds himself caught in the middle of a ferocious sword battle between an older, bearded man and his younger adversary. The Bearded One (Wu Ma) sends away his vanquished opponent, then warns Choi-Sun not to stay at the monastery. Choi-Sun ignores him. Meanwhile, while tending his wounds at a lake, the younger swordsman is astonished to see a beautiful woman bathing there. He responds to her advances, only to be attacked by something that leaves him a withered husk. Choi-Sun hears singing from behind the monastery. Following the sound, he finds a waterside temple and a woman whom he recognises from the painting in town. Nearby, the Bearded One also hears the singing. At the temple, the woman deliberately throws her veil into the water and sends Choi-Sun in to get it. As she helps him out, she makes advances towards him that he shyly repulses. Suddenly, the Bearded One appears and the woman flees in alarm. Choi-Sun snatches up her musical instrument and follows her into the forest. She tells him that the swordsman will kill them both. Choi-Sun offers to distract the swordsman so that she can escape to safety. He then asks her name, and is told that she is Ip Siu-Sin. She hesitantly agrees to see him the next night. Choi-Sun succeeds in drawing the swordsman’s attention, but puts himself in great danger. Siu-Sin intervenes to save him, and the Bearded One pursues her. As he is about to kill her, a Demon rises from the forest floor and sends a swiftly growing tree to intercept the Bearded One’s hurled spike. Struck, the tree bursts into flames. The Demon tries to make a deal with the Bearded One, claiming they both work to destroy the worst human elements, but the Bearded One rejects the Demon angrily. Choi-Sun finds a note from Siu-Sin, telling him they must not meet again. Regardless, he visits her the next night. Terror-stricken, Siu-Sin hides him in her bath, telling him that if he stays underwater the Demon will not be able to smell his presence. The Demon produces the note Siu-Sin wrote to Choi-Sun, accusing her of betrayal, and whipping her for her disobedience. Siu-Sin is then told that her marriage has been arranged, and will take place in three days. When the Demon has gone, Siu-Sin tries to send Choi-Sun away, insulting him to make him go. Hurt by her words, he does. However, still smitten, Choi-Sun visits the man who painted Siu-Sin’s portrait. He tells him that he saw the subject of the painting the previous night, and recoils with horrified disbelief when the artist replies that the woman has been dead for nearly a year….

Comments: An awe-inspiring mixture of horror, mystery, martial arts, romance and comedy, A Chinese Ghost Story set the standard for Hong Kong cinema for years to follow, and would make an excellent introduction point for any novice to this strange and wonderful branch of the cinematic world. Influenced by The Evil Dead as it undoubtedly was, the film effortlessly melds its disparate components into a highly original and visually startling entity (the IMDb lists an incredible seven cinematographers!). It is hard to imagine a Western film blending so many moods together, let alone doing it so successfully (perhaps Buckaroo Banzai is the closest point of comparison, and Lord knows that’s an acquired taste). A gentler, funnier tale than many of its descendants, the film uses one of the more common Chinese legends, the love between a mortal man and a ghostly woman, as the springboard for some eye-popping special effects work. The story follows Choi-Sun, a hapless debt collector left stranded when his records are ruined, and his series of encounters with the lovely and mysterious Siu-Sin, a lost spirit in thrall to a Tree Demon of indeterminate sex. Forced against her will to seduce mortal men in order for the Demon to feed, Siu-Sin faces a dilemma when the shy and gentle Choi-Sun initially rejects the advances she makes towards him. Though charmed by Choi-Sun’s respectful demeanor and concern for her, Siu-Sin knows full well what will happen to her should she spare his life. The scenes between Choi-Sun and Siu-Sin run the gamut from the romantic to the tragic to the comedic – and occasionally manage to be all these things at once. In one instance, in a scene that initially appears to have been lifted from a bedroom farce, Siu-Sin hides her human lover from the Demon by submerging him in her bathtub. At one point keeping Choi-Sun underwater with a literally breathtaking kiss, Siu-Sin completes the deception by stripping off her clothes and climbing into the bath on top of him. (Choi-Sun’s expression at this point is priceless – we get the feeling that he couldn’t breathe even if he were in a position to do so.) Choi-Sun and Siu-Sin do eventually indulge in some discreet love-making in the rain-swept temple, this beautiful and rather erotic scene being tinged with sadness for Siu-Sin and the viewer alike, both of whom understand what Choi-Sun does not: that the relationship is not just impossible, but that its most likely outcome is eternal damnation for them both.

The final ingredient in this bizarre and entertaining scenario is the swordsman, who has chosen to live in isolation by the monastery. Initially an ambiguous character, whether he is a force for good or evil is not entirely clear until, in one of the film’s most purely slapstick sequences, he shows himself at the County Administration Office, and is hailed as Mandarin Yim, whose "justice is renowned through twenty-six provinces". After a lifetime of fighting crime both secular and ghostly, and thoroughly disgusted with humanity and spirit world alike, Yim has retired to live a solitary life disturbed only by his ongoing battles with the demons of the woods, and the occasional younger swordsman who (just like in the westerns) wants to knock the champion off his perch. Yim is introduced, in fact, in the midst of an elaborate sword fight during which – in a mere taste of what’s to come - he and his opponent leap and fly and bound from place to place as they wage their battle (the wire-work in this film is just amazing). Yim spends a fair amount of time heaping scorn and abuse upon Choi-Sun’s head, in a futile attempt to convince him that the monastery is not a good place to stay. We see him next making a near-successful attempt on Siu-Sin’s, ah, "life" (existence?). After this, the viewer is left uncertain as to whether the swordsman is friend or foe. But then follows perhaps the single most astonishing scene in the entire film (and believe me, that’s saying something!), in which Yim, leaping from tree to tree and somersaulting through the air, launches without warning into what can only be described as a Taoist rap song, the lyrics informing the viewer that benevolent ways are best and that good will always defeat evil (hmm – don’t hear that in too many rap songs….). Well-intentioned as the viewer now knows Yim to be, the awareness that he is a deadly threat to Siu-Sin remains. The threat does not recede until, forced to concede that in Choi-Sun and Siu-Sin he has met a thoroughly nice representative of each of the realms he so despises, Yim dedicates himself not just to causing them no more trouble, but to helping them both. Finally convinced of Siu-Sin’s incorporeality, Choi-Sun has learnt that her desperate predicament was brought about through her being murdered. Her father, who buried her ashes in a temporary location, was also killed before he could move them. If her ashes are not buried in the soil of her home village before the anniversary of her death, Siu-Sin will be perpetually trapped in the spirit world, with no hope of ever reincarnating. Understanding that to help Siu-Sin will mean losing her forever, Choi-Sun nevertheless dedicates himself to finding her ashes and re-burying them in time to save her soul. It is for this task that Choi-Sun implores, and finally receives, Yim’s help. But the situation becomes a deadly and terrifying one when Siu-Sin’s controlling Demon decides to deliver her to her intended husband - a still more powerful Demon who lives in the underworld. Seeing Siu-Sin snatched away from them, Yim and Choi-Sun follow her to the very depths of hell, knowing that even if they can rescue her, they still must bury her ashes in time or see her damned for eternity.

Given this storyline, with its hoards of ghosts and demons, its random acts of violence, and the bittersweetness of its love story - indeed, the film’s "happy" ending is a remarkably sad one - it is amazing to consider just how funny A Chinese Ghost Story is. Although full of scenes of horror, very few of them are played straight. The abandoned monastery, for instance, is inhabited by a hoard of living withered corpses, presumably earlier victims of Siu-Sin and her Demon. These corpses try, time and again, to drag Choi-Sun to his doom; a fate he manages to avoid without ever becoming aware of his undead companions’ presence. (At one point Choi-Sun lowers a ladder onto one of these unfortunate creatures; it squeals in pain and indignation.) Still funnier, and infinitely grosser, are the increasingly clear views granted of the hungry Demon at work. We do not, at first, know exactly what is happening: the scenes are shown POV (the clearest indication of the film’s Evil Dead influence), with the victims screaming in terror as something attacks them. Finally we learn the truth, as the Demon sends forth an infinitely long tongue, which plunges down the throat of the doomed individual and sucks the very life-force from him (in one incredible scene, we get a tongue’s-eye view of this procedure). As if this were not enough, the tongue is also used as a means of trapping Choi-Sun and Siu-Sin, wrapping itself around and around their refuge, then breaking in to attack Choi-Sun. Most disgusting still, yet another monster later breaks from within the tongue, baring its teeth and sending out elastic-like tendrils to grasp its intended victims. A Chinese Ghost Story also conjures up a sincerely frightening vision of hell, a nightmare world populated by ghosts and demons and monsters. Ruler of this realm is Siu-Sin’s intended husband, who when threatened sends forth his personal army: a squadron of flying decapitated heads that attack Siu-Sin with their teeth as she struggles valiantly to defend her human friends. For all this, however, the most sincerely disturbing moment in A Chinese Ghost Story does not take place in hell. When attempting to recover Siu-Sin’s ashes, Choi-Sun and Yim find a whole clutch of burial urns. Calling to their owners in an attempt to locate the right one, the pair find themselves confronted by a group of female spirits, all murdered, we understand, as Siu-Sin was, yet unlike her, with no hope of salvation. These sad, silent figures form the movie’s most haunting image.

Although the special effects and action scenes are the real stars of A Chinese Ghost Story, the three principals each give wonderful, affecting performances. Leslie Cheung proved to be so good as playing the bumbling naf that he practically made a career out of it. Joey Wang is indeed lovely and seductive as the ghost (although, amusingly, she turns out to be rather less insubstantial than you’d imagine: when Choi-Sun tries to pick Siu-Sin up at one point, he finds he can’t manage it!). Wang’s graceful and elegant Siu-Sin is a pleasure to watch, particularly as she manipulates her billowing robes, using them either as bait or as weapons; and she and Leslie Cheung make a sympathetic couple (and besides, he’s nearly as pretty as she is). Wu Ma is simply marvellous as the Taoist swordsman, adding the necessary ballast to this ethereal tale. His gradual conversion from gruff loner to champion of humanity is believable, while his battle scenes are absolutely transfixing. A Chinese Ghost Story was a huge success, and to no-one’s surprise two sequels followed, and later an animated version of the story was made by producer Tsui Hark. Of the first film’s three stars, only Joey Wang appeared in both of the sequels, with Leslie Cheung and Wu Ma returning for the first of them.