Director: Ching Siu Tung
Starring: Leslie Cheung, Wong Cho-Yin (Joey Wong), Jackie Cheung, Waise Lee Chi-Hung, Michelle Li (Michelle Reis), Wu Ma, Lau Sui-Ming, Ku Feng
Screenplay: Lau Tai-Mok, Kan Kei-To and Leung Yu-Ming

Synopsis: Mistaken for a wanted criminal, poor scholar Ling Choi-sun (Leslie Cheung) is thrown into jail. When his execution becomes imminent, he escapes with the assistance of his cellmate, who slips some of his own writings and a metal talisman amongst Choi-sun’s possessions. Outside the prison, Choi-sun finds a horse waiting and rides away. The animal’s owner, a monk named Chi-chau (Jackie Cheung), follows him by burrowing underground. Choi-sin shelters for the night in a deserted villa, wherein lie eight huge coffins. Chi-chau appears, and also decides to stay the night. When a hideous creature emerges from one of the coffins, Choi-Sun runs for his life. Out amongst the trees, a band of weird-looking, white-clad figures appears. Chi-chau grabs Choi-sun and flies him up into a tree, leaving him there while he battles the band with his magical powers. One of the attackers collides with Choi-sun, and he discovers to his astonishment that the mysterious figure is not only a beautiful woman, but that she is the image of his lost love, Siu-sin. Meanwhile, Chi-chau has discovered that the figures in white are not evil spirits, but human. Painting a mystical symbol on his palm, he freezes them. The woman then holds a knife to Choi-sun’s throat, ordering Chi-chau to release her companions. At that moment, a second woman picks up Choi-Sun’s belongings and, seeing the books and the talisman given to him in jail, exclaims that he is Master Chu-kwok. The first woman releases Choi-sun and introduces herself as Ching-fung (Joey Wong); her sister is Yuet-chi (Michelle Li). Their father, Fu Tin-chau, is a former government minister, now under sentence of death, and they and their companions are attempting his rescue. Chi-chau releases the others from his spell. Hearing that they are in the presence of Master Chu-kwok, the entire band bows before Choi-sun and announces that they are his disciples, as Choi-sun tries in vain to convince them of his real identity. Still stunned by Ching-fung’s appearance, Choi-sun tries to get her to admit being Siu-sin, showing her Siu-sin’s portrait, and reading aloud the poem they wrote together. The others take the poem to be code and interpret it as a clue to Fu Tin-chau’s whereabouts. By a coincidence, their guess proves correct, reinforcing "Chu-kwok"’s position. Ching-fung is smitten by Choi-sun. So too is Yuet-chi, who makes a snide reference to Ching-fung’s fiancÚ. Meanwhile, Chi-chau senses evil spirits, and finds a huge claw-mark in the ground, and a mangled dead body nearby. Consulting Choi-sun, Chi-chau gives him his freezing power. However, Choi-sun accidentally freezes his companion. While he is trying to work out how to reverse the spell, a huge, hideous monster looms up behind Choi-sun, who runs away dragging the still-frozen Chi-chau. In the nick of time, Choi-sun freezes the monster. Unable to free Chi-chau without freeing the monster too, Choi-sun is helpless until his victims thaw. Chi-chau snatches Choi-sun from the monster and flies him to safety. He then fights the creature, finally slicing it in two. However, while Chi-chau manages to destroy the monster’s legs, the upper half of its body gets away. He chases it by burrowing, but when he emerges he is almost run down by horsemen. Chi-chau and the General fight until they recognise their mutual misunderstanding. Impressed by his adversary, the General offers him a post working for the Emperor. Chi-chau rejects the offer with contempt and storms off, not realising that the General and his men are escorting Ching-fung and Yuet-chi’s father to his execution.

Comments: Good: adj 1. morally excellent; righteous; pious. 2. satisfactory in quality, quantity, or degree; excellent.

Satisfactory in quality, quantity, or degree…. Ahhh….

It’s been so many weeks since I reviewed a good film that I’d damn near forgotten what one looked like. But as I sat watching A Chinese Ghost Story II, all these strange emotions swept over me…. I’d saved it for last in my sequels binge, feeling the need for something that could wash the taste of Friday The 13th Part 3 and King Kong Lives from my mouth; and it did the job nicely. That said, the film is a letdown when compared to its predecessor. A Chinese Ghost Story is such a frantic mixture of ghosts, demons, swordplay, martial arts, comedy and genuinely touching love scenes that any sequel would have been hard pressed to match it. This one doesn’t really try. In fact, almost the first thing you notice about it is that there are, in fact, no ghosts anywhere in the film. Instead, most of its incidents are thoroughly corporeal, with only a large - though strangely uninteresting - monster and a much more satisfactory shape-shifting demon to liven up proceedings. (In fairness, I have a suspicion that no ghosts were actually promised by the Chinese title, but only by the English translation.) Genuine scare scenes are almost entirely lacking; while the air of poignancy generated in the first film by the doomed love affair between human and ghost is likewise absent. In their place, we have a distinct increase in the number of comedy scenes, many of which, for better or worse, are pure slapstick. Also considerably increased is the number of characters upon whom the story focuses. While each of them is, in his or her own right, quite interesting, we have nothing here to match the intensity of the first film’s romantic relationship, nor the tension generated by the bringing together of the couple and the misanthropic, ghost-hunting swordsman, Yim. Although all of these factors make A Chinese Ghost Story II less of an experience than its forerunner, it must be pointed out that this film is intended very differently. A Chinese Ghost Story exists primarily to make its audience go "WOW!" – and it succeeds magnificently. This sequel, on the other hand, could almost be classified as political. Scattered throughout are bitter criticisms of a government that is unable or unwilling to understand the people it is governing; of the damage caused by corruption; of widespread abuses of power. While the film is, of course, set in "the past", it is impossible to believe that the film-makers’ criticisms were not aimed directly at the Chinese government of the time. Indeed, so blunt are many of the attacks made that it is surprising they got away with it; and perhaps the film’s sharp increase in the number of outright comedy sequences was a way of deflecting attention from just what it had to say.

A Chinese Ghost Story II opens with a couple of macabre scenes that prove, as far as the film’s overall tone is concerned, fairly misleading. Wandering back into town after his ghostly adventures, one time tax collector Lam Choi-sun partakes of a meal that proves to have been prepared from his own horse – or perhaps (as we are given a glimpse of an arm-toting dog straight out of Yojimbo) from something worse. Almost immediately, the film’s main agenda kicks in, as Choi-sun is thrown into prison on the flimsiest of pretexts. There he meets another victim of the system, Chu-kwok, who blames all his problems on his parents’ insistence that he become "a scholar". Attempting to make a living with his writing, Chu-kwok found everything he did construed as "subversive": his books on travel, history, strategy and myth were interpreted as revealing secrets, promoting dissent, inciting revolt and encouraging superstition, respectively. Finally turning to biography, Chu-kwok discovered that he had again chosen the wrong subject when he – and his subject – were condemned to life imprisonment. Choi-sun soon learns that the prison is a place of arbitrary execution; one where, if the son of "an official" is condemned to death, a handy substitute is found. Discovering that this fate awaits Choi-sun, Chu-kwok reveals an escape route from the prison; one which he uses to get his writings published, but does not otherwise feel inclined to exploit. Chu-kwok sends his young friend on his way with some copies of his books and a talismanic device on which his own name is engraved – objects which will set in motion the film’s central comedy of misunderstanding.

Outside the prison, Choi-sun finds a horse waiting and rides off on it, not realising it belongs to Chi-chau, a monk with magical powers who wanders the countryside literally sniffing out ghosts and demons. Chi-chau pursues via the Bugs Bunny-like method of burrowing just below the surface of the earth. The two men meet up in the inevitable haunted villa, and after briefly mistaking one another for ghosts, settle in for the night. It is not long before the villa’s original occupant, a huge, slimy demon, makes its presence felt, and Choi-sun flees for his life, only to end up in the hands of the white-clad warriors, one of whom is the image of his lost love, Siu-sin. A Chinese Ghost Story II tries, like its predecessor, to build itself upon a love story, but generally fails, chiefly because while some of its characters do, pretty much of necessity, "fall in love", none of them seems to care very much who they are "in love" with. Thus, Ching-fung falls for Choi-sun primarily because she believes him to be "the master", Chu-kwok; while Choi-sun responds because he thinks Ching-fung is the reincarnation of Siu-sin. Simultaneously, Yuet-chi also falls for "Chu-kwok" but then, accepting that he prefers her sister, instantly transfers her allegiance to Chi-chau. This careless pairing and re-pairing seriously diminishes the film’s emotional impact.

More successful is the introduced subplot of Fu Tin-chau, a government minister arrested and scheduled for execution chiefly, we infer, because he is an honest politician. Unable to convince the band of warriors that he is not Chu-kwok ("Only the true Messiah denies his divinity!"), Choi-sun throws his lot in with them. Meanwhile, Chi-chau has discovered an ominous – and very large – footprint, and a mangled dead body. Believing, like the others, that Choi-sun is the font of all wisdom and enlightenment, Chi-chau consults him, and bestows upon him one of his magical powers, the ability to freeze via a symbol painted in the palm of the hand. This leads to one of the film’s comedic highlights, an extended slapstick sequence that follows Choi-sun’s accidental freezing of Chi-chau just as the demon shows itself. Entertaining as this is, it again highlights a flaw in the film. The demons and monsters in A Chinese Ghost Story were genuinely scary and threatening; you felt that the characters were truly in danger from them. This creature, however, never seems much of a menace. In fact, the worst thing it does is to steal Joey Wong’s clothing while she’s in the bath – and I can’t imagine there would be too many people out there willing to blame it for that. (A re-working of the original story’s "bath scene", this sequence culminates in one of the film’s funniest moments. Ching-fung reclaims her clothes, not realising that they are somewhat revealingly torn. In order to shield her from the others’ sight, Choi-sun makes a "stirring" speech, announcing that for their cause to succeed, they must "throw out their chests and have no fear" – and throws his robes wide open as he speaks. The other men copy Choi-sun enthusiastically. Yuet-chi, on the other hand, looks extremely reluctant.) Chi-chau is eventually released from the spell and battles the demon, cleaving it in half at the waist. Its legs are destroyed, but the top half of its body manages to escape (!), and causes various amounts of mischief until eventually disposed of. Chi-chau does pursue this demi-demon, again burrowing beneath the ground, but emerges in the middle of a road and is almost run over by a troop of imperial soldiers. They are led by General Fu, who is – thematically at least – the film’s pivotal character: an honest man in the service of a corrupt administration. The General and Chi-chau fight until recognising that they are at cross-purposes. Impressed with his adversary, the General offers him a position in the service of the Emperor, an offer Chi-chau rejects with scorn. He storms off, not realising that the General’s convoy is transporting Fu Tin-chau to his execution. Chi-chau’s reaction to the suggestion of government service, and the discomfort displayed by the General in his dealings with Fu Tin-chau, add further shadings to our concept of the government as the source of all evil.

As per Choi-sun’s accidental prediction, the General and his men show up at the villa, just as Ching-fung’s rebels are losing their battle with what remains of its inhabiting demon. A most welcome swordfight ensues between the two bands, resulting in the rescue of Fu Tin-chau. The General himself is suckered into fighting the demon ("Huh! A fake ghost! Take off that mask!") and eventually dismembers it – which makes it more dangerous than it was when "alive". It takes Chi-chau’s magic finally to destroy the creature, but not before its bodily fluids have poisoned Ching-fung (allowing Joey Wong to do her best Linda Blair impersonation). Chi-chau concludes that in order to be cured, Ching-fung requires an input of "yang energy" - and he orders Choi-sun to kiss her back to normality. He does so, and briefly the film recaptures the heated romanticism of its predecessor. The General, recognising the purity of the rebels’ motives, promises that he will try to help Fu Tin-chau. At that moment, a band of travelling monks comes nearby. The General explains that the one in the golden robes is High Priest to the Emperor, and has enormous influence with him. By this stage of the film, these words are sufficient to put the viewer on guard; and indeed, the High Priest turns out to be the story’s true villain: a demon of deadly powers who has taken human form. Sending the General (who is still useful to it) away, the High Priest at first seems amenable to Fu Tin-chau’s plea for "justice" – but his final response is to start a death chant, which lures several members of the band of rebels to their deaths. Chi-chau, however, recognises both the chant and that the High Priest is not what he seems. The monk attacks with his magical powers, forcing the demon to change form. It transforms itself into a huge golden Buddha, and momentarily halts its attacker by claiming to be the real Buddha. (The demon will take on this form several times during the remainder of the film, at length suggesting a Hong Kong version of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.) This disguise does not fool Chi-chau for long, and he exerts all of his powers to allow his friends to escape. Choi-sun and Ching-fung succeed in doing so, but Yuet-chi, Fu Tin-chau and Chi-Chau himself are captured. Hearing the sounds of a fight, the General hurries back, only to be confronted by the dumbfounding announcement that Fu Tin-chau has "confessed" to his crimes. Bewildered and downcast, the honest soldier still cannot bring himself to doubt the High Priest.

Meanwhile, Choi-sun and Ching-fung have narrowly avoided death both at the hands of a band of murderous thieves and from drowning. In between hairsbreadth escapes, Choi-sun manages to convince Ching-fung that he is not Chu-kwok, and she him that she is not Siu-sin. It seems that this new-found knowledge of one another will do the couple no good, however, when the thieves send a band of wolves to attack them. (This leads to one of my favourite moments when, seeing no escape, Choi-sun takes Ching-fung in his arms and says nobly, "Let me be on the outside, so the wolves eat me first!" "You’re so good to me!" she responds in all seriousness.) The pair’s flight through the woods has led them to a mysterious building, which to his delight Choi-sun discovers to be the Lan Yuek Monastery – the retreat of his old friend, Swordsman Yim. (While Yim’s appearance in the film reeks of sequel contrivance, I can’t imagine that anyone watching will be at all sorry to see the wonderful Wu Ma again.)

The film’s defining scene follows. The High Priest retreats to a palace in the middle of nowhere, and we soon learn why: an eclipse of the moon forces the demon to break out of its human shell and resume its real form. Confused by the High Priest’s behaviour, the General follows him into the palace. Inside is a huge auditorium, with government officials filling its seats. The General begins to explain events to them but, getting no response, investigates further. In the film’s most audacious stroke, we learn that every single government official was a demon in disguise. They, too, have been forced into the open, leaving only a bloody human shell behind. Finally understanding, the General shrieks in horror, "Where have you put the officials’ souls?" He then decides to battle the High Priest, but finds his body likewise discarded. Following a slime trail leading from the human disguise, the General locates his captive friends, each encased in a red silk cocoon. He frees them, and finds himself under attack from Fu Tin-chau, who accuses him of treachery, and Chi-chau, furious at being dragged into "state affairs". The General explains, and the reluctant Chi-chau agrees to join forces with him. The partnership is doomed, however: first the High Priest’s minions attack, and then High Priest himself, back in human form, recommences his death chant. The General, unable to forgive himself for having been the dupe of evil, flies into battle, only to meet a gruesome demise similar to that of The Black Knight in Monty Python And The Holy Grail – only here it isn’t played for laughs. All seems lost until the sudden appearance of Yim, whose superior powers put the High Priest to flight. Recognising that this is only a temporary respite, Yim draws a magic protective circle about the band of friends, asking them all to chant with him. Interestingly, although the film as a whole has corrupt government as the target of its criticism, here it takes a swipe at religious factionalism, too. When Chi-chau objects to the notion of chanting with, "I’m a member of the Kun Lun Sect", Yim responds furiously, "Don’t talk of sects at such a time! Let’s fight it together!"

And fight "it" together they must – "it" being the demon in its true form, that of a gigantic centipede. This spectacular battle climaxes with Yim and Chi-chau trapped, Jonah-like, in the belly of the hideous creature; a situation where escaping proves to be as dangerous as staying put. For a time A Chinese Ghost Story II seems to be heading, appropriately enough, for the kind of bittersweet ending that made the first film so memorable and moving, but then something horrible happens: we get a tacked on happy ending. And I don’t just mean "tacked on" in a general sense; I mean Hollywood tacked on! Contrived and unconvincing in the extreme, the final scenes leave the viewer with a distinct feeling of disappointment; and probably thinking less kindly of the film than, on the whole, it deserves.

Film reviewers are an illogical bunch, and Lord knows, I’m no exception. After complaining incessantly about film sequels that are nothing more than carbon-copies of the originals, here I get one that tries to do something very different from its predecessor – and of course, I complain about that, too. Ah, well…. A Chinese Ghost Story II is chock-full of good intentions. Interestingly, not only is it stringently critical of corrupt government, it also points the finger at the apathy of the people – an attitude, it is inferred, that has a lot to do with evil forces seizing power in the first place. This argument becomes most apparent once Yim re-enters the proceedings. He, like Chi-chau, isn’t interested in "teaming up": he’ll fight, but only on his own terms. That such individualistic behaviour cannot succeed in times of crisis, that good people must not only be willing to take action, but to band together, is made abundantly clear over the final third of the film, where most individualistic actions end in disaster. Still, well-meaning as it is, this film simply never has the impact of the original. This is not only true in visual terms, but on the level of character: the story tends to jump around too much, never really deciding who it is truly about. This is perhaps best illustrated by the sidelining of the original story’s two stars. Joey Wong makes considerably less of an impression here, as much through her character’s inconsistencies as through her corporeality; while Leslie Cheung’s Choi-sun is also a much more peripheral character than in the original. It is the story’s three warriors, spiritual and physical, to whom the film belongs. Jackie Cheung can often be an annoying actor, but he’s good as Chi-chau, a role which allows him to be both funny and heroic. Wu Ma is Wu Ma – enough said? As indicated, Yim’s presence isn’t really necessary to the story, but it’s so good to have him back that it hardly matters. The film’s acting honours, however, go to Waise Lee Chi-Hung as the General. It is this upright man’s inner conflict, and his horrified discovery that his attempts to act with honour have led to nothing but injustice and misery, that give the film its deepest meaning. For the rest of it, A Chinese Ghost Story II shares many of the original’s virtues: cinematography, production design and special effects are all wonderfully memorable. It may be both less moving and less frightening than the first film – and more comedic – but this is still a hugely entertaining film, and another reminder of just how much fun Hong Kong cinema at its best can be.