The three Chinese Ghost Story movies play like an alternate Evil Dead trilogy. The influence of the first Evil Dead on Ching Siu-Tung's wirework masterpiece is obvious. But Chinese Ghost Story is also a very Chinese piece of film, which has its own advantages.
The ubiquitous Leslie Cheung plays hapless tax collector Ning, whose books are ruined by a torrential downpour. Finding himself unable to collect taxes because of his lack of paperwork, Ling retires to the abandoned Lan Ro temple, which is rumored to be haunted. Is it haunted? And how!
The public face of the local ghost population is the beautiful Hsiao-tsing, who seduces travelers that stay at the temple overnight. Once things get hot and heavy, Hsiao-tsing rings a little bell anklet she wears, and, in what has to be the most heinous example of coitus interruptus we've ever seen, a giant tongue comes out of nowhere and dives down the victim's throat to steal their "yang energy"! That's not cool, especially because sexy Joey Wang plays Hsiao-tsing. She could seduce us anytime!
Once at the temple, Ning meets the local Taoist swordsman, Yen (Wu Ma). Yen is in the business of fighting the local tree demon, but he takes time out of busy schedule to fight everyday mortal villains too. For some reason Yen warns Ning not to stay overnight, but doesn't tell him quite why. Ning, being an idiot, stays at the temple anyway.
That night, Ning proceeds to fake up a new set of books. Is it any wonder that the Chinese have such a problem with the rule of law? In every period Chinese film we've seen, tax collectors are either portrayed as licensed con-men, or as government-sponsored extortion gangs.
Ning's work is interrupted first by the group of dessicated zombies that are unliving in the attic above Ning's room. And after Ning avoids the zombies through sheer clumsiness (despite the fact that the zombies continually dog Ning, he never sees them), Ning hears ethereal singing coming from the temple grounds and goes to investigate. He finds Hsiao-tsing, but he survives his first encounter with due to the timely intervention of Yen. Ning meets up again with Hsiao-tsing several more times, and they soon fall in love. Can a dead person and a human fall in love? If Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones are any indication, the answer is yes. But Hsiao-tsing and Ning have another problem besides the vitality gap. Thanks to the machinations of the tree demon, Hsiao-tsing is engaged to Lord Black, ruler of Hell.
"If I -- were king --
of the forrrreeessttt!"
Chinese Ghost Story has so many plot twists it feels like an entire trilogy all by itself. Like so much HK cinema, there's a chop-suey approach to the plot: there are nifty martial arts fights, horrible slayings, a mistaken identity subplot (standard), love scenes, a scene inspired by bedroom farce, a Tao flavored rock musical number (even we didn't see that one coming!), and mystical battles. This is the kind of film where a character can suddenly declare, "Scholar, it seems we've to storm hell!" and they do it. Instantly.
This kind of scattershot approach to movie making could be confusing, or tiring, or even worse, boring, but Ching Siu-Tung's amazing visual style holds the whole film together. At any moment people or objects can leap into the air and fly away, or the tree demon's enormous tongue will surround entire buildings faster than you can say Gene Simmons. Ching also does wonders with wind and smoke, especially in the scenes that take place in Hell. The special effects are light on optical effects and heavy on wireworks, but these kinds of effects make a nice break from slick Hollywood computer generated imagery.
Chinese Ghost Story has everything that makes Chinese fantasy films so much fun, and has it in spades. The only thing that could have made it any better is if Ash were there to help Ning kick some zombie butt.