A firm believer and supporter in the power of film, especially genre fiction, Alex Holmes has always loved movies. Residing in Canberra, Australia, Alex has a love of his region of the world’s cinema — particularly Australia, Japan, Hong Kong, China and South Korea. Alex wants it noted that he approaches the below from the perspective of a straight white guy living in Australia. While he has perhaps more exposure to Chinese culture and film than some, he is by no means an expert on the subject, so please do not seek him as an authority but rather a gateway. If you liked his words, you can read more of them here on his Letterboxd: https://letterboxd.com/Sherlock_Alexi/
Western filmgoers love their scary movies. Indeed, in recent times high profile hits such as IT, Get Out and A Quiet Place have given horror a pedigree and sheen it has lacked for some years in the west. Importantly many western horror films reflect tensions and apprehensions of the era, from Night of the Living Dead’s reflections on race and human stupidity to A Quiet Place’s examination of family in terrifying days.
But what if you could see films that didn’t reflect your own fears or just used horror elements to tell a totally different kind of story? Well, dear reader, you would be in the greatest place to be in the 80s: The Golden Age of Hong Kong cinema.
You could write books on the Golden Age of Hong Kong cinema. Suffice to say the combination of a lack of home TVs, cheap production costs, a thirst for local stories and numerous big-name stars coming up meant there were a lot of films out there — many of which were really good. Golden Age directors, producers and actors were seemingly game for anything, resulting in some of the most bizarre yet artistically authentic movies ever made.
Enter 1987’s A Chinese Ghost Story. It lives up to that title, but what does that mean? Well it means it’s a wuxia-horror-romance-comedy hybrid complete with a rapping Taoist monk.
A Chinese Ghost Story follows Ning Choi-san, a timid Qing dynasty-era tax collector played by Leslie Cheung, one of Hong Kong’s defining and founding heartthrobs who was a huge popstar before he added huge (and hugely talented) actor to his resume. On his unfortunate journeys, he stumbles into an abandoned temple to spend the night. Unbeknownst to him, the temple is haunted by a ghost that that seduces men – to their deaths.
This ghost, Nip Siu-sin (played by Joey Wong, herself almost as beautiful as Cheung), falls for Ning, though, once he shows bravery defending her from a ghostbusting Taoist priest (Wu Ma, in hilarious but also badass form). After a night of passion, the two are in love but it’s not all happy endings. There’s an Evil Dead–style tree monster trying to marry Nip off, and it all culminates in a journey to (Buddhist) hell where the priest and Ning must try to save the soul of Ning’s beloved. Heady stuff, especially for a film that runs only 90 minutes. You can thank Hong Kong master director Tsui Hark for this. He’s listed as a producer but it’s basically assumed at this point that anything Hark produced, he also basically ghost-directed. This makes him responsible for a stunning amount of classic Hong Kong films, and many of his other works also share the same ratio of madness to sincerity that makes A Chinese Ghost Story work so well. This also makes it perhaps the most ’80s Hong Kong movie that existed in the ’80s.
So, what makes A Chinese Ghost Story such a classic? It ultimately falls to a combination of mindboggling practical effects, a frankly insane mash of genres (so much of this movie is played as comedy one turn, then sincerity in the next), and, crucially underneath it all, an earnest love story that Cheung and Wong play straight. Cheung especially is on fine form selling Ning’s subtle growth from a timid government stooge to a man willing to risk his soul to save his beloved. Their chemistry is excellent, and without their genuine emotions anchoring the film it would simply be another curiosity. But they do anchor the film and that’s why it succeeds so well because the central through line is so strong.
A Chinese Ghost Story is a classic of Hong Kong cinema and still popular to this day; I got my copy fresh off the shelf in Hong Kong without any trouble. So, make it a regular Halloween movie, year in year out. Not only does it pack the best ghostbusting this side of Bill Murray (and did he ever rap and do wuxia?), but it also features a heartwarming love story mixed in with plenty of spooks and scares. Few, if any, western movies (let alone horror movies) would deliberately attempt to play this kind of movie straight let alone execute it so well and leave you feeling so satisfied.
Also, like so many of his films, Cheung sings one of the film’s theme songs (!) for the film and it is brilliant: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TjaPxv2tlmA . When did you ever get that out of a Wes Craven film?
So you’ve taken in a classic Chinese spooky film. What’s next? Why not try a film that may or may not have created (depending on who you talk to) but at least popularized two genres of kung-fu horror comedy and jiangshi? You, dear reader, are ready for … Encounters of the Spooky Kind.
The first genre is straightforward, but what is jiangshi? Loosely put, it’s basically a hopping vampire / reanimated corpse, notable in that they are controlled by Taoist priests. Encounters of the Spooky Kind (the Chinese title is more literally Ghost Fight Ghost) is notable because it massively popularized Chinese ghost legends in the mainstream Hong Kong cinema (and lead to a boom that went for many years on these kind of projects).
It also helps that it’s a great film, fusing jiangshi horror with Sammo Hung’s outrageous stunts and knack for physical and scripted comedy. Hung, of course, is legendary in Chinese film circles and was one of the “three brothers” of the ’80s that were in so many films and often shared the screen together (the other two being Yuen Biao, and the most successful another guy by the name of Jackie Chan). Hung is probably best known in the west for the TV series Martial Law, but he makes a number of appearances in classic Chan films so there’s a good chance you’ll recognize him. Hung is just as gifted as Chan was at martial arts, and somehow it seems even more impressive given his considerable bulk. Hung also wrote, directed and choreographed much of the film, making it a real powerhouse work on his half, and it shows.
The plot follows Hung as Bold Cheung, a regular kind of guy living his life in feudal China who doesn’t know his wife is having an affair with his boss. After Cheung starts getting suspicious, his boss hires a witch to hex him and kill Cheung. He manages to survive the attempts on his life, but ends up framed for his wife’s murder and the kung fu and supernatural shenanigans escalate from there.
Hung is in fine form as a performer and his put-upon everyman shtick ensures we never feel quite too bad for him as he suffers misfortunes (he is a bit of a lout). But we also root for him as his woes escalate. Hung’s astonishing physical skills allow Hung to perform fantastic comedy slapstick as well as excellent stunts that you can’t look away from. As a director, he perfectly balances humor with horror, ensuring plenty of laughs to release tension but enough danger that you feel on edge.
The final battle is something to behold, with Hung letting himself get possessed by different spirits and taking on their forms of kung fu. There are also flamethrowers. A true tour-de-force, you can easily see why this sparked off so many other pictures in this genre, and it’s a great example of Hong Kong cinema’s versatility and commitment to entertainment that makes it so endearing.
Encounters of the Spooky Kind is a classic for anyone who needs horror, comedy or kung fu in their lives (and, therefore, that is everyone) and is also worthy of making it on to your yearly Halloween list. Best enjoyed with drinks and a few mates. Do it for Sammo, OK?
So, there you have it, dear reader, a small taste of Eastern Horror — Hong Kong style. I hope it brings you some exciting cinematic flavors you had not tasted before and indeed that it whets your palette for more of the brilliant, unique, utterly beguiling works that exist in the world of Hong Kong cinema. Plus, next Halloween you can go dressed as Wu Ma in A Chinese Ghost Story, tell your friends you’re a ghostbusting Taoist priest, enjoy the pleasure watching their faces light up and mouths drop, and be hailed as the new worldly savior of Halloween as you produce your Blu-ray copy of the film. You can also feel pretty dang smug about it, too.
For most of his life, Evan Dossey has generally avoided horror films. The genre makes him profoundly uncomfortable. This means he has enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Each year, he asks friends and family which essential horror movies he needs to see in order to fill those gaps and spends the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. This year, he’s sharing the month with those friends and family — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is everyone’s No Sleep October.
NO SLEEP OCTOBER 2018
Blue Sunshine — James Ledesma
Spoorloos (The Vanishing) — Andrew Kimmel
The Devil’s Candy — Joshua Hull
FYFF Horror Marathon 2018 — Evan Dossey
The Child’s Play Series — Salem
The Shining (1980) — Dave Gutierrez
Hellroller — Richard Propes
Poltergeist III — Greg Lindberg
Scream — Heather Knight
The Witch — Rick Dossey
The Frankenstein Cycle — Lou Harry
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors — Sam Watermeier
Unfriended — Austin Lugar
Freaks (1932) — Alys Caviness-Gober
As Above, So Below — Jonathan Curole
The Beyond — Nick Rogers
The Dentist — Mitch Ringenberg
The Halloween Franchise — Evan Dossey