Usually, when someone tells you a movie “has everything”, they are either lying or the movie tries to “have everything”, but it fails utterly at putting them together in a rational and balanced manner. A Chinese Ghost Story (literally: “The Ethereal Spirit of a Beauty”) has romance, action, horror, and comedy – and actually does integrate all of them successfully.
Ning Tsai-Shen (Leslie Cheung), a novice tax collector, arrives in a small town to carry out his work. Unsurprisingly, no-one is willing to give him a place to stay, so he ends up spending the night in a nearby ruined temple. There, he meets Taoist swordsman Yen Che-Hsia (Ma Wu), who tries to warn him away. But with nowhere else to go, he holes up in the ruins. There he meets the beautiful Nieh Hsiao-Tsing (Joey Wang), with whom he falls in love. Unfortunately, Hsiao-Tsing is a ghost, enslaved to a demon who uses a group of young women ghosts to sustain her by sucking the life out of men….
The gods must watch over novice tax collectors, since Tsai-Shen manages to somehow escape one peril after another. For example, on his arrival in the town, he is shoved up against a rack of scroll charms. They stick to his wet robe, causing him to be accused of theft. But that night in the temple, when he meets Hsiao-Tsing, it turns out that the fresh ink on the scrolls stained the back of his robe…and the charms were for Protection Against Ghosts….
Can this odd couple overcome the gulf between them and find happiness? Will Tsai-Shen’s luck run out, and have him become another victim of the spirits and undead inhabiting the temple? Will the demon find out that Hsiao-Tsing is betraying her by helping Tsai-Shen? Is Che-Hsia’s “Taoist Rap” one of the most awesome things ever committed to film? And just what the heck is the deal with that tongue?
The action sequences are amazingly well executed, the romance between Cheung and Wang is believable (and the pair are both easy on the eyes), the comic moments are deftly handled, and the scary parts are done very well. The artifice does show through a bit in some of the demonic scenes, but to Western viewers, the unfamiliarity with Chinese supernatural concepts is enough to compensate.
About the only thing wrong with this movie that I can see is that it is widely regarded as the epitome of Hong Kong cinema. So if this is your first exposure to that genre, you will have to live with the disappointment that no matter how much you look, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything better.
NOTE: There is an animated version of the same tale from 1997 (by the same producer), two sequels, and another movie (presumably a remake) of the same name from 2011. I haven’t seen any of them.
ANOTHER NOTE: Chinese names can be troublesome for a Westerner to get right. Forgive this humble “round-eye” if I have miswritten any of them.