A Chinese Ghost Story

A Chinese Ghost Story (1987)
Tai Seng Video Marketing
Cast: Leslie Cheung, Joey Wang
Extras: Trailers

When I first heard that the "A Chinese Ghost Story" trilogy is coming to DVD I was cautiously ecstatic, especially so because I had heard that Media Asia remastered the movie for DVD and had given the soundtrack a <$DD,Dolby Digital> remix. Still, Media Asia is usually not renowned for the high technical standards of their releases, be it VHS, Laserdisc or DVD; all this made me a little wary about their announcement. I was astounded that they even had plans for the imminent DVD release of "A Chinese Ghost Story", as the movie has always been put in second place by Media Asia and not even a laserdisc version is available. Understandably, I was very hopeful to see if the improvements were as drastic as promised. I was not disappointed.

In old China, Ning Tsei-Shen (Leslie Cheung) is a young tax-collector is on his way to Kwok Pak village. He’s surprised by a rainstorm, and when he arrives at the village after the downpour, he finds all his notes soaked and the ink faded. Unable to collect his taxes and thus out of money, he decides to stay in the remote Lan Ro Temple for the night. When he finally reaches his destination after dark, he arrives in the midst of a fierce battle between a Taoist Monk and a noble warrior. Distracted by the intrusion, the fighters quit their test of skills and depart while Ning prepares for the night in the abandoned and spooky temple. Later that night, he hears music and a female voice singing from somewhere. Intrigued by the beautiful and alluring sound, he follows it to its source and meets the ethereal Nieh Hsiao-Tsing (Joey Wang). Instantaneously, the two of them fall in love with each other. There’s a catch, though… Ning doesn’t know that Nieh is a lady ghost. She is just a lesser spirit, under the spell of a much stronger and more powerful being, Lau Lau, a true vampire. Nieh is responsible for luring men to certain death with her beauty, making them prey for the vampire. In order to save Ning’s life, Nieh has to betray Lau Lau, incurring the powerful demon’s wrath.

The movie takes the viewer to the world of ancient China and the netherworld of demons, undead, ghosts, and other spirits. The blend between these worlds is so seamless and smooth that it blurs the lines between reality and fantasy.. The movie’s stunning photography, the atmospheric lighting, and the flowing costumes help substantially in mingling the worlds and elements. The movie’s imagery is carefully created, and due to its intricate composition, it often seems like a painting coming to life; the romantic and passionate love story between a human and a ghost flows like a sad poem. "A Chinese Ghost Story" is not a movie you simply watch. Instead, it is one you are more likely to lose yourself in. Leslie Cheung’s portrayal of the marvelously naïve and somewhat clumsy Ning is wonderful and heart-warming, while Joey Wang makes the perfect ghost and love interest. She is tempting, stunningly beautiful, and ever ethereal, and her eyes and voice carry more tormented sadness than you would dream possible. She’s a ghost with an evil mission but a good heart.

Beside its impressive visuals, "A Chinese Ghost Story" also features some heart-stopping stunts and kung fu action, gorgeously choreographed by director Ching Siu Tung, nicely combined with the movie’s special effects. Ching Siu Tung and producer Tsui Hark are both icons of Hong Kong cinema and chances are you will find a few scenes in this movie that strike you as similar to other, more familiar movies – movies which pay homage to Tung’s and Hark’s work. I always find it astonishing how openly American filmmakers borrow ideas, scenes and full shot sequences from Hong Kong movies. In this case, it is the final march of the undead which Sam Raimi seems to have lifted off the movie for use in his third Evil Dead installment, "Army Of Darkness". Other examples of movies paying homage to "A Chinese Ghost Story" are manifold however and can be spotted throughout the film.

"A Chinese Ghost Story" is produced by Media Asia, imported and distributed by Tai Seng here in the US. The quality of the video transfer leaves me utterly speechless. I never expected such a sharp and clean image from an original Hong Kong import disc. Film conservation is almost non-existent in Hong Kong, making it extremely hard to find clean, unmarred film prints, which are needed to create a high quality transfer. Even though the image shows signs of grain at times and there are also some density problems in certain scenes, this is unfortunately due to the quality of the original film material. The picture nevertheless, conveys plenty of details and shows no signs of <$pixelation,pixelation>. The colors are rich and all the different hues and shades of the film’s fascinating photography are perfectly transferred to this disc. There is no sign of <$chroma,chroma noise> or color bleeding found in even the toughest scenes of the movie. And believe me, there are many. Like many Asian fantasy movies, "A Chinese Ghost Story" comes in many subtle shades of blue and red. Most of the movie’s scenes play at night and many of them in murky, dimly lit interiors. This is as hard as it can get for a digitally compressed transfer. This disc deals with these problems as if they didn’t exist. The transfer is flawless and hands-down beautiful.

The same is true for the disc’s audio transfer. Certain original sound elements of the movie have been separated and remixed to create a more immersive and rich <$5.1,5.1 channel> Dolby Digital mix. Even though this soundtrack does not use split surrounds as aggressively as modern Hollywood movies, it still manages to create a bustling and live atmosphere that perfectly suits the movie’s peculiar, smooth style. "A Chinese Ghost Story" has an outstanding, traditional Chinese music score that perfectly matches the movie’s overall atmosphere. Sometimes happy and light-hearted, sometimes passionate, sometimes fierce and scary, the score puts the icing on this masterful movie. Leslie Cheung – also a respected and highly acclaimed singer in Asian countries – himself can be heard in the movie’s main theme during the opening and end credits. "A Chinese Ghost Story" comes dubbed in Cantonese and Mandarin with 8different language subtitles – English being one of them.

"A Chinese Ghost Story" is one of my favorite movies and I am exceedingly grateful to Media Asia for giving this movie so much attention, turning it into a first class DVD that can easily compete with domestic productions. If you like visual fantasy movies with a horror twist and want to see how other – older – cultures deal with age-old myths and their traditional legends about ghosts and demons, you must give this winner of three Hong Kong film awards a look. It is a movie you will never see done in a Western country.