Thursday, 27 October 2011

A Chinese Ghost Story (Film Review)

As the last review was of an enjoyably bad horror film it seems only right that this one should cover a genuinely good one. One which utilises the same mixture of comedy, horror and action but does it well, and which you hopefully won’t have heard of. It’s called Qiàn Nǚ Yōu Hún or Sien nui yau wan, or alternatively if you don’t speak Mandarin or Cantonese: A Chinese Ghost Story.
So what is it? As a friend of mine put it: “This is the Chinese Evil Dead II.” It’s easy to see why as well - it has gore, classic physical effects, possessed corpses, it even has its own evil tentacle tree monster.

The plot of the film is relatively simple: A timid, down on his luck tax collector known as Ning Choi-san is forced to seek refuge in an old abandoned temple in the middle of a forest. Despite being repeatedly warned away from the place by its resident, the old swordsman Yen Che-Hsia who Ning encounters fighting a rival, he decides to stay the night.
Something is quickly shown to be wrong with the temple as Yen’s rival is murdered then possessed by a demon which Yen quickly dispatches. Ning meanwhile is unknowingly menaced by stop motion zombies but more importantly encounters Nieh Hsiao-Tsing. A beautiful woman who he quickly falls in love with but learns is a ghost bound to a soul sucking tree spirit and is to be wedded to the ruler of the underworld. From there on the film’s a good mixture of romance, comedy and demon slaying as Ning and Yen try to help Nieh escape her fate.

The first thing you’ll notice watching this film is that like others of its era, such as Evil Dead II which was released the same year as this, has a very artificial feel to it. There’s a noticeable level of grain on the screen and both the lighting and scenery looks very synthetic at times, especially when indoors. This thankfully becomes less of a problem as the film goes on but it can be initially irritating.

What helps make up for this lack of quality is some surprisingly professional editing and cinematography, both of which help to give the film a stylistic feel which suits it perfectly. It’s meant to be a fantasy tale, it’s got all the traditional tropes of a romantic tale and hell, it’s even got a completely self describing name. The film seems to completely embrace its fictional aspect and it’s all the stronger for it.

The same strengths and flaws as with the setting can be found with the fight scenes. It feels “fictional” but it works well and gives it a defining style, displaying fairly impressive wirework for the time. The fighting embraces the fantasy element to the point where Yen summons a legendary sword and then starts firing energy blasts from his hands. No, that’s not a joke, he actually does that during the third act.

The only real failure of A Chinese Ghost Story worth mentioning is that it seems more like an outright fantasy film rather than a horror/fantasy hybrid. There are certainly some creepy moments which turn up throughout it but things like the stop motion zombies are more amusing than terrifying. Even when the heroes fight their way into hell and through horrific creatures it always feels more like Legend than it does Prince of Darkness.

Aside from that minor gripe there’s not too much to complain about. The performances were fairly good even if the actors did have a few over the top moments, the plot was well paced and while they are dated the effects have a lot more substance than the CGI in some of today’s films like the Thing remake.
If you don’t mind reading subtitles and can forgive a few faults due to age then you’ll probably have some fun watching this one.


A Chinese Ghost Story and all related characters and media are owned by Hong Kong Legends.

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