A Chinese Ghost Story - Sinnui Yauman (1987)

  • Director - Siu-Tung Ching
  • Producer - Tsui Hark
  • Writer - Kai Chi Yun; Songling Pu (novel)
Starring: Running Time: 95 minutes
Cantonese with English subtitles.

Tao, tao, tao! It's all bullshit!

Seldom seen in the West now, this "Spielburger" is considered a classic of Hong Kong film making. People most likely to enjoy this film are those unfamiliar with the Hong Kong movie scene. It is probably one of the best introductions to the vibrancy of Hong Kong cinema.

In the film The Princess Bride grandfather Peter Falk reads the book The Princess Bride to his sick grandson, Fred Savage. A Chinese Ghost Story would be the novel he would read to his grandson the next day. Interestingly, The Princess Bride was released in the same year as A Chinese Ghost Story. Yes, there is lots of kissing, and giant tongue monsters, and demons, and beautiful damsels, and outrageous kung fu, and swords, and sorcery, and a visit to hell ... and more kissing.

Being an ignorant gwailo I can only ever recall the generic character descriptions, rather than the characters' proper names (sue me). When actor Ma Wu as the Taoist Priest starts bouncing off the trees of the forest in a musical number singing and shouting "Tao, tao, tao! It's all bullshit" I was caught for the duration.

In my blissful ignorance when I originally saw this film, I found the badly translated subtitles to be both charming and hilarious. Many critics of this film decry those same subtitles as a major flaw. I actually think that a translated phrase like

You're petulant, but not concentrated enough.
is more entertaining than any accurate translation could ever be.

The most beautiful, and what I would consider the signature scene of this movie, has tax collector Leslie Cheung hiding underwater in the bath of ghost Joey Wong in order to mask his odor from the other evil ghosts who have just entered the room. As he is expiring from lack of air, Joey Wong plunges her head into the water to deliver a kiss of her breath in order to save Leslie Cheung's life. Through the camera lens we see the ill-fated lovers' lips pressing firmly, yet tenderly together. The long flowing black hair of Ms. Wong floats eerily in the shadows under the water, entwining their nascent passion. Leslie Cheung's eyes widen as we see what was mere curiousity turn into true love in the instant of that kiss. The scene is hokey, melodramatic, and right out of the great traditions of Harlequin Romance. It probably sums up a lot of what Hong Kong cinema is all about: unabashed and unashamed derivation, joy, color, hokum, romance, sleight of hand, chaos, noise, and flash. If this scene would make you puke, you can stay away from this film.

This is a film that is best seen on a large cinema screen, rather than on video. It tends to be a staple of film festivals centered on producer Tsui Hark. It should be noted that afficionados of Hong Kong movies debate the extent of Hark's involvement on this film. If the viewer enjoys this film, it is recommended that you seek out the works of both Tsui Hark and director Siu-Tung Ching.

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