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Strange Stories from Chinese Movie Studios

Written by Mike Crandol Tell a Friend

When asked to name an iconic image of Hong Kong Cinema, what springs to mind? Bruce Lee, trampling that "No Dogs or Chinese Allowed" sign in Fists of Fury? Chow Yun Fat jumping through the air in slow-motion, two guns blazing in Hard Boiled? Jackie Chan almost breaking his neck in any number of movies, perhaps? All good choices, but can any of them compare with the visual poetry of Joey Wong suspended from a wire, gracefully gliding across the night sky in her long, flowing robes in A Chinese Ghost Story? It's an unforgettable image that sent massive shockwaves through the Hong Kong film industry, as anyone who's seen any of the innumerable knockoffs of A Chinese Ghost Story can attest to.

For many a Western fan of Asian cinema, Wong's immortal turn as the friendly ghost Xiaoqian serves as their first introduction to the fantastic world of author Pu Songling, whose 17th-century compendium of supernatural tales, Liaozhai Zhiyi (often translated as Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio), sent massive shockwaves of its own through Qing Dynasty China. Pu's bizarre anecdotes and ghostly romances are still considered the zenith of the Chinese classical tale, and they spawned just as many imitators as A Chinese Ghost Story would 300 years later. Although Pu didn't invent the "spirit romance," he did popularize and perfect it. In stark contrast to the West's gothic literature - with its foreboding haunted castles and vengeful wraiths - Pu's wistful, often humorous tales of love between nebbish scholars and fox fairies or ghost girls conjure an inviting fairy-tale vision of Imperial China that has proved irresistible to readers for centuries. Small wonder that many of Asian Cinema's greatest auteurs, including Tang Huang, King Hu, and Tsui Hark, have repeatedly mined Pu's pages to create some of the most acclaimed and enduring films of the past fifty years.

Fairies and Ghosts and Vixens...Oh My!

In much the same way Snow White, Rapunzel, and a handful of other tales overshadow the hundreds more German folk legends recorded by the Brothers Grimm, a select few of Pu's stories came to be known as the representative works of Liaozhai Zhiyi. Nie Xiaoqian, sometimes called "The Magic Sword" in English, is often held up as the exemplar Pu story. An itinerant scholar spends the night in a haunted temple, where he meets a beautiful female ghost. Conventional Chinese wisdom dictates that ghost women pose a mortal threat to living men, but the kindhearted Xiaoqian is being forced against her will to rob men of their life force by a malevolent demon. With the help of a Taoist hermit, the scholar defeats the demon, and he and his new ghost bride live happily ever after.

1987's A Chinese Ghost Story is undeniably the definitive onscreen interpretation of Nie Xiaoqian, but it was far from the first. Shortly before defecting to the new MP & GI studios in 1956, director Tao Qin filmed a stately black-and-white version of the tale, Beyond the Grave, for Shaw Brothers in 1954. Six years later Li Han Hsiang made a color version, Enchanting Shadow, which effectively married Pu's sweet otherworldly romance with some suitably creepy sets, effects, and music that recalled the British Hammer Studios' horror films of the same era. The result was one of Shaw's best films to predate the martial arts movie craze, and even after wuxia and kung fu became all the rage, Enchanting Shadow continued to exert an influence over the studio's output. Films like Enchanting Ghost (1970), Ghost Lovers (1974), and Li Han Hsiang's own Lady Jade Locket (1967), if not literal adaptations of Liaozhai tales, consciously invoke Pu's pet themes and motifs.

Pu Songling's biggest screen champion during this period, however, was director Tang Huang, who lensed a trilogy of Liaozhai Zhiyi films for MP & GI (now known as Cathay Studios) between 1965 and 1969. The first of these, Fairy, Ghost, Vixen, establishes the pattern for the series, telling three Liaozhai stories each roughly 40 minutes in length. Tang resists filming yet another version of Nie Xiaoqian, turning instead to Pu's many celebrated fox heroines. If fox fairies serve much the same thematic function as ghost girls in the Liaozhai, they tend to be a bit cleverer and livelier than their departed sisters. Tang's versions of "Marriage with a Vixen," "Ying Ning the Laughing Girl," and Hua Gu play fast and loose with the details of the original text, often incorporating elements from additional, unrelated Liaozhai stories, but they are entirely successful in capturing the spirit of Pu's foxy heroines onscreen. Magical benefactors who provide for their husbands' well-being, but who also delight in causing mischief, Tang's fairies, ghosts, and vixens proved popular enough that Cathay greenlit two sequels, 1967's The Haunted and 1969's The Spirits. Like Fairy, Ghost, Vixen, each is a three-for-one collection of tales, although perhaps feeling the Shaw Brothers influence, these later outings tended to the more ghoulish of Pu's stories.

A Touch of Hu

King Hu was another director with more than a passing interest in Pu Songling, and the legendary filmmaker's later output was almost entirely dominated by adaptations and reworkings of Liaozhai Zhiyi material. After igniting Shaw Brothers' wuxia firestorm with Come Drink with Me in 1966, Hu moved to Taiwan, where he created a string of highbrow martial arts classics that many still consider to be the pinnacle of the genre. His magnum opus, 1971's A Touch of Zen, proudly proclaims in its opening credits to have been adapted from Pu Songling's Strange Stories. Pu's "Xia Nu, the Gallant Lady" may seem an odd choice for a Liaozhai film; the title heroine is neither ghost nor vixen, and her terse nature is at odds with Pu's more typically charming females. But in her role as protector and benefactor of a gangly, awkward scholar, Xia Nu serves much the same purpose as her supernatural counterparts. "Xia Nu" is one of Pu's shorter narratives, and at a leisurely three hours A Touch of Zen has ample time to combine the original tale with epic battle scenes and lengthy meditations on Buddhist philosophy. Indeed, in the final act Pu's characters are virtually shunted offstage by a band of Zen monks who are nowhere to be found in the pages of Liaozhai. Buddhism seems to have held little interest for Pu, whose tales rely far more on native Taoist folklore, but Hu manages to be faithful to the original text while interweaving it with his own religious beliefs.

In 1979 Hu completed two films that purposefully made use of the same cast and locations to tell two complementary stories in two very different styles. Raining in the Mountain, a caper film with few supernatural elements set in a Buddhist monastery, is of little interest to Liaozhai aficionados, but Legend of the Mountain is pure Pu. A superior take on the 1974 Taiwanese film Ghost of the Mirror (which itself is worth seeing for a young Brigitte Lin in the role of the ghost), Legend of the Mountain once again adds healthy amounts of Buddhist philosophy to Pu's motifs, but does so in a more conventional Liaozhai framework of ghosts and goblins. Hu regulars Shih Jun and Xu Feng shine as a reclusive scholar transcribing Buddhist scrolls and the ghost who marries him in an attempt to gain possession of the scriptures, and Sylvia Chang turns in an early performance as the "good ghost" trying to protect the unwitting man. Legend of the Mountain lacks the protracted battle scenes typical of Hu's work, and perhaps for this reason remains eclipsed by the director's other efforts. This is unfortunate, for Hu's masterful directing and the magnetic cast make it one of the most satisfying films made in the spirit of Pu's writings.

A Chinese Success Story

Producer Tsui Hark and director Ching Siu Tung forever rewrote Pu's book in 1987 with the release of A Chinese Ghost Story. Yet another take on Nie Xiaoqian, the movie featured superstars-in-the-making Leslie Cheung and Joey Wong as the scholar and the ghost. But what truly drove the film to its tremendous international success was its inspired updating of the story for a post-Spielbergian audience while retaining the heart of the 17th-century text. A Chinese Ghost Story manages the almost impossible feat of balancing romance, drama, comedy, action, and horror - and makes it look easy. The story unfolds at a breakneck (but never rushed) pace, and the picture is crammed with cutting edge (for the time and place) special effects that somehow never overwhelm the story. And, of course, there's that iconic image of Miss Wong floating through the night air, which would haunt the actress for the rest of her career. So cataclysmic was A Chinese Ghost Story's impact on the popular image of the Liaozhai Zhiyi that all subsequent film adaptations have been forced to acknowledge it.

A flood of imitations followed in the wake of the film's success, many of them starring Joey Wong and Wu Ma, who played A Chinese Ghost Story's Taoist warrior. Wu shamelessly aped his own performance in countless inferior productions, many of which he himself directed. 1988's Picture of a Nymph, while ostensibly based on a different Pu Songling story, makes no attempt to mask its intention of cashing in on A Chinese Ghost Story; Wu even appears to have stolen his old costume from Film Workshop's wardrobe department. Joey Wong likewise returns as yet another lover from beyond the grave, and would do so again and again in films with dubious titles like A Chinese Legend. Her and Wu Ma got into fox fairy territory in Fox Legend, and she helped transplant the Liaozhai Zhiyi to the twentieth century in modern-day supernatural romances like Demoness from a Thousand Years and Fantasy Romance. But no matter how it was dressed up, the basic Nie Xiaoqian formula shone through.

In a perverse sort of way, the only Chinese Ghost Story knockoff to truly bring something fresh from the pages of the Liaozhai Zhiyi to the screen was the tongue-in-cheek Category III series Erotic Ghost Story. For some unimaginable reason Joey Wong declined to appear in these films, which infamously feature ghost girls on wires gently gliding through the night air with no flowing robes at all - or any other article of clothing, for that matter. But to its credit, Erotic Ghost Story isn't merely a porno pastiche of A Chinese Ghost Story. The first movie draws on Pu's fox fairy tale "Quarta Hu," rather than regurgitating Nie Xiaoqian for the umpteenth time; and, in spite of its innocuous storybook image, Liaozhai Zhiyi is peppered with some rather frank and titillating accounts of its heroes and heroines' sexual encounters. Erotic Ghost Story catapulted Amy Yip to exploitation movie stardom in much the same way A Chinese Ghost Story made a mainstream celebrity of Joey Wong, and Erotic Ghost Story II features a young Anthony Wong in one of his first (but far from his last) Category III appearances.

The most ambitious attempt to duplicate the success of A Chinese Ghost Story came from none other than King Hu, whose final picture proved to be 1993's Painted Skin. Once again Hu chose a popular but unconventional selection from Liaozhai Zhiyi; Pu's "Painted Skin" jettisons romance for straight horror, with the usually benign ghost girl in actuality a hideous demon in disguise. Hu's Painted Skin contains vestiges of the director's former greatness, but for the most part he is aping Tsui Hark's style (ironic given that Tsui's own work is strongly influenced by Hu's early classics), and the results are less than spectacular. Joey Wong is predictably cast as the demon, and in true Chinese Ghost Story fashion she turns out to be not so bad after all. Although more thoughtful and deliberately paced than the competition, Painted Skin ultimately fails to distinguish itself from the pack. The picture was an unfortunately mediocre cap on Hu's amazing film career.

Not too surprisingly, the most aesthetically crowd-pleasing imitations of Tsui Hark and Ching Siu Tung's classic were the ones made by Tsui Hark and Ching Siu Tung. A Chinese Ghost Story II (1990) may have made Pu Songling roll over in his grave with its convoluted attempt to continue the story from the first film, but by reuniting the cast and crew of the original - and throwing Jacky Cheung and Michelle Reis in for good measure - it manages to duplicate some of the old magic. But when Leslie Cheung bowed out of A Chinese Ghost Story III (1991), Tsui and Ching were forced to get truly creative. Their inspired solution was to re-imagine Nie Xiaoqian by keeping the narrative framework while rewriting the professions and personalities the principal characters. The scholar becomes a bumbling apprentice monk (Tony Leung Chiu Wai, in what may be his finest comedic performance), and Wu Ma's reclusive old Taoist swordsman is replaced by an eager and overfriendly young Taoist swordsman played by Jacky Cheung. Joey Wong of course returns as the ghost, but this time around she enjoys her work, happily dispatching her unwary victims. Leung's monk ultimately redeems her, of course, but the "bad girl" spin on the character proved to be Wong's ticket out of the typecasting she had endured ever since playing the sweet and demure Xiaoqian. Her later roles in films like The East is Red and Green Snake all reflect the same intensity and lurking malevolence she brought to her role as Lotus in A Chinese Ghost Story III. Tsui Hark also produced an animated feature film version of A Chinese Ghost Story in 1997, with Anita Yuen voicing Xiaoqian.

Liaozhai TV

After the glut of sequels, spin-offs, and rip-offs that appeared in the wake of A Chinese Ghost Story, it was inevitable that interest in Liaozhai-inspired movies would wane. Pu Songling has been dormant at the cinemas for some time now, save for the occasional Mainland low-budget offering, but he's done very well for himself on television in recent years. There have been several TV versions of A Chinese Ghost Story, notably the 2003 series starring Barbie Hsu as Xiaoqian. TVB adapted different stories from Liaozhai for two installments of the popular Dark Tales series (1996, 1998). Mainland China has offered a wealth of television adaptations, including the Pu Songling biodrama Ghost Tales (2000) and Liu Jai: The Flower Spirit (2004), a 33-episode version of Hua Gu (seen in Tang Huang's Fairy, Ghost, Vixen).

But the watershed series for Pu Songling enthusiasts in recent years was 2005's Strange Tales of Liaozhai. Taking a cue from the old Cathay Liaozhai movies, the series tells six of Pu's most popular stories over 36 hour-long episodes. Like Tang's films, the series pads the tales with material from various other Liaozhai chapters - and makes a lot of stuff up out of thin air, too. But the liberties taken can be forgiven in light of charming performances from some of Asia's most popular entertainers. The standout chapter, "Xiaocui," brings to life what is arguably the most entertaining story in the entire Liaozhai Zhiyi, in which an impish fox fairy and her mentally-challenged human husband make a mockery of the imperial authorities. Li Bingbing is captivating as the sweet but mischievous Xiaocui, and Jimmy Lin walks a fine line as the simpleton husband in a performance that's funny while managing to stay on the right side of political correctness.

Strange Tales of Liaozhai was so popular that two competing follow-up series appeared in 2007. Liaozhai 2 brought another six tales to life, including the ever-popular "Ying Ning the Laughing Girl" with Liu Yue in the title role. The Fairies of Liaozhai offered four stories over 40 episodes, which required even more padding than its predecessors. Among the tales told this time around was another take on "Xia Nu, the Gallant Lady," which King Hu brought so memorably to life in A Touch of Zen.

In 2008 Pu Songling's Strange Stories are poised to make yet another big splash on the big screen. Gordon Chan is currently at work on his own version of Painted Skin, this one starring Donnie Yen and Vicki Zhao. Banish all thoughts of Leslie Cheung and Joey Wong; the combination of Yen and Gordon Chan promises to write a fresh and decidedly more action-oriented chapter in the pages of Liaozhai Zhiyi and its rich onscreen history. Who knows - maybe a new iconic image of Hong Kong Cinema is in the making.

But we'll always have Joey Wong, flying through that night sky.

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Published March 3, 2008

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