Spirit of the times

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 August, 2007, 12:00am

The concept of tradition may seem contradictory to modern Hong Kong filmmaking, yet some of the most noteworthy hits of late have a basis in classical Chinese literature.

The ghost stories by 17th-century author Pu Songling, under the umbrella title Strange Tales From a Chinese Studio, have proven popular since the earliest days of Chinese motion pictures.

The near cult status of the chapter Nie Xiaoqian, taken from the name of the tale's beautiful but tragic ghost heroine, is affirmed by the Hong Kong Film Archives' upcoming series of six adaptations dating from 1960 to 1997. The films provide a window on the changes in Hong Kong society and local cinema - or, rather, the vision of two of the city's best known filmmakers, Li Han-hsiang and Tsui Hark.

Li is responsible for The Enchanting Shadow (1960) and Tsui has directed or produced four Nie-related features, including A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), its two sequels and an animated version in 1997. Li and Tsui have different approaches, reflecting their generations and individual sensibilities.

In The Enchanting Shadow, the story is of supreme importance, with Nie a lost spirit controlled by evil forces who must sacrifice everything for the young scholar with whom she falls in love.

Two decades on, the emphasis is on action and special effects. Not that The Enchanting Shadow doesn't possess atmospheric qualities. Li, a supreme stylist, breaks new ground in his attention to period detail and colour (this was one of Shaw Brothers' earliest colour films). But these elements are used to further the story rather than as an end in themselves (as is all too often the case in Tsui's efforts, which reached their nadir in the incoherent plot of A Chinese Ghost Story II in 1990).

The shifting nature of Nie also reflects the shifting status of women in Hong Kong society. In The Enchanting Shadow, shot during the 1950s, Nie is quite the traditional maiden, with understated modesty even when seducing a scholar.

Sex is far more in evidence in A Chinese Ghost Story, with the chemistry between Nie (Joey Wang Tsu-hsien, left) and her mortal lover (Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing) likely to give fans sweaty palms.

As the sequels progress, Nie becomes increasingly bawdy and the films more political. In part two, the heroine isn't even Nie but a lookalike (also played by Wang) who is a warrior patriot and not mere ectoplasm. By part three (1991), Nie is back in ghostly form and lewder than ever. Tsui's subtexts, reflective of Tiananmen Square and other concerns in the run-up to the handover, have no echo in the apolitical content of mainstream 1960s movies.

Ironically, politics and sex are largely absent nearly a decade later in A Chinese Ghost Story: The Tsui Hark Animation, reflecting both the new era (the movie came out a month after the handover) and the film's younger target audience. Li and Tsui also use different means of depicting the paranormal. The Enchanting Shadow is more conventional and personal, with Tang Jo-cheng giving a chilling portrayal of the ogress who is Nie's chief tormentor. In A Chinese Ghost Story, the evil spirit isn't a woman but an androgynous tree demon.

The differences also mirror the changing nature of Hong Kong stardom. Betty Loh Ti represents an era when, in Putonghua pictures at least, women stars overpower the males. By the time of A Chinese Ghost Story, the pendulum had long swung the other way. Although Wang's presence is powerful, she's more than matched by Cheung in parts one and two and by Tony Leung Chiu-wai in part three.

The commercial decline of local cinema began soon after part three's release and is perhaps symbolised by the last of the Chinese Ghost Stories and its elimination of live stars altogether.

The Enchanting Ghost series, Aug 18-Sept 2, Hong Kong Film Archive