A Chinese Ghost Story
Starring: Louis Koo Tin-lok, Crystal Liu Yifei, Yu Shaoqun, Wai Ying-hung
Director: Wilson Yip Wai-shun
Category: IIA (Cantonese)
Viewers born after 1980 will probably get more out of the latest celluloid incarnation of the classic Qing dynasty ghost story than film-goers with longer memories. The supernatural travails of troubled phantom Nie Xiaoqian supplied Betty Loh Ti in The Enchanting Shadow (1960) and Joey Wang Tsu-hsien in A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) with indelible showcases. The task now falls to mainland singer-actress Crystal Liu Yifei, who proves adept at conveying Xiaoqian's combination of seductiveness and vulnerability.
That her portrayal is ultimately less memorable than those of her predecessors is due to director Wilson Yip Wai-shun only partially rising to the challenge of finding a fresh approach. Charcoal Tan's screenplay presents some interesting departures from the original, most notably in beefing up the previously secondary male lead of sword-wielding Taoist priest Yan Chixia.
A hitherto unromantic figure played by stalwart character actors such as Yang Chih-ching (1960) and Wu Ma (1987), the swordsman is now portrayed by Louis Koo Tin-lok (above, with Liu), whose matinee-idol looks exceed those of the tale's supposed heartthrob, low-ranking official Ning Caishen. The role's 1987 embodiment by the late Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing created such a sensation that perhaps it was wise for director Yip to put the romantic focus elsewhere. The new Ning (Yu Shaoqun) is still young and guileless but possessing far less charisma, making it plausible that Xiaoqian might indeed be more enamoured of the handsome priest intent on her destruction.
The script follows the same basic plot, with Ning wandering into a temple inhabited by murderous female demons mercilessly controlled by an ogress (Wai Ying-hung). Xiaoqian is unwittingly caught in the middle, beholden to her mistress yet moved by the lad's purity and, in a new twist, unable to shake off memories of her long-ago encounter with the priest.
The storytelling becomes muddled by a surfeit of special effects and battles. It is almost as if the filmmakers were on a mission to establish their version's uniqueness as a culmination of everything 21st-century technique has to offer. But the glut of showy visuals draws the audience out rather than in, sapping the narrative's spectres and mortals of the power to stir viewers.
A Chinese Ghost Story opens today