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Words and Melody: Huang Zhan
Music: Romeo Diaz
MIDI by Tom Laughlin

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Cantonese Title: Sin Nui Yao Man
Mandarin Title: Qian Nü You Hun
Literal English Title: A Beautiful Woman's Ghost
Directed by Ching Siu Tung
Starring Leslie Cheung, Joey Wang, Wu Ma

Ning Tsai-chen (Leslie Cheung) is an apprentice tax-collector, who is sent to a remote province where the tax-collectors keep ending up dead. His records ruined in a rainstorm, Ning finds himself penniless and ridiculed in a town where the main activity seems to be chasing down convicts. He hears of a place where he can stay for free: the abandoned Lan Ro Temple outside of town, where none of the locals dare to go.

Arriving at the temple, Ning stumbles into the middle of an epic swordfight. On one side is a sinister man in black; on the other, a bearded warrior named Yen (Wu Ma), who has hidden himself in the temple for many years, away from the confusion of human activity and desires. Yen accuses the man in black of being too easily swayed by his desires to be a true warrior. Ning naïvely tries to make peace between them; in a way he succeeds, as the man in black gets disgusted with his "kiss and make up" philosophy and stalks away.

Yen wants Ning to get lost before he gets himself hurt, but Ning has nowhere else to go. He settles into a deserted building for the night, blissfully unaware of the attic full of dessicated zombies that have awakened at the smell of warm flesh...

Later that night, the man in black encounters a beautiful young woman (Joey Wang) bathing in a stream. The warrior confirms Yen's opinion of him by pursuing the girl, but as he lies on the shore with her, something overwhelms him and sucks the life-energy straight out of him. As the man dies, the pale young woman averts her eyes in shame...

Yen senses something evil is happening, but arrives too late to help the man in black. Gathering the body in his arms, Yen is surprised when the withered corpse tries to bite him. Yen pins the zombie to the earth with a glowing holy spike, and it bursts into flames.

In the meantime, Ning follows the sound of a girl singing out to a pavilion on a lake. The pale young woman is there, playing her lute and singing a haunting melody. She attempts to seduce Ning, but the bumbling and good-natured young man is too inexperienced to understand. Moved by his purity, the girl puts him to sleep with a magical breath and flies off into the night. When Ning comes to (after falling into the water), he realizes the girl has left her lute behind. He chases after her.

Yen, too, has heard the girl's singing. At first he dismisses it, since he lives side-by-side with all the evil spirits of the Temple; if they don't disturb him, he doesn't disturb them. Then he remembers the poor young fool he met earlier, who is all alone against the ghosts...

Ning catches up with the girl... or rather, she finds him, and asks why he is following her. The girl says her name is Hsiao-tsin. Though it's clear she likes Ning, she knows that he'll be destroyed unless she gets rid of him. All at once, Hsiao-tsin hears Yen coming after her. She tells Ning that an evil man is chasing her, and that he must get away. Much to her consternation, Ning offers to help her escape. Several times he risks his life in order to help her, not realizing that she has no need of his help...

I'm not going to go into any more detail about this magnificent film. I'm afraid I may have laready made it sound much dyer than it is. But no description could possibly do it justice. It's got everything a movie lover could need --

  • ROMANCE! ... borrowing elements from almost every classic love story, from the tale of Orpheus to Romeo and Juliet;
  • ACTION! ...with wire work in the best Hong Kong style, Sam Raimi-type steadicam prowls, zombies, tree-monsters, a witch with a tongue a mile long, and even a daring raid on Hell itself!
  • HUMOR! Swordsman Yen stops in his pursuit to take a leak, not realizing that Ning, his quarry, is cowering right underneath him...
  • MUSIC! ...including a great title song, a moving ballad ("Let the Dawn Never Come..."), and even a rap about the Dao.
  • SPIRITUAL UPLIFT! ... as Yen discovers that his attempts to find enlightenment by hiding from his fellow human beings has actually made him less than a man, while his naïve new friend is willing to risk death to help the ghost he loves attain re-incarnation... all crowned with a typically Asian moral stressing the value of renunciation over earthly desires.

I first saw this movie on Japanese television. It caught me completely by surprise. It was a prime-time special, scheduled during a time slot normally reserved for clunkers like Urban Marine Resort Story, so I wasn't expecting anything worth watching.

(This is not to say that Japanese TV was a total write-off, though. Late night programming included a cult movie festival, hosted by a dignified older gentleman, on which I saw my first two Dario Argento films. A few days after seeing Deep Red and Creepers, I overheard some American friends talking about a midnight horror show, which they felt was the most offensive program they'd ever seen. I expected they were talking about one of the Argento films; it turned out that they were speaking of John Carpenter's relatively restrained Prince of Darkness! Had they tuned in a night or two before, I'm sure they would have been struck speechless. But I digress...)

There I was, alone in the little house I'd rented. I would leave that house in a tremendous hurry only a month later, beginning one of the worst journeys of my life; but that's another story. In a room bare execpt for a low table and my television, I sat on the tatami to eat my dinner. I thought I'd put on a little mindless TV while I ate my grilled fish and drank a can of Asahi beer. As it happened, I was just in time for A Chinese Ghost Story, and in spite of my difficulty with the language(s), I was hooked. Occasionally a cockroach the size of my fist would come and watch with me; normally I'd interrupt my viewing to chase the bug around the house, swatting it ineffectually with a broom or a sledgehammer or something... but this time I barely noticed.

Years later, back in the United States, I ran across an Asian video store near my workplace. I knew that A Chinese Ghost Story had a pretty strong reputation, so I figured they might have a copy. The way the store was organized, all the Western tapes were downstairs, and all the Asian movies were upstairs, in a part of the store which had to be accessed through a different door. When I got to the upstairs office, a rather large middle-aged Korean woman jumped up from her seat. "No!" she cried. "You not want this store! You want downstairs store! Here is just China movies!" I tried to argue with her, realizing somehow that neither my English entreaties nor my limited Mandarin would be enough to convince her I was exactly where I wanted to be. I fled.

...but I came back a week later, at a different time, when the man who owned the store was on duty. He was much more polite, and offered me two different versions of the tape -- not just to rent, but to buy if I wanted, and at a very low price. I had my choice of the Cantonese version with English subtitles, or the Mandarin version with Korean subtitles. I chose the version with Korean subtitles, figuring I could brush up my Mandarin enough to get the gist of what was going on.

Unfortunately, I never went back. Shortly thereafter my job changed locations, and I found the little Asian video store much too far out of my way. I understand it went out of business around this time. But I had my treasured copy of the movie, third-generation dub though it was.

Now I have the Media Asia DVD, letterboxed, in a gloriously clear stereo transfer. Several key scenes that were missing from my print are included in the DVD, including the final dissolution of Ning's zombies, Yen's slaughter of Hsiao-tsin's vampire sister, and the Blair Witch-like scene in which Yen and Ning find themselves unable to get out of the woods. Best of all, I get to see the movie with English subtitles, so I can finally catch up on all the details I missed from my inadequate grasp of the language.

Actually, I've only got one quibble with the DVD transfer: when you listen to it in Mandarin, the songs on the soundtrack are still in Cantonese. That's no fair. I like to sing along with Leslie Cheung in the title song, and it's a little strange to try to sync my words to his when we're singing in different dialects. Sigh. Also, the credits sequence at the start of the movie has a different soundtrack. In my old tape, there's no dialog: just the title song. On the DVD, there's dialog, and even some extra music which overlaps and drowns out part of the song. Partly as a result of this overlap, the last, particularly moving verse of the song is left untranslated.

These are insignificant details, though. This is a movie that really ought to be better known outside Asia, and not just by horror and fantasy buffs. I hava a vivid memory of watching this film to relax, during a particularly stressful time. By the closing scene, I was weeping uncontrollably. I don't usually react so strongly to it any more, and that's kind of a shame; but then again, the movie and I are like an old married couple, deeply but much more quietly attached.

I have dreaded ever seeing the sequels. There are two, and they're reputed to be just about as good as the original. Still, I can't imagine a need for a sequel, or that a sequel could do anything but harm my recollections of the first movie. I will certainly avoid the animated version, which has just been released in the U.S. by Image Entertainment. I've read a synopsis of the cartoon: it seems to be a kiddified version of the original, with the depths of passion and horror toned down. Forget it: when I have children, they'll see the original when they're of age to understand it. Until then, I don't want anything to spoil it for them. It's just too damned good.

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