Chinese Ghost Stories

The Six Weeks of Halloween marches on with a pair of Chinese Ghost stories. Literally! The title is A Chinese Ghost Story (and we watched the sequel too). While not notably “scary”, per say, these movies do feature lots of spooky imagery, plenty of unexpected, bonkers elements, and a not-exactly-seamless blend of horror, romance, fantasy, martial arts, comedy, and even musical numbers. We’ve tackled similar fare before in the 6WH, and these types of movies represent an interesting change of pace.

The Six Weeks of Halloween: Week 2.5 – Chinese Ghost Stories

A Chinese Ghost Story – A down-on-his-luck debt collector arrives in a small town and is almost immediately kicked out. Forced to find shelter in a local (haunted) temple, he encounters an outlaw swordsman and falls in love with a ghost. Alas, said ghost is the property of a tree demon and is set to be married off in order to allow the tree demon to live forever. Or something like that. Honestly, the plot does hold together better than a lot of martial arts films, and the core romance works well enough to drive the film.

A Chinese Ghost Story

Along the way, we’re treated to a broad assortment of genre tropes and references. At times, this resembles Raimi’s Evil Dead, what with a deadly roaming camera representing an unseen evil force and the way trees come to life to attack our heroes. But this movie goes beyond that to incorporate even more bizarre imagery, including the tree demon’s use of a giant, seemingly miles long tongue that splits open to reveal a crocodile like maw at its tip. Or when a demon lord tears off his robe to reveal a giant vista of human heads (representing the souls he’s stolen or something like that). Some of the creepy bits are softened by comedic touches. There’s some neat shambling, stop-motion zombies that our hero is frequently dispatching by accident. They encounter “head soup” at one point. And so on.

The action doesn’t come as frequently as your typical martial arts film, but when it shows up, it’s pretty well done. Done in the Wuxia style, it features lots of wire-work and some fantastical magic energy attacks that are quite well done. There’s also a couple of musical numbers, which aren’t exactly my thing and might be a bit too jarring but why not? This movie has everything else! Ultimately, it all comes down to a King Hu-esque period drama with a romantic core that makes you care about the characters. It may be a bit tonally inconsistent to my Western sensibilities, but I certainly enjoyed myself! ***

A Chinese Ghost Story II – Our hapless debt collector returns home to find things a bit more hostile than he remembers. He’s immediately thrown into jail, escapes, and falls in with a group of rebels who are trying to warn the Emperor of government corruption. Or something like that. This time, the plot doesn’t hold together quite as well. Most of the same elements from the first film are present here, but they’re a little worse for wear.

A Chinese Ghost Story II

There’s still some roaming Evil Dead-like unseen forces, monsters, and comedic interludes, but none of it feels as wacky or creative as the first film (though maybe overall it’s still decent enough – I mean, I guess they do fight a giant flying centipede and ride a wave of swords like skateboards through the air). The martial arts are a step down too, even when you factor in the magical Wuxia stuff. The King Hu-esque period romance is back, and this time our hero falls for a woman who looks the same as the ghost he falls for in the first film (but they’re totally different people). Unlike the first film, the romance doesn’t really anchor the story and as a result, it feels less cohesive.

None of this stuff works as well as it did in the first movie, though I do tend to feel that way about sequels, so your mileage may vary. It’s far from the worst sequel, but it doesn’t hang together as well as the first movie. **

There is a third film (amongst other iterations, remakes, animated versions, etc…) that I may get to at some point, but next up on the docket are some films featured at Fantastic Fest 2019. Since film festivals are canceled this year, I figured it might be nice to see what they had going on last year.

3 thoughts on “Chinese Ghost Stories”

  1. I agree with your assessment of the original “A Chinese Ghost Story”. You don’t even have to know anything about Chinese ghost lore to enjoy it!

    (Countdown to Halloween sent me here)

  2. I caught up with the original Chinese Ghost Story a few years ago and really enjoy it. The tonal shifts in Hong Kong movies are nuts! I really need to watch the sequels…

  3. That’s a good point. There are definitely times when I know I’m watching something from another culture and I’m missing something, and even though I’m pretty sure that’s the case here, you’re right: you don’t need to know anything about it to enjoy it. I suspect the tonal inconsistency I often feel in these films is at least partially due to cultural differences though…

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