Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Chinese Ghost/Comedy/Action/Fantasy "Story"

I must admit I have a prejudice against films from China. I do not like many of them, and even the good ones often have things that bother me. Of course there are exceptions. I am very impressed by the cinema of Wong Kar-Wai. Jiang Wen's Devils on the Doorstep is one of the best films I have ever seen and one of The Book's most egregious oversights. And of course I enjoy a few of the Hong Kong kung fu films despite their silliness. However, for the most parts, there are a lot of tropes of Chinese films that I dislike. There is usually a very simple good/evil divide. The acting is over the top (almost like American silent film acting but with sound). The comedy to me is sophomoric and falls flat. Worst of all, it can be hard to get a version of Chinese films with decent, or even coherent and accurate, subtitles. Just generally, most do not seem like well put together films by American standards, or even the standards of neighboring countries like Japan. I am sorry to say that many of these tropes are in the film A Chinese Ghost Story, and they hurt my enjoyment of the film. However, there was much to enjoy about the film as well, which evened things out a bit.

The story is a simple one. A young tax collector (Leslie Cheung), naive and cowardly, is in a rural town and has to sleep in a haunted temple. He falls in love with a young girl (Joey Wong), but she is a ghost (unbeknownst to him) and tries to suck out his soul to give to her master. However, because he is good and charming, she falls in love with him, but of course cannot be with him due to her ghostly servitude. The two have romantic scenes and misunderstanding, but once all of the facts come out,the young man vows to help free her from her servitude and help her get reincarnated, enlisting the help of a Taoist monk/ghostbuster (Wu Ma) along the way. The story and script are simplistic and silly, and mostly not in a charming sort of way. The acting, as I have said, is over the top, though Wong gives us some tender moments and Ma can be a little fun. Most of the jokes are painful (especially the physical comedy which includes a reaction shot of Cheung seeing Ma take a piss) and often nonsensical. Everything is of course very formulaic. However, there are some things to like about the film.

First and foremost, it is a visually enchanting movie. I would not go so far as to say it is stunning, but it is always very inventive and imaginative. The sets are, for the most part, either very beautiful or quite creepy, and the filmmakers use their small budget (compared to American films) very well to set the mood with lighting, smoke machines, and other techniques. There are also quite a few impressive, if sometimes cheesy, special effects. Rabid wolves, zombies, killer trees, witches with giant tongues that fill whole buildings, and dark knights on horseback are just a few of the creatures we see in the film. In this day and age especially, it is great to see the use of practical effects rather than CGI or digital effects used so well in a film, and this adds a lot of enjoyment to the experience of watching it and reminds me of the films of Sam Raimi. There are also great effects for when magic is used, like fireballs or mystical spells. Finally, the fight choreography and scenes of the ghosts flying (as well as the costume designs) are superb, and add some fast paced excitement and wonder to the film watching experience. Visually, this movie is unique and quite a treat to behold, especially when the lead actress flies about or the undead come out to attack.

'Cus this is Thriiiiiiiiilllllllerrrrrrrrr! Chinese Thriller tonight!

Speaking of being fun to watch, this film provides quite a bit of eye candy for the hetero males and lesbians in the audience. Wong is absolutely gorgeous, from the way she dresses to her facial expressions to her giddy schoolgirl laughter to her sensuous body language. The sexual scene, which get more graphic than I expected, really are not tedious to watch because of her beauty. What's more, if you have any kind of foot fetish or just a "thing" for feet (which the Chinese certainly do) then this is the movie for you. The camera lovingly focuses on Wong's pretty little feet and sexy ankle bracelet (which actually summons her ghostly matriarch) multiple times in the film. I got quite a bit of enjoyment out of this myself I must admit, and it helped turn the experience of watching the film around to a positive for me. I do not usually like gratuitous sexuality in films purely for titillation's sake, but the sexual scenes in this film are just right, not too long and sexy enough to add to the film. This is definitely a leg man's movie.

"Oh my, is that ectoplasm running down your leg, or are you just happy to see me?"

Another reason why the sexy scenes work is also a reason why the film as a whole remains watchable: the romance is actually believable and engaging. No matter how great a film's visuals are, if the plot fails on all fronts it is doomed. This film certainly fails on many fronts. Its comedy is almost entirely tedious, it isn't scary, and it is entirely predictable (the only refreshing plot point is that unlike American films it does not feel the need to have an entirely happy ending where the guy gets the girl). However, the romance is actually a treat. We can believe that this ghost girl would fall for this bumbling guy because of his kindness and brave actions to help her. Though the romance is also predictable, it is a treat to see her watch him from afar, giggling at his buffoonery, falling deeper in love. We believe his devotion to her and cheer when he bravely rescues her, or when she rescues him. There is tension when he comes to visit his lover and must hide in plain sight from the other ghosts, who he thinks are her conservative family members. This belief in the romance causes us to like the two characters much more than their paper-thin  and poorly written characterizations or their overacting might otherwise allow us, and it makes their scenes of love and sex more enjoyable as opposed to tedious. In fact, the scene where he has to hide from the ghosts gives the film it's most beautiful, sensual and enduring image, when Wong submerges her head into her bath where Cheung is hiding to fill his lungs with air by giving him their first passionate kiss (and also a sexy and funny moment where she is forced to get into the tub naked with Cheung still submerged in order to hide him, giving him a sneak peak at her goods).

Clearly he's not the only one who gets wet in this scene!

Wu Ma, perhaps the most veteran and well known actor (in China anyway) in this film gives us a fun performance as the Taoist monk. His fight scenes can get quite impressive, and they add a lot for the guys watching the film who might not be so into the romance. He also gives us what I consider to be the only genuinely funny part of the movie. Not joke: out of nowhere in the middle of the film, even though no other person had sung at any point is this film and there was only one song playing during a sex scene before, we suddenly get a scene of Ma singing about Taoist principles while doing what is essentially a swordfighting breakdance. What insane mind thought of that shit! On to of that, his use of mag gives us some of the more interesting visuals of the film.

These new Menthol cigarettes are extra, EXTRA cool.

Sadly, though the film has great visuals, the same cannot be said for its audio. Besides that one funny song/breakdance, the soundtrack mostly sucks. There is one kind of nice song during a romantic scene, but though the song is nice it kind of gives the scene a soap opera feel to it (a vibe which the lighting was already giving off far too often). Other than that the soundtrack just sucked and really didn't add anything to the film

I might have enjoyed the film more is she had stuck that tongue in my ears during this film to block out the sound, or if she had stuck it a few other places.... wait, no, she can expand that thing to destroy whole houses, that shit is dangerous!

All in all, while this film had a lot going for it visually, sexually and romantically, the inept and predictable script, over the top acting, and bad soundtrack robbed this film of much of the enjoyment its fantasy and whimsy could have brought. For Chinese viewers who are used to and expect these kind of tropes I can see why it was such a big hit. From an American perspective, however, it just appears to amateurish to often to be a true delight. I can only give this film a 6/10, Good rating despite its high points.

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