Keeping It Platonic
It's not just Hollywood that is raiding its own archives to remake and reboot, but Chinese cinema as well given new market opportunities in China and a chance to apply spruced up the visual effects techniques to past fantasy films to turn them into an extravaganza. But redoing and retelling a tale come with its own challenges, especially with what could arguably be one of the most well known tales of Liao Zai that has been translated on screen by Tsui Hark and Ching Siu Tong in both animated and live action formats, and starring none other than once household names in the late Leslie Cheung, Joey Wong and Wu Ma in lead roles.
So isn't that very, very big shoes to fill? A Chinese Ghost Story, or A Chinese Fairy Tale as it is known in some parts (and more accurately too), turned out to be quite bold in its take, standing its own ground in crafting relatively new backgrounds and motivations for some, while staying true to the mythos for others. Directed by Wilson Yip, who brought us the Ip Man films, you can sense his itch in wanting to dabble in computer generated effects and plenty of kinetically charged wire-work to compensate for the rather stoic, real world sensibilities in his previous, famous martial arts epic, and here he's like a spring that has been coiled and wound up, finally letting loose.
The original film by Ching Siu Tong has this aged old charm in it, being narratively very straightforward, where a tax collector Ning Caichen arrives into a quaint little town only to find himself falling in love with a beautiful ghost Nie Xiaoqian who is doing the bidding of a tree demon, and along comes a priest in Yan Chixia to save the lovebirds and destroy evil in demonic forms that appear in their way. What made that work was the incredible performances by the cast, and of course Leslie and Joey sharing this amazing chemistry. Wu Ma also turned in a rather comedic performance as the priest with his incantations, and with every mention of the film's title, this version will spring to mind, nevermind the lacklustre sequels that followed.
In this reboot, the characters got younger, and in comes a bold move in making priest Yan a much younger man, embodied by the ever presence of Louis Koo, and having him actually romance Nie Xiaoqian (Liu Yifei)! The opening scene sets the scene for these two star crossed lovers, where Yan learns that their impossible romance is doomed to failure, and commits a magical mind wipe of sorts to condemn Nie Xiaoqian's memory of their romance. And thus the demon hunter, with equipment that would put Van Helsing to shame, ironically becomes the protector, watching and admiring his ghostly beau from afar, and stepping in once in a while, painful as it may seem, to try and reign her in.
The new Ning Caichen still remains a scholar, but enters town as sent by the court to help the townsfolk with their drought, believing that the source at Black Mountain, where the tree demon, co-manifesting as a temple for years, will hold the key to fill the people's wells. His investigation allows him to encounter Xiaoqian, and the two strike up a passable romance. Passable because unfortunately, given the young age of the principle cast, made this look very much like a teenage puppy romance rather than one charged with very strong romantic inclinations, lacking an X-factor that the original possessed by the truckloads.
Ye Shao-qun continued his rather dismal performance brought over from Kungfu Wingchun, and maybe because he has the biggest shoes to fill in Leslie Cheung's, showed that he's overawed for the occasion and fell flat most of the time with an abysmal showing. Partly because his character was very bland, making a major contributing in feeding his lady love some sweets during the course of the movie. The alluring Liu Yifei did what she had to do in becoming the vulnerable femme fatale in her version of Xiaoqian, but while the original had some sensualness (it's Joey Wong after all) and fighting spunk, this interpretation made her a little less feisty and a lot more cloying, and gone are those long sleeves that served as weapons, with her flight ability also getting severely clipped.
But the saving grace was actually in her scenes opposite Louis Koo, which became the real emotional crux and core of the film, even if we get 2 romantic stories for the price of 1, Caichen and Xiaoqian's romance got diluted even though it had longer screen time as compared to Yan and Xiaoqian, which was more powerful. Fan Siu-Wong got a supporting role as Thunder to bookend the film, a fellow priest who despises Yan for betraying their order in having fallen in love with a ghost, while Kara Hui, on a roll of a professional career comeback, completes the supporting cast as the chief villain of the film, aided by plenty of visual effects as the sinister, scheming tree demon. For the action junkie, this film will satisfy given the plenty of battle sequences amongst men and spirits, with special effects hailing from Korea providing the visual feast that peppers the film.
If you have not watched the original film at all, then this version will work wonders for you as you enter into the Chinese Ghost Story mythos for the very first time. But those who have grown up watching the original, a sense of nostalgia will sweep your senses whenever the original score got played, and you'd have to try hard to accept this new reboot, and not get too sentimental with the original and start comparing. I know I'm guilty of doing the latter since in some ways it's a classic after all, but truth be told, this still comes across as a recommended viewing if only to add another dimension and spin to an already familiar tale.