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Ching Siu Tung and Tsui Hark’s 1987 immortal classic of Hong Kong cinema “A Chinese Ghost Story” returns to screens in a new version with “Ip Man” series director Wilson Yip at the helm. Wisely, although a remake, the film makes an effort to do something a little different with the original Liaozhai source material, staying true to its themes whilst taking a different approach to its characters and their relationships. Unsurprisingly, the highly anticipated film was a major blockbuster release, boasting extensive special effects work from a top Korean team, and an all star cast headed by popular leading man Louis Koo (“Don’t go Breaking my Heart”), Liu Yifei, (“The Forbidden Kingdom”) and Yu Shaoqun, (“Shaolin”), with support from veteran Kara Hui (who featured in many Shaw Brothers hits such as “Legendary Weapons of China”), Fan Siu Wong (“Ip Man”), and, most excitingly, old school Hong Kong genre legend and frequent category III hero Elvis Tsui (“The Eternal Evil of Asia”).
The film’s main change is its focusing on demon hunter Yan Chixia (Louis Koo) as the protagonist, starting with him travelling to the haunted Black Mountain to tackle its ghosts and ghouls (which are interestingly never referred to as such by the script, no doubt due to the Chinese censors’ current frowning on their mention). There, he comes up against gorgeous fox spirit Nie Xiaoqian (Liu Yifei), and falls in love with her, eventually choosing to rob her of her memories of their time together rather than killing her. Things move forward a few years, with the nearby village going through a deadly drought, which kind hearted but bumbling scholar Ning Caichen (Yu Shaoqun) agrees to investigate. He too is drawn to Xiaoqian, who is now claiming victims at the behest of the evil Tree Demon (Kara Hui), and the oblivious young man does his best to court her, until Yan Chixia steps in, rekindling feelings from the past.
To get the obvious out of the way first – “A Chinese Ghost Story” 2011 is nowhere near as good as “A Chinese Ghost Story” 1987. However, given the fact that the original is arguably one of the very best cinematic achievements ever from Hong Kong, this in itself was probably always going to be inevitable, and judged on its own merits the remake actually has a great deal going for it. The changes work well enough, and the shift in romantic lead does give the plot a different feel and an interesting love triangle, even if Ning Caichen is never really given the chance to convince as anything other than a temporary stand-in until Xiaoqian gets her memory back.
The film still manages to retain the same bittersweet air of ill-fated love, and just about hits the same winning note of enchantment, supernatural shenanigans and martial arts action. It helps that the cast are all creditable in their roles, with Louis Koo looking suitably pained, Liu Yifei making for a winsome spirit and Yu Shaoqun doing his best in what mainly amounts to a comic relief role. While they don’t live up to the charismatic paring of Leslie Cheung and Joey Wong or the awesome bluster of Wu Ma, all do perfectly well with the material and help to ensure that the film does have a certain amount of emotional resonance – though this may be at least in part due to the re-use of Cheung’s iconic theme song, which is sure to bring back wistful reminiscences.
Wilson Yip goes a considerable way to recreating the feel of the original, with some endearingly similar sets and costumes, and some crazily kinetic camera work and lighting that does a great job of evoking the heady heyday of late 1980s Hong Kong cinema. On this level, the film really does excel, mixing in these old school values with some superior use of computer effects to make for a gorgeous, at times dizzying visual experience. The film is entertainingly over the top, seeming to revel in its near surreal other-worldly excess, and is leaps and bounds above other recent Chinese CGI heavy blockbusters. The action choreography by Ma Yuk Sing (a long standing industry veteran who has worked on everything from Stephen Chow’s “Royal Tramp” and “Chinese Odyssey” through to recent hits like “City Under Siege” and “Storm Warriors”) is exciting and graceful, fluidly bringing together wirework and digital effects in a series of fast paced and impressive set pieces. Although never neglecting the melodrama, Yip keeps the action coming thick and fast, and despite packing in a fair few flashbacks and endearingly odd tangents, the film moves along at a fine pace.
As a result, although the film fails to best the original “A Chinese Ghost Story”, it by no means disgraces itself either, and is easily one of the more spectacular and enjoyable supernaturally themed Asian blockbusters of the last few years. Wilson Yip and his cast manage to pull together a fun, imaginative and thematically faithful effort which should please fans and newcomers alike.
Wilson Yip (director)
CAST: Louis Koo … Yan Chixia
Yifei Liu … Nie Xiaoqian
Shao-qun Yu … Ning Caichen
Kara Hui … Tree Demon
Elvis Tsui … Village Chief