The Ghost Lovers [艷女還魂] (1974)
AKA A Woman with Half Soul

Starring Li Ching, Lam Wai-Tiu, Kim Mu-Yeong, Joo Yong, Chan Mei-Hua, Shum Lo, Wang Han-Chen, Wong Ching-Ho, James Ma Chim-Si, Hung Sing-Chung, Fung Ging-Man

Directed by Shin Sang-Ok

Expectations: Moderate.

A title like The Ghost Lovers signals a horror film with a softer edge, and this is definitely the case. It’s not so much a horror film as it is a supernatural drama, although there are lots of good scares and frightful images peppered through the film. I expected this to be the case so I wasn’t disappointed, but I wasn’t ready for how the film would twist the traditional ghost narrative into something unique. The film begins rather straightforward, but as the tragedy of the situations deepen the whole thing sort of flips in on itself. It’s hard to describe without spoiling it, and maybe even drawing attention to this point will diminish its power a bit, but it worked on me and hopefully it’ll work on you, too.

Song Lian-Hua (Li Ching) lies deathly ill in her bed, surrounded by her wet nurse and her family. Song has been betrothed to Han Shi-Long (Lam Wai-Tiu) since they were children, but they haven’t seen each other since. Han’s father was once governor of their town, but was forced to flee after his name was illegitimately slandered and they lost everything. With Song’s condition worsening, they send for Han to visit Song before she dies, but when the messenger returns he says that Han set out two days prior and should have already arrived! Promptly thereafter, Song Lian-Hua dies and it would seem that these star-crossed lovers were doomed to never meet (and Li Ching never to utter a single line in a film she stars in!)

But of course, this is not the case (on either point); it’s just the film’s jumping-off point. The Ghost Lovers is a supernatural movie, and you can’t have one of those without some real-deal supernatural shenanigans! Don’t get too excited if you’re thinking of the more popular Hong Kong horror films, though, The Ghost Lovers is rather tame in this regard. It’s not quite a Hong Kong Romeo & Juliet with ghosts and Taoist Priests, but that’s as apt a description as I can muster up to quickly summarize the film. The Ghost Lovers is a restrained, methodically paced, classic ghost story, and it is one of the better examples of this type of film I’ve seen in Hong Kong cinema. Like many of the rare Shaw Brothers productions, The Ghost Lovers deserves a much wider audience, as atypical of Hong Kong horror as it might be.

South Korean director Shin Sang-Ok effectively creates an atmosphere of romance and melancholy with a mixture of swirling fog, distinct colored lighting and careful camera work. The actors cast their spell on the audience as well, with the radiant Li Ching standing out as always. Shaw distributed some of Shin’s Korean productions (such as A Thousand Year Old Fox), but The Ghost Lovers was his second and final film directed directly for the studio (the first being the 1967’s The Goddess of Mercy). Shin also co-produced three Shaw films: Cheng Chang-Ho’s Six Assassins and King Boxer, and Pao Hsueh-Li’s Finger of Doom. Forgive me simply listing off some of his credits, but I am fascinated and saddened whenever I think of Shin Sang-Ok because of his 1978 kidnapping by Kim Jong-Il. Shin was then held captive and forced to make films for North Korea until he escaped with his wife in 1986. I guess examining his filmography allows me to wonder what might have been if he hadn’t been subjected to such an unfortunate situation.

The Ghost Lovers is a fine film that charmed and surprised me. It begins fairly slow, but it builds well and its clever reversal of the standard ghost story completely won me over by the time “The End — Another Shaw Production” came on-screen. It’s a hard one to hunt down, but if you get the chance it’s definitely worth it. Hopefully, Celestial will eventually rescue it from obscurity and get around to releasing the film through its usual online channels.

Next week in my annual journey into Shaw Brother horror films: Kuei Chih-Hung’s Ghost Eyes! See ya then!