The Ghost Story [鬼叫春] (1979)

Starring Yueh Hua, Woo Gam, Shirley Yu Sha-Li, Lisa Chiao Chiao, Wong Ching-Ho, Kara Hui, Lam Yeung-Yeung, Jamie Luk Kim-Ming, Lee Kwan, Ng Hong-Sang, Yeung Chi-Hing, Fung Ging-Man, Wang Han-Chen, Ku Wen-Chung, Tin Hoi-Fung

Directed by Li Han-Hsiang

Expectations: Curious, but not sure.

The Ghost Story is a sort of anthology film, but the way it’s told the second story is meant to represent the reincarnations of the characters from the first, and the leads are played by the same actors (Woo Gam & Yueh Hua). Some secondary actors reappear in similar roles, as well. But since there are two distinct segments and a framing story of a grandpa telling stories to a rapt audience, I suppose it’s as much of an anthology film as anything else. The stories here are adapted from Pu Songling’s ever-popular short story collection, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, first published in 1740. The bulk of the film is based on one of the most popular tales, The Painted Skin, while the first story is a bit harder to pin down.

There are 491 stories in the full version, but most English editions are whittled down to somewhere around 100 stories. The book I have has a story titled Making Animals that contains some elements present in the first segment of The Ghost Story, but other than that I was unable to identify the specific story being adapted. A six-volume, complete English translation was finished a few years ago by Sidney L. Sondergard, so perhaps one day I’ll figure it out. For now, though, we’ll have to be satisfied not knowing or assuming that Li wrote a new story around elements of Making Animals. Anyway, once he tells the kids to go to bed, our narrator begins a tale that occurred sometime during the reign of Empress Wu of the Tang dynasty. It is the story of Hua’s Inn, run by three sisters, and how a group of tired soldiers sought refuge there.

Fans looking for wild visuals and black magic will be intensely disappointed by The Ghost Story, but anyone accustomed to the style and pace of traditional Chinese ghost stories should know what to expect. There is some craziness during its final 20 minutes, and it really is something to see, but I have the feeling that if you’re not on-board with the preceding 80 minutes, it’s not going to be enough to save the film. A love of ’70s Hong Kong FX work is probably a good idea, as well, as some of the more “horrific” elements are only going shock if you’re willing to work with the film and place yourself in a “1979 frame of mind.” For me, this section of the film was fantastic and truly surprising, but I would guess most people would be less impressed. What can I say, I like old movies! I was also overjoyed to see one of my favorite effects from The Super Inframan recreated with the characters here, to incredible results. Without giving it all away, it’s something that falls into the category of “things I love that I didn’t know I wanted.”

My first exposure to director Li Han-Hsiang was the 1959 film The Kingdom and the Beauty, a gorgeous Huangmei opera that is a genuine treasure of world cinema. His film The Love Eterne is likewise one of the most well-remembered non-martial arts films of the Shaw studio. Successes like this led him to become one of the only Shaw directors to be given creative freedom (like Chang Cheh). He also directed box-office hits like 1977’s The Dream of the Red Chamber starring Brigitte Lin, and all four of the films Michael Hui made for Shaw Brothers. Somehow or another, in the early ’70s Li also starting making sexploitation films. I don’t know if it was his strong creative desires to explore the world of gratuitous sex and nudity, or if it was forced on him by the changing times. He apparently made a lot of them, though, if the genre tags on HKMDB are anything to go by. The Ghost Story is one such film, injecting gratuitous lewd content into an otherwise traditionally made Hong Kong ghost story. I think it’d have been a better film without these elements, but the stories are sexual so it’s not completely out of left field. The scenes were more graphic than I was expecting, too, making me surmise that films like this were the foundation that led to Category III sex films like Sex & Zen and the like.

If you enjoy the slow-paced, mysterious ghost stories from Hong Kong and you don’t mind a fair amount of sex, this is a good one. It could definitely be better, but I enjoyed it a lot.

If you’re reading this as I post it and you’re in New York City, you have a chance to catch The Ghost Story on the big screen! It’s playing in October at the Metrograph as part of a Shaw Brothers horror series that also includes some of my favorites like Bewitched, The Boxer’s Omen, and Black Magic 2. I wish I could go!

Next up for my annual dive into Shaw Brothers horror films: Chou Hsu-Chiang’s 1970 film, The Enchanting Ghost! See ya then!