Starring Chang Mei-Yao, Yang Li-Hua, Lui Ming, Lam Ban, Lee Hung, Julie Lee Chi-Lun, Sha Lee-Man, Ko Hsiang-Ting, Tsui Fu-Sheng, Tai Leung, Ko Hsiao-Pao, Ng Ho
Directed by Chou Hsu-Chiang
Expectations: Excited, I liked Chou’s The Bride from Hell.
Like last week’s film, The Ghost Story, The Enchanting Ghost falls into the category of Hong Kong horror with only minor elements of what usually defines a horror film. The Enchanting Ghost was also based on a story from Pu Songling’s 18th century collection of ghost stories and other assorted cautionary tales, Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio. This particular film is based on the story The Bookworm, for those interested in seeing how differently things play out in the two versions. As with most classic Hong Kong ghost films, your enjoyment of The Enchanting Ghost will depend on having properly set expectations for a slower pace and light supernatural elements. With that in mind, I thoroughly enjoyed The Enchanting Ghost from start to finish. It is a finely crafted film that definitely makes you wait for the ghostly happenings, but the journey towards them is also largely charming and entertaining.
Lang Yu Zhu (Yang Li-Hua, playing against gender as a male) is a scholar whose entire existence is consumed by his affection for learning and books. He doesn’t do much else, based in part on his particular love for a real-life poem by Emperor Zhenzong titled Quanxueshi (劝学诗). The poem is a love letter to studying, expressing that study can bring such things as fortunes, good harvests, and beautiful women. When we meet Lang, he is lovingly reciting these lines of the poem, and in a few short minutes he is given the chance to test the poem’s theories. Lang’s uncle covets his home, so he arranges with an official to seize it from Lang under the auspices of repaying the debt left by Lang’s father when he passed. Whether this debt is legitimate or not, Lang is thrown out into the street with nowhere to call home, so he decides to take up residence in the town’s derelict haunted house.
This sounds like a fairly solid set-up for a haunted house film, and the 88 Films Blu-ray blurb even attempts to liken the film to 1977’s House. Don’t be fooled, though, this is nothing more than misinformation setting you up for disappointment. The two films share the idea of a haunted house, but that’s about where the similarities end. Lang does move into a haunted house, and there are spooky shenanigans that happen when he’s creeping around the place, but this is actually only a minor facet of The Enchanting Ghost. This section reminded me a lot of William Castle’s 13 Ghosts in terms of tone and feel, which is to say it’s lighthearted, spooky, and quite entertaining, with the feeling that a fun gimmick was always around the next corner. The musical stingers and the theremin on the soundtrack helped this feeling along, too! I would’ve been perfectly fine with the film existing in this realm, but Chou Hsu-Chiang shifts the film with the introduction of Yang Ru Yu (Chang Mei-Yao).
In the subtitles, Ru Yu is noted as meaning “beauty,” and it is part of the poem that Lang recites at the film’s outset. The Wikipedia entry for the Pu Songling story mentions that it literally translates to “Face like Jade,” which I like better because it adds a lot more nuance to the idea than simply “beauty.” Anyway, Lang is beside himself with the coincidence of meeting a beautiful woman seemingly “right out of his favorite poem,” and he takes it as the first sign that study alone will truly bring with it all the wonders and necessities of life. The question is whether Yang Ru Yu is actually a ghost or not. Lang is oblivious because he’s livin’ the dream, but the townspeople seem to have their mind made up to the contrary, especially since Lang met her in the haunted house! If this sounds like a good time, you’ll enjoy The Enchanting Ghost, because this back-and-forth with the townspeople is a good portion of what makes up the film.
I really enjoyed The Enchanting Ghost, but I definitely feel like it is a movie that lives or dies with each person who watches it. The casting of the lead character against gender, coupled with the film’s sense of style makes it feel like the characters could burst into Huangmei opera at any given moment, but they never do. Nonetheless, this lends its own specific vibe to the film that I can’t quite describe, but I greatly enjoyed. The direction and cinematography are not as good as Chou’s later film The Bride from Hell (also released to Blu-ray by 88 Films), but fans of parables and classic storytelling should get a kick out of the movie. In the pantheon of Shaw Brothers horror, though, The Enchanting Ghost is one of the least horrific I’ve seen, so definitely keep that in mind if you watch it.
Next up for my annual dive into Shaw Brothers horror films: Li Han-Hsiang’s 1979 film, Return of the Dead! See ya then!