The Enchanting Shadow [倩女幽魂] (1960)
Starring Chao Lei, Betty Loh Tih, Tong Yeuk-Ching, Yang Chi-Ching, Su Hsiang, Lee Kwan, Li Kuo-Hua, Lok Kei, Hao Li-Jen, Wong Yuet-Ting
Directed by Li Han-Hsiang
Expectations: I have high hopes.
The Enchanting Shadow is one of the true classics in Hong Kong horror, elevating the genre and inspiring filmmakers for years to come. It competed in the 1960 Cannes Film Festival — Fellini’s La Dolce Vita won that year — and it was submitted as Hong Kong’s entry for Best Foreign Film at the 33rd Academy Awards — it was not nominated and Bergman’s The Virgin Spring ultimately won. Li Han-Hsiang was a well-established director at this point in his career; the previous year his film The Kingdom and the Beauty was an award-winning success that remains one of the best Huangmei operas to be produced by the Shaw Studio. From what I could tell from HKMDB, The Enchanting Shadow was his first foray into the horror genre, and while it isn’t exactly what American audiences would recognize as a horror film, it is most certainly typical of the genre in Hong Kong.
The Enchanting Shadow is based on the story Nie Xiaoqian from Pu Songling’s classic 18th Century collection, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. The same story — along with The Enchanting Shadow itself — served as the basis for the ’80s classic A Chinese Ghost Story. Like many of the stories in Pu’s collection, it is a tale of a scholar who gets involved with a ghost. In this particular case, Ning Caichen (Chao Lei) is a tax collector who needs a place to stay. All the inns are full, but he hears of Jinhua Temple, 10 miles north of town, and decides to stay there. He is warned that the temple is haunted, but he ignores this and stays there anyway. There he meets Yan Chixia (Yang Chi-Ching), a Taoist swordsman staying there, who lends some credence to the rumors of spirits haunting the temple.
Undeterred, Ning is drawn to the sound of beautiful music coming from another wing of the temple. There he discovers the gorgeous Nieh Hsiao Chien (Betty Loh Tih), playing a guzheng. He is instantly attracted to her beauty, and the mystery surrounding her appearance there. Their relationship forms the core of the film, as it does in the later film A Chinese Ghost Story. Both films are essentially ghostly romances, but where the ’80s film also incorporates heavy does of action, FX and fantasy, these aspects are mostly left to your imagination in Li’s film. This is reflective of the eras both films were made in, but The Enchanting Shadow is also focused more on presenting the story classically, without the intrusion of too many genre elements. Horror films and the like were largely regarded as B-Movies in that era, so Li’s attempts at legitimizing the genre go a long way here.
Due to this high-road approach, the film feels like a perfect blend of the drama and horror genres. The romance at the core of the tale feels genuine, and the interactions between Ning and Nieh are a joy to watch. Perhaps writing poetry is not the most exciting activity to watch on-screen, but I found it to be quite charming and endearing. It highlights the innocence of Ning well, and Nieh seemed to share my sentiments. It helps that both Chao Lei and Betty Loh Tih are excellent actors who deliver performances full of nuances that enhance the general melodrama of this era.
The Enchanting Shadow is essential viewing for anyone who loves the Shaw Brothers and classic horror tales. It’s at its most horrific in its opening moments, which play almost like a slasher film, followed by the classic scene where our main character is warned by a “No, Don’t Go There” guy. From there it departs into distinctly Chinese ghost story territory, which is a much more reserved style, especially in this era. In any case, it’s a great movie that works within multiple genres, something you don’t normally see in Hong Kong film until the resurgence of Cantonese cinema during the ’70s and ’80s. Perhaps this is what made it a film easily adaptable into the ’80s classic A Chinese Ghost Story.
Next up from the Shaw Studio for this year’s Horrific October is Angela Mak’s The Siamese Twins! See ya then!