Once more digging into their back catalog to put some fresh polish on Hong Kong classics, Fortune Star has cleaned up the A Chinese Ghost Story Trilogy and collected all three movies in a nice new box set. These popular fantasy pictures from director Siu-Tung Ching and super-producer Tsui Hark mix elements of horror, comedy, romance, and kung-fu in a mostly entertaining (though sometimes confounding) blend. The movies may not have held up over the years as well as expected, but are still worth a look for fans of Asian cinema.
The late Leslie Cheung, an acting and pop music superstar in Hong Kong, stars as the dim-witted tax collector Ning in 1987's A Chinese Ghost Story. Ning's travels through the countryside lead him to seek shelter in a haunted temple, where he encounters a beautiful ghost named Hsiao-Tsing (the lovely Joey Wong) who attempts to seduce him. It turns out that Hsiao-Tsing's job is to suck out the souls of foolish men for her master, an androgynous tree demon named Old Evil. Unfortunately for her, Hsiao-Tsing falls in love with the bumbling Ning before she can get the job done, and the two must join forces with an eccentric swordsman monk to battle the tree monster and reclaim an urn with Hsiao-Tsing's ashes so that she may be reincarnated. Or something like that.
The success of A Chinese Ghost Story lies in its mix of genres and the appeal of its stars. The story, as much as there is one to keep the picture moving from Point A to Point B, is largely nonsensical and (at least in the translation provided here) frequently incoherent. The stop-motion mummy monsters have dated particularly badly, and a lot of the broad slapstick comedy simply does not translate well. However, the movie features some arresting images, especially during the characters' journey to the underworld in the final act, and moves with such fleet pacing that you hardly have time to question what in the world just happened before something else of interest shows up.
Ning returns to the haunted temple in 1990's A Chinese Ghost Story II, in part because his job requires it but mostly in the hope of reuniting with his ghostly lover. Instead, he is falsely imprisoned and later rescued by a band of rebels who mistake him for their wise elder. One of the rebels, a girl named Windy, is a dead ringer for his beloved Hsiao-Tsing (and is indeed played by the returning Joey Wong). Before they can get too lovey, they must face off against a gloopy monster that appears to be made of papier-mâché and an evil Buddha statue with laser eyes that can turn into a giant centipede. Helping them out is a new warrior monk (played by the goofball Jackie Cheung) with a magical freeze spell that gets frequently misapplied to hilarious complications.
The storyline in the sequel is even more outrageously silly than the original, but is fortunately told in a more coherent fashion and even manages to slip in some political satire (one of the monsters is a top advisor to the Emperor). The presence of Jackie Cheung is a surprising boon and raises the level of slapstick to more tolerable levels. The cheeseball monster effects, however, were never very good even in their day, and like too many Tsui Hark productions the movie degenerates into an overwrought action spectacle in the end. Part II is a mixed bag overall, in some respects an improvement and in others a cheap cash-in, but manages to retain enough of what was appealing in the first movie to get by.
Star Leslie Cheung had emigrated to Canada by 1991, so his position in the franchise is taken over by an almost unrecognizably young Tony Leung in A Chinese Ghost Story III. Set 100 years after the events of the first two pictures, we find that not much has changed at all since Ning had visited the haunted temple. In fact, the third movie is a shameless reworking of the story from the first film, with almost the exact same plot and most of the same gags. Leung stars as Fong, a goofy apprentice monk traveling the countryside with his absent-minded mentor. Naturally, they will wind up staying in the temple, and naturally Fong will be seduced by a troublemaking ghost played by Joey Wong (this time named Lotus). It seems that the tree demon Old Evil has been resurrected and is back to his/her exact same tricks, and that Fong must help Lotus break from captivity in basically the same way that Ning helped Hsiao-Tsing. Jackie Cheung also returns, this time as a new character who takes on the position of the swordsman from Part I.
Despite how blatantly the third movie is a carbon copy of the first, it nonetheless manages to improve upon the failings of its predecessors with better production values, the most coherent plotting, and a less jarring mix of genre elements. Part III is also the most erotically charged of the series. It is in many respects the movie that the first picture wanted to be. Unfortunately, it's also a stale retread of material already covered and can never escape that fact.
Fortune Star's box set contains all three movies in their original Cantonese language. The discs are encoded in the NTSC video format without region coding and will function in any American DVD player.
The "Digitally Remastered" video for all three movies is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen with anamorphic enhancement. The digital clean-up is actually quite good, one of the best remastering jobs that Fortune Star has done for their catalog titles. Each of the three movies is clean, colorful, and sharp (or as sharp as can be, considering that all three were photographed in a deliberately hazy, soft focus style). Hardly any artificial edge enhancement has been applied. Although a little grain can be expected for low budget Chinese films of this age, the source elements used for the transfers are in excellent condition.
As they have been doing with many catalog title remasters, Fortune Star has remixed the Cantonese soundtracks into new Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS audio options. The original Cantonese monaural mixes are also available in Dolby 2.0 mono, and each movie contains an alternate Mandarin dub track in Dolby 5.1. No English dubs are available, so English-speakers will just have to read.
The DD 5.1 and DTS-ES Matrix remixes are fortunately not too obnoxious in the repositioning of audio elements around the soundstage. Both are still largely monaural, with only the music given much new dimensionality. However, overall fidelity is thin and shrill, with very poor dialogue lip sync. The original mono tracks are even duller. The DTS is perhaps slightly preferable over the others, but none of the audio options are very impressive.
English subtitles are available, as well as both Traditional and Simplified Chinese. The English translation is terrible, with many grammatical and syntax errors ("We'll never meat again"). The poor subtitles make the movies' storylines even more confusing than they should be.
Every disc offers your choice of English or Chinese menus. Each movie includes the original as well as lousy newly edited trailers. Also available on every disc are photo galleries that can be viewed either as still images or part of an automated slide show.
Split to all three discs is a 3-part Interview with Composer James Wong, in Cantonese with optional English subtitles, each segment lasting between 7-12 minutes. A talkative and somewhat crazy old man, Wong (who passed away in 2004 not long after this interview was recorded) gives a funny and entertaining stream-of-consciousness lecture about his work on these films and his career in the Hong Kong film industry.
On the last disc is a 13-minute Interview with Action Choreographer Yuen Bun about his work on the third movie, delving into fascinating details about how risky the wire work really was.
Included in the packaging with the DVDs is also a fold-out photo book with images from all three movies.
No ROM supplements have been included.
The Chinese Ghost Story Trilogy has honestly not aged all that well, and has been surpassed in quality by a number of imitators, but still has enough positive aspects to merit a recommendation. The box set from Fortune Star is about on par with their other recent catalog remasters, featuring good picture quality but weak sound, and a very small selection of trivial bonus features. It's worth a look for Chinese genre movie fans.
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