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FilmsAsia: Asian film reviews
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   Chinese Ghosts  



 

CHINESE GHOSTS

The Depiction of Ghosts in Chinese Films

by Toh Hai Leong

She has long hair generally tousled. Pale and pretty, she has eyes which are hate-filled and she uses them to transfix her trembling victim from across a room - usually the person who has murdered her - before whisking over to kill him. Naturally, her hauntings take place in the dead of night and we are accompanied by music designed to make your skin crawl.

This is the typical spectral vision portrayed in Chinese ghost movies, and is best exemplified in the operatic classic, The Dunce Bumps into a Ghost (1957), which combines comedy and a ghost story. Here, well-known Zi Luolian plays a fierce ghost determined to track down her murderer.

The Chinese ghost is an elusive creature who only shows herself during times of social uncertainty. She made her last significant appearance between 1974 and 1976, a time when the Hongkong economy was suffering a recession, and more recently in 1997, when much of Asia is in recession.

Today she has re-emerged with a vengeance in a different setting, with a different character and is viewed in a new light.

Her comeback coincides with the socio-political specter of 1997when Hongkong ceases to be a British colony. As a result, the colony’s movie industry, has been producing about 10 horror films a year since 1982.

Supernatural beings have been haunting the Chinese screen since the late 1930s when film-making started in China and Hongkong. Yet the Mandarin and Cantonese cinemas have still to produce a definitive ghost of the stature of the west’s Dracula and Frankenstein.

Instead, ghosts come in all shapes and sizes, with a variety of powers.

One reason for the lack of a well-known specter is that until the 1980s, ghost stories were always a celluloid cocktail borrowing from melodramas, comedies, thrillers, gongfu and opera films.

Another has been audiences’ preference for Cantonese opera comedies and Mandarin melodramas, of which they have had an abundance.

It was Bruce Lee’s popularity that paved the way for Samo Hung’s comical gongfu ghost films of the early 1980s such as The Dead and The Deadly, about a man who poses as a ghost to get his inheritance, and A Chinese Ghost Story, about a spirit who lures men.

From its beginnings, the Chinese cinema has borrowed from th west, drawing on folk tales about werewolves and demons, opera classics and literary sources, and from Hammer Films’ vampire stories as well as horror productions such as The Omen and The Company of Wolves. For instance, Dennis Yu’s The Imp, about a malicious ghost trying to be reborn, drew inspiration from the English-language It’s Alive which had a possessed child killing wantonly.

It also draws heavily on Strange Tales From a Chinese Studio by Pu Sonling, a 18th century author of ghost stories who usually had a mortal man falling for a ghost woman.

If Chinese horror stands out, it is because the films are a mishmash of genres, and use peculiarly Chinese philosophies such as the concept of yin and yang, the Buddhist view of reincarnation and Taoist exorcism rites. Two well-known motifs are yellow amulets and prayer paper, which is burnt to ward off evil spirits, and waxed paper umbrellas which ghosts inhabit to shield them from daylight.

As such, the Chinese ghost is different from the Christian one in western movies, as the latter tends to blame hauntings and other supernatural events on demons.

One of the earliest examples of ghost movies and a classic in its own right is Song at Midnight (1937). Its sequel was made in 1941. Both were inspired by English-language films: the first by The Phantom of the Opera, the second by Frankenstein and its sequel.

The first of these two films by Maxu Welbeng, the only director to reach cult status for his horror films, is an allegory about the fight against corrupt feudalism in China, while the more assured sequel is a nationalistic piece against Japanese colonialism in 1940s China.

In the 1940s, the occult was incorporated into opera films. Traditional boy-meets-girl storylines were generously dosed with encounters of the supernatural kind in which the girl was usually a ghost.

Since spirits are believed to have more power than mere mortals, life as a spook was very attractive. Star-crossed lovers could thus be reunited after death and oppressed heroes return as justice-seeking ghosts. In the third episode of the trilogy Blood Reincarnation, for instance, a wronged prisoner sees his family for the last time, literally transported by the blood he sheds.

In the next two decades, traditional Cantonese cinema was liberally laced with strong Confucian ethics. Since the philosopher apparently did not believe in the supernatural, the scenario for specters had to change. Movies began to convey an anti-superstition theme and ghosts that popped up reflected the oppressed state of humanity.

The bottom line, though, was that the occult was not to be dabbled in, since doing so reflected a belief in superstition. It was also a time when horror movies were avoided by film-makers as such films were not surefire box-office hits then.

However, the 60s and 70s did see some elegant Mandarin pieces shot completely in the studio, and in technicolor. These still featured human men and ghost women.

By then, ghosts were endowed with some human qualities and sometimes were so like humans that they were often mistaken for them.

The best example from this era is Li Han-Hsiang’s 1980 Mandarin effort, The Enchanting Shadow, which accurately recreates Ming (1368-1644) period costumes, hairstyles, speech and gestures in this love affair between a ghost and a scholar.

This landmark work inspired the sophisticated special effects-laden A Chinese Ghost Story in 1987. This drew on western effects of flashing lasers and levitation.

In the 1970s, martial arts movies dominated the box office and the small number of ghost films that were produced had martial arts action, comedy and soft-core sex.

The pioneers of the martial arts (wu hsia-pen) films were veteran directors Chang Cheh and King Hu. The latter used specters in his films and produced tow great spooky classics: Legend of the Mountain, and A Touch of Zen.

Legend is a moral fable about two rival female ghosts who compete with each other to be reincarnated; Zen is about two refugees who create ghostly happenings in a castle to throw their pursuers off.

It was only after the success of English-language films such as the Exorcist and its imitators that Hongkong horror stories really began to emerge.

Horror was also popular in the United States in the mid-1970s because Americans were demoralized by the Vietnam War.

It took New Wave director Ann Hui and the Spooky Bunch to break new ground in the early 1980s. Her allegorical film, in which the present generation has to grapple with the problems of ghosts of an earlier age, highlights the dilemma faced by the colony’s present generation around 1997. It featured both friendly and malevolent ghosts.

How then has the Chinese ghost continued in the 1980s?

For a start, her setting s are mostly urban (not as rural as in The Spooky Bunch). Ghosts, it seems, have modernized and it is man who has become superstitious.

Going back in time also has a popular appeal. In Tony Au’s Dram Lovers (1987), a couple who fall in love in the 1980s come to realize that their paths crossed before - in the Qing dynasty, and that they face all the problems of their previous lives.

Spooks now also tend to be human-friendly rather than malevolent. Stanley Kwan’s 1987 modernist masterpiece, Rouge, which picked up several awards including Best Film at this year’s Hongkong Academy Awards, has a languid creature in search of her lover. The movie also reconfirms the presence of the supernatural, which is now viewed with curiosity rather than fear.

However, to what extent all this horror will help the Hongkong people psyche themselves up for that hand-over date will remain as much a mystery as the origin of spooks.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

WHY WOMEN SPOOKS?

by Toh Hai Leong

Ninety percent of ghosts in the Chinese cinema are women.

Historically a downtrodden sex, they had few rights when it came to love and relationships. However, all that changed when they entered the nether world.

Once they were spirits, they could right wrongs, wreak revenge, and realize their ambitions. Spooks, it was believed, had a lot more power than mere mortals.

Hence, ordinary people who were exploited to a degree which they could not bear would take the drastic step of killing themselves in order to become a ghost and be able to get satisfaction.

As ghosts, the women were stereotyped as either whores or saints.

Considering this background, it is not surprising that most of the ghosts which have materialized in the cinema are unappeased ones.

If not victims of oppression or murder, out for revenge, they are beings who float dissatisfied between earth and hell, fretting about unsettled scores with lovers who have jilted them or last wishes for loved ones that they have not carried out.

The friendly, helpful ghost is very much a product of the 1980s, as is the spook who tends to resemble mortals. The nastiest ghosts are those who have killed themselves while wearing red, a peculiarity of the Chinese cinema. They are not only more vengeful than the everyday evil spooks, they are also more powerful.

The range of ghosts in Chinese movies includes a class of amorous females with tails who are known as fox spirits or hu-li. Their main aim is to seduce men, sometimes for their carnivorous protectors, and they have a weakness for writers and scholars.

Few actresses in the 50s, 60s and 70s wanted to be cast as spooks in case they suffered a fate which turned them into the role they were playing. So these who have made a spectral impact tend to be from the 1980s and have played good ghosts.

Few actresses in the 50s, 60s, and 70s wanted to be cast as spooks in case they suffered a fate which turned them into the role they were playing. So these who have made a spectral in part tend to be from the 1980s and have played good ghosts.

The only actress who has made her name playing a spirit is willowy Taiwanese Wong Jo-yin, who starred as an erotic but compassionate spook in A Chinese Ghost Story.