Subtext | A Pair of Chinese Fantasy Comedy Classics

The idea of a “genre mashup” is a lot less surprising these days than it used to be, though some (like the superhero/comedy style of Takiki Watiti’s Thor movies) still raise a few eyebrows. Genres, though, are a purely cultural phenomena. Comedy, fantasy, horror, and martial arts might all have been thought of as distinctly different genres thirty years ago in Hollywood. But in Chinese cinema, blending elements of all of these was surprisingly common. Two classic film series doing just that are available right now on streaming services.

A Chinese Ghost Story

A Chinese Ghost Story 1-3 (1987, 1990, 1991 – available on Amazon Prime)

Tsui Hark, the producer of this film, is a legend in the Chinese movie industry. Born to a Chinese family in Vietnam, he grew up in Hong Kong, studied film in Texas, and worked in New York before returning to Hong Kong at the end of the 70s. Cutting his teeth on indie “new wave” movies, it was 1983’s Zu Warriors From The Magic Mountain that launched his career. Starring Sammo Hung and with an imported Hollywood special effects team led by Robert Blalack (who won an Oscar for the effects on a little movie called Star Wars), it essentially created a brand new genre of wuxia fantasy. Off the back of that success Tsui set up his own production company, becoming notorious as a “hands-on producer”. After creating another new genre (“heroic bloodshed”) in 1986 with A Better Tomorrow, Tsui turned to an idea he’d been trying to make since 1978. That was a film based on the 17th century collection of Chinese ghost stories, Liaozhai zhiyi (“Strange Tales from a Lonely Studio”) by Pu Songling.

Tsui recruited Ching Siu-tung to direct the film. Unlike Tsui the director’s route to film-making was a lot more traditional – he had trained in the Peking Opera, and his father was the director of Shaw Brothers classics like The 14 Amazons. He made his debut in 1983 with Duel To The Death, a 16th century period piece notable for both its groundbreaking action and its non-cliched plot. Tsui also drew on Cinefex Workshop, a special effects studio set up by the locals who had worked on Zu Warriors that would go on to provide effects for many of the most visually impressive Hong Kong films of the 1980s and 1990s.

A Chinese Ghost Story is not based on any single story from Liaozhai zhiyi but a conglomerate of several, taking on the mood of the book more than anything specific. Ching and Tsui spent a long time working on the tone of the film, to strike the right balance between romance, horror, and humour. The protagonist is a failed debt collector named Ning Choi-San, played by Leslie Cheung. (Cheung went on to be famous in the 90s as one of the few openly queer people in the Hong Kong film industry.) He takes shelter for the night in a rural temple, and meets a beautiful woman named Nip Siu-sin (played by Joey Wong). The next morning he discovers the next day that the temple is abandoned and the people there (including Nip) are ghosts. (This setup is taken from “The Magic Sword”, one of the most popular stories in Liaozhai zhiyi, though the movie goes in a different direction with its story.) Undeterred, Ning sets out to free Nip from her curse with the aid of a monk played by director turned character actor Wu Ma.

Wu Ma in A Chinese Ghost Story

A Chinese Ghost Story was a big hit, probably Hark’s most successful film to date. (He got most of the credit for the film, with Ching often being ignored.) As well as being popular in China it was a hit in Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. This led to Joey Wong launching a career in Japan and Taiwan as both an actress and singer. The plaudits and success were well deserved – this is an extremely good film. Unsurprisingly it led to a swath of imitators and hugely increased the popularity of the supernatural genre in Asian cinema.

Ching doesn’t seem to have begrudged Tsui his credit for the film, and the pair worked together on many more films. This included the Swordsman trilogy (a much more traditional wuxia series) as well as two sequels to A Chinese Ghost Story. The first sequel in 1990 sees Leslie Cheung return as Ning, while Joey Wong returns as a woman with a close resemblance to Nip (which is commented on within the film). The pair wind up fighting a demon who has disguised itself to take power in the human world, and wind up calling on Yin (Wu Ma’s character) to help them. In 2019 this film was in the news after Apple Music removed its theme song Ren Jian Dao (“A Human’s Path”) from their service. The song (written and sung by Jackie Cheung, who also appeared in the film) had lyrics inspired by the Tianenmen Square Massacre, and with the 30th anniversary of the incident approaching many such songs and works were quietly censored.

None of this was picked up on (or at least not commented on) at the time, and a third Chinese Ghost Story film came out the following year. This one is also a direct sequel to the first movie, this time focusing on the ghost Ning Siu-sin (Joey Wong’s character). A slight retcon has it that when Yin (Wu Ma’s character) defeated the evil behind the temple’s curse he was only able to seal it for a hundred years. Now a new cast of characters (with one returning actor, Jackie Cheung, playing a pupil of his character from A Chinese Ghost Story 2) have to reckon with the demon once again. Leading the cast is Tony Leung Chiu-wai, then and now one of the biggest stars of Chinese cinema.

With such star power behind it the film did extremely well at the box office, and the trilogy ended on a high note. As a result it’s remained highly regarded as a classic series in Chinese cinema. Tsui Hark revisited the series with an animated installment in 1997, though sadly this excellent piece is quite hard to watch these days. The original film (after years of illegally circulating on bootlegs) was officially released in theatres in mainland China in 2011. Sadly this was done in memory of Leslie Cheung, who had passed away the year before. A loose remake based on the same source material and directed by Wilson Yip (best known for the Ip Man films) came out around the same time but unsurprisingly wasn’t considered anywhere near as good as the original. It’s hard to measure up to one of the greats, after all.

Stephen Chow in A Chinese Odyssey

A Chinese Odyssey (1995 – available on Netflix)

Less well known but just as influential is Jeffrey Lau’s two part series A Chinese Odyssey. Calling this a series is a bit of a misnomer, as it was always conceived as a duology, filmed back to back, and released to the cinema only two weeks apart. (In fact there was a third part released in 2016, but that’s not available on streaming services and is generally considered a lower-quality cash in anyway.) Jeffrey Lau started working in the movie business in 1982 as a producer, getting his first screenwriting credit four years later (for a romantic comedy) before moving into the director’s chair in 1987 with a film he wrote himself called The Haunted Cop Shop. The lead in the film was actually Jacky Cheung, who would go on to star in two of the Chinese Ghost Story movies. Unlike Tsui’s dramatic stories though, Lau became known for directing “mo lei tau” films. The name comes from a Cantonese phrase “mo lei tau gau” – “can’t tell head from tail”. As a genre name it’s got much of the same connotations as “slapstick” does in Western cinema. The difference is that incongruity (whether physical or social) is key to mo lei tau. One man even more identified with the genre than Lau is the star of A Chinese Odyssey: Stephen Chow.

Stephen Chow is a Hong Kong native who was inspired to take up acting as a child by seeing Bruce Lee films. Although he wanted to get into martial arts movies, he first became known for his work as a children’s TV presenter as well as a background character in TV shows like The Legend of the Condor Heroes. After a few minor film roles his first major role was in Final Justice in 1988, winning a Golden Horse award for his performance. Three years later he was the star of the highest grossing Hong Kong film of 1991, Fight Back to School. He made over 40 films in the 90s, working with directors like Johnnie To, Gordon Chan and Wong Jing. In the second half of the 90s he took up directing, gaining international fame with Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle. Twice in the last ten years he has taken the crown of “highest grossing Chinese film of all time”, first in 2013 with Journey To The West: Conquering The Demons and again in 2016 with The Mermaid.

Back in 1994 all of that success was still in his future. He still had a stellar reputation though, and when Jeffrey Lau was looking for an actor who could carry off action, comedy and tragedy he knew that Chow was a solid choice. Loosely based on the characters of the 16th century Chinese novel Journey To The West (very loosely), A Chinese Odyssey is a story about all of those things. It’s the sort of film that starts with Stephen Chow as a bandit leader and ends with him as a reincarnated demi-god fighting a demon king to save the woman he loves. In between it’s got tragedy, magic, action, and the funniest crotch-stomping gag I’ve ever seen. Somehow a tragedy with a happy ending, these two films stayed with me for quite a while after I watched them.

A scene from A Chinese Odyssey

Lau and Chow worked together on one more film that year, a horror comedy called Out of the Dark. Although Chow would go on to success after success, A Chinese Odyssey is probably the apex of Jeffrey Lau’s career. In 2002 he directed an unrelated film that was called Chinese Odyssey 2002 on English release (its original title translates as “Unparalleled In The World”). In 2010 he revisited the time-travelling McGuffin from A Chinese Odyssey with Just Another Pandora’s Box. After the original Chinese Odyssey was re-released to huge success in 2016, Lau didn’t just direct a third part (as mentioned above, and the least said about it the better) but also wrote and directed the pilot for a TV series (that sadly didn’t get past being piloted).

A Chinese Odyssey may not be as well known as A Chinese Ghost Story, being mostly remembered as part of the launchpad for Stephen Chow’s stellar career, but I think it’s my favourite of these two series. Both are highly recommended to any fan of the genre or anyone looking to get into the unique blend of fantasy, comedy, and action that makes them so special. There are plenty of other classics in this genre, and I hope to be able to share more of them with you soon.

All images via IMDB.