More than a quarter of a century on it’s hard to see how this cracking romantic action-fantasy adventure could possibly be bettered despite spawning two sequels and a 2011 remake. Leslie Cheung plays a penniless Taoist scholar forced into spending the night at a haunted temple when he encounters Wo Ma as a martial arts warrior who appears at first to be both ghost and enemy (in fact he turns out to be neither) and then the gorgeous Joey Wang, who is a ghost and is introduced seducing a couple of young men into what turns out to be a very nasty end. Of course all is not what it seems. Wang turns out to be a good ghost under the control of an evil, soul-sucking tree spirit who intends to marry her off within three days to The Dark Lord himself. So when Cheung and Wang fall in love (the former not even aware that the woman he loves is a ghost) it’s a race against time as Leslie, Joey and Wu join forces to do all out battle against the tree spirit and its scary maids, leading to a climactic showdown with The Dark Lord and his minions in their domain, the prelude to which is Wu Ma’s utterly awesome line, ‘Scholar, it seems we have to storm Hell’! And they do! With a leading man in Leslie Cheung who proves equally adroit at drama and comedy – a memorable sequence where Wang’s shrivelled victims come back to life to stalk Cheung (a delightful use of stop-motion) is a hoot because the actor gets the funny/menacing tone just right – and a performance from Joey Wang who makes such an indelible impression as the forlorn, ethereally bewitching ghost that for years afterward she was typecast in similar roles.
These two characters are the heart and soul of the movie and the perfect counterweight to a blizzard of dazzlingly kinetic action sequences. Their affection has a charming, flirtatious eroticism most evident in the scene where the tree spirit in human form comes to visit Wang in her temple and the latter is forced to hide Cheung’s character in a hot tub full of water lest his ‘nasty’ human scent reveal his presence. When Cheung ends up gasping for breath it’s Wang who pretends to wash her face but in so doing leans into the tub for a sensual underwater smooch with Cheung so she can breathe air into his lungs. Lovely stuff! In fact Cheung’s good-natured innocent, plunged into the bizarre and unfamiliar rules of the spirit world reminded me a bit of the little girl’s plight in Spirited Away. In both movies protagonist and viewer share the disorientating impact of being plunged into an alien environment. Here it’s both scary and exhilarating thanks in no small part to ace cinematography that gives each sequence a distinct look and action scenes which dazzle because of David Wu’s extraordinary editing rhythms. Romeo Diaz and James Wong’s romantic score is no slouch either. With first-class wire-work, a team of top stunt arrangers and some great practical effects – the tree spirit with its branches and whiplash tongue is not only a terrific opponent but a genuinely scary creation – the film’s fusion of martial arts, fantasy, horror and romance is hardly new (and predated by a Shaw Bros version, 1960’s Enchanting Shadow) but the delirious mash up intensity of A Chinese Ghost Story (wait until you see The Dark Lord throw open his cape to reveal a torso made up of human heads who then launch themselves at our heroes like missiles!) smashes through anything you might have seen before. To borrow a phrase from the great Nigel Tufnell, ‘This one goes up to eleven.’