Thursday, March 28, 2019

Gui jia (1976)

... aka: 鬼嫁
... aka: Ghost, The
... aka: Ghost Lover, The
... aka: Ghost Marriage
... aka: Marriage of Ghosts, The

Directed by:
Yao Fung Pan (Feng-Pan Yao)

It's a real shame that only a dark VHS quality print of this is currently available, because it's actually pretty good! While out camping in the mountains with some friends, college philosophy major Chi Da Cheng (Ming Lun Ku) goes to collect firewood and finds a small case filled with female belongings. He then spots a figure off in the distance and follows it through the woods until he ends up at a mansion. The sound of music leads him inside where he finds beautiful Mei Nung (Barbara Wang) playing piano. She's not only alluring and mysterious but also eloquent and well-read, easily keeping pace discussing philosophy and poetry in their brief conversation. As both are professing their fondness for the peace and quiet that comes with the dark ("I like night. Only at night do I feel like I have life"), Mei Nung's Aunt (Lai-Wan Chan) shows up to tell her it's time for bed. The aunt walks Chi Da to the door and leaves him with a stern though not impolite warning to "Leave this place soon." Day breaks by the time he makes it back to camp and all of his friends are gone.

When Chi Da returns to his apartment, his spoiled, bitchy girlfriend Ping Ping (Chuan-Chuan Chou) is there waiting on him and wanting to know where he's been all night. Chi Da doesn't help his plight any mentioning his encounter with the beautiful, graceful, piano playing girl in the mansion in the mountains. Not believing him, she demands he take her there but, when the two arrive, there's no mansion and no girl. Chi Da returns by himself the following night and has another encounter with Mei Nung, who again leads him back to the house. After Chi Da touches her shoulder, Mei Nung's aunt informs him that she now "belongs" to him and makes mention of a dowry. Mei Nung reassures him that she won't harm him before disappearing at dawn. Chi Da wakes up in a field next to two tombstones wondering if everything had been a dream. At school, he becomes the butt of jokes when rumors of his ghost sightings start getting around.

Angry and jealous Ping Ping goes to her rich daddy Lo Yeh (Sun Wang) and, get this, asks him to purchase the entire mountain and then build a mansion at the exact spot Chi Da claims to have met Mei Nung... and he agrees! Chi Da attempts to stop the construction and warns that they're digging up graves but is chased off. Later that night, Ping Ping and her father are visited by ghosts, who warn the father not to disturb the mountain any longer. But it appears the damage has already been done as both ghosts have been displaced. Meanwhile, Mei Nung's ghost aunt delivers a tablet / dowry to Chi Da's mother (Bi Hui Fu), which "settles" the marriage. Chi Da is now married to a ghost!

All hell breaks loose after Ping Ping destroys the marriage tablet. She's possessed, laughs in an echo voice, chews on a martini glass and spits up blood until they finally get the ghost to leave her body after throwing blood in her face. Then housekeeper / cook Mrs. Wang (Yin-Shang Liu) is possessed by a one-eyed black cat, which makes Ping Ping and her father have visions of her carrying a severed head around on a platter. Chi Da's roommate Hsiao Wei (Jing Fang) is driven out of their home when a hand reaches up from the toilet bowl and grabs him. Lo Yeh eventually enlists the aid of Taoist Shan-Tung Wei (Ping Ou Wei) and his cowardly assistant Hsiao Quai (Kuei Chang), who are hired to find the tombs of both Mei Hung and her aunt and drive spikes through their heads.

Having just watched DEMON'S APARTMENT (1985) from the same director, I decided to jump right into his other films as I suspected Apartment wasn't going to be indicative of the quality of the rest of his work. After all, Yao made several dozen ghost / horror films (many of which were hits in Asia) and I doubted that would be the case if all of his other movies were as poor. My suspicion was thankfully correct. You can tell from the first ten minutes that this is on another level entirely. It establishes an almost immediate deep connection between our protagonist and the ghost with minimal dialogue and makes wonderful use of light, shadow and especially sound (piano chords, a calling cat...) to eerie effect. Characters are virtually swallowed in the darkness that overwhelms each frame (often only candlelit faces are visible) and adding a slight echo effect to voices is a very clever touch to give the home a cavernous, almost tomb-like feel. It's a good reminder of how attention to small details makes such a big difference in low budget films.

After the somber and haunting opening this becomes a bit louder and bloodier as it goes along but mostly continues to hit the right buttons. The primary plot thread of the doomed romance (there's a short flashback that explains the link between the college student and ghost) comes off well thanks to melancholic scoring and likable leads and the horror scenes are often surprisingly potent thanks to good use of lighting, some clever effects and stylish / colorful presentation. The attempts at levity with the Taoist and roommate characters don't work too well but thankfully they're only a minor annoyance and this mostly plays out seriously. The fact it still manages to impress in many areas despite the subpar quality of the print and the fact a lot of the poorly-translated subtitles get cut off on the sides is really to the film's credit. This is a good enough effort to merit rescue.

What perhaps surprised me most is how often this reminded me of Argento's SUSPIRIA (released the following year). Not only is it filled with bold and heavily stylized lighting (most prominently green with some red, blue and yellow) but the busy music score (alternating between ethereal and jarring / noisy) often sounds very similar to Goblin's bombastic score and there's even some nearly identical imagery, most notably the female corpse laid out in a white nightgown with pins sticking in both eyes.

The English title used on the subbed version distributed by Ocean Shores (and by Daiei Video out of Japan) is The Ghost, which is so generic it probably ended any potential interest in this title on the home video market back then. This is also not to be confused with at least a dozen other Asian films from the 70s and 80s with some combination of ghost or spirit and love or lover in the title, including the previous Golden Eagle production The Ghost (1972) and The Ghost Lovers (1974) from Shaw Brothers.

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