... aka: 月牙兒
... aka: New Moon, The
Just how much misery, suffering and abuse can be heaped upon poor Barbara Wang in just an hour-and-a-half by the Lars von Trier of Asian ghost movies? Guess you'll just have to read on to find out. This one's structured like a lot of the others, with a brief "modern day" (though still period-set) framing story acting as both bookmark and intermission and the bulk of the film being in flashback form. The framework here features a young writer with an interest in supernatural tales who's on his way to the capital for an examination and seeks shelter at an abandoned home late at night. There, he spots three graves, a walking skeleton and a floating ghost girl. An elderly man shows up, takes him inside and then explains to him why the place is haunted. Cue flashbacks.
Yu-Ching Liu (Yang Yueh), a scholar who's studying to become a public official just like his powerful Uncle Kung, is having a lot of pressure put on him by his family. They think he needs to succeed as a way to honor his late father, ancestors and his controlling widowed mother (Bi-Hui Fu), who currently runs a small shop and is desperate for the family to achieve a high social standing. The mother and another uncle (Han Hsieh) forbid Yu-Ching from getting married until he passes his exams but it appears his whole life is pretty much being laid out for him by other people. He'll study hard. He'll get a specific job. He'll marry a girl from a wealthy and reputable home. And he'll always be concerned with his wealth and have to maintain his status within the community. Late one night, a beautiful, bashful young woman named Hsiu-Niang Huo (Barbara Wang) stops by the shop for some herbs. The two have instant chemistry and Yu-Ching lends her his umbrella, less as an excuse to be kind and more as an excuse to go visit her later on.
But Hsiu-Niang is just a poor country girl who lives with her sickly, alcoholic old father (Hsiang-Ting Ko) in a shack near some peach blossom trees and someone his family would never approve of. Still, Yu-Ching is persistent. He asks Hsiu-Niang to visit him at midnight at an ancient temple he frequently studies at and it's there he asks her to spend the night with him. He promises that if she does, once he passes his exams he will marry her. And he's sincere. At least at first. However, when his mother finds out, she's irate, refuses to even meet her potential daughter-in-law and demands her son never see her again. But Yu-Ching cannot stay away and Hsiu-Niang soon becomes pregnant with his child.
Yu-Ching leaves for the long journey to the city to take his exam, with hopes of eventually returning to marry Hsiu-Niang, but his mother and uncle start conspiring against him in his absence and laying down the groundwork to destroy the relationship. They inform Hsiu-Niang that her future husband has already been betrothed to an official's daughter and thus can never marry her. And, when Hsiu-Niang visits Mrs. Liu (who's also been intercepting any mail her son sends), she berates her as disreputable and uneducated and blames her for seducing her son when it reality it was the exact opposite. When her father finds out she's pregnant, he beats her and then, descending further into his alcoholism, dies soon after. Hsiu-Niang becomes the subject of local gossip and few will even deal with her, aside from one sympathetic couple who help her give birth to a baby boy she names Han-Er.
As far as Yu-Ching is concerned, he simply never comes back to the village to fulfill his promise. After passing his exam in the city, he found out that he's expected to marry his cousin, Shu-Hsien (Wei-Ling Chen), and already been designated to take his uncle's place as Minister of Finance. Finding himself attracted to his cousin, he agrees to the coupling and just marries her instead. The two move into a guarded mansion and live in luxury, with a large staff.
Meanwhile, Hsiu-Niang is left barely eking out an existence as a poor single mother. Mrs. Liu attempts to buy the baby from her to help alleviate her burden but she refuses and insists Yu-Ching will return to them one day. More years pass and the boy, now three years old, is already becoming an outcast himself. Other kids bully him and refuse to play with him because he has no father. After finding out the asshole she's waited all this time to reunite with has since married, she packs up her belongings and travels to the city with Han-Er in tow. All of her money is stolen by a thief and then, when she finally gets access to Yu-Ching, he claims he doesn't know who she is is, slaps her in the face, pushes her down and has his guards throw her into the street. She's then forced to dig through trash for food and beg people for help.
Shu-Hsien, who doesn't believe her husband's lie that he doesn't know Hsiu-Niang, grows concerned they'll become the subject of ridicule unless they "terminate" the problem. Yu-Ching hires an assassin to kill her but the man has second thoughts and allows her to go back home. Unfortunately, Han-Er dies as soon as they arrive and then Hsiu-Niang hangs herself. Naturally, the restless spirit of our tormented heroine has to return to settle the score, with Yu-Ching, his wife and his mother the primary targets.
This is about 80% melodramatic morality tale soap opera overacted within an inch of its life (check out how many "gasp!" reactions you can count at the various revelations) and 20% below average ghost / revenge tale, which is mostly relegated to the final 15 minutes. That's not a winning percentage. Once again, Yao reuses the accidental pregnancy angle from his ALL IN THE DIM COLD NIGHT (1974) from just four years earlier, as well as the good-hearted but long-suffering female protagonist who's used, discarded and can't seem to catch any kind of break trope that's used in a zillion other Asian ghost tales. In other words, this New Moon is same as the old, only not quite up to par.
Toward the end, there are some very poor optical effects with the ghost's head detaching and a shrunken ghost getting trapped between two cymbals and popping out of a pot, as well as your standard green and red gel lighting on ghost faces. Also after about an hour and 15 minutes of grueling serious stuff, they decided to throw in some embarrassing comedy centered around a pair of bumbling, ineffectual exorcists and a mentally challenged servant called Kung Fu (played by Chen Fang), who, at one point, breaks the fourth wall and repeatedly looks directly at the camera making goofy faces.
This was the recipient of an English-subtitled VCD release at some point but that's the only home video release that I'm aware of. I could not locate a theatrical film poster for this, nor any actual scans of a VHS or VCD cover.