Thursday, October 5, 2023

Lao Shan gui lian (1984)

... aka: 嶗山鬼戀
... aka: Love with the Ghost in Lushan

Directed by:
Fong Pau

Liaozhai zhiyi (English title: Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio) is a collection of allegorical ghost / supernatural tales compiled by Songling Pu over a forty year period, starting in the 1670s up to the turn of the 18th century. The collection features around 491 stories in total, was first published in 1766 and is now seen as a classic, influential work of Chinese literature. There have been a number of films adapting some of these stories going all the way back to the mid 1920s. Included among those are the Shaw Brothers productions THE ENCHANTING SHADOW (1960), The Enchanted Chamber (1968) and The Ghost Story (1979), Taiwanese director Feng-Pan Yao's ALL IN THE DIM COLD NIGHT (1974), The Blue Lamp in the Winter Night (1974) and Ghost Under the Cold Moonlight (1975), and the acclaimed hit A Chinese Ghost Story (1987). That covers only about 1% of all of the films that are either direct adaptations or clearly took ideas and inspiration from the collection.

This one opens with a little biographical information about the author and his work and tells us the movie we are about to see is based on just one of the book's chapters. When I glanced back over at my review of the same director's THE PAINTED SKIN (1966), his only other genre effort, I realized he began that film the exact same way and it's also based on another of these stories.

Wanting to take advantage of the breathtaking scenery, artist Jiang Yu (Henry Fong) travels to a remote mountainous region of China to work on some drawings for wealthy client Mr. Wu (Ming Chiang). Upon arrival, he sees a female figure in white disappear behind some trees. He then hears a woman's cries for help. Following her voice, he sees a few brief flashes of the figure and then some smoke being sucked into cracks between rocks. Shrugging off the incident, a local foodstall owner (Kwai-Ping Wong) informs him of a free place to stay while he's in the area; a long-ago abandoned temple formerly used by Taoists, which is currently occupied by an old drunk (Jing Ping Wu). His first night there, he again sees the figure in white, only this time accompanied by footsteps forming on the ground all by themselves and then the same young woman being beaten by a woman before they all suddenly disappear.

The following day, Jiang once again spots the girl running around in the mountains, only this time she leaves behind a slipper a la Cinderella. (For the record, the origins of the Cinderella story predate Liaozhai zhiyi by 1500+ years). The girl - Shiu Sen (Fay Yu) - later returns to the temple to retrieve her shoe. Jiang inquires about her peculiar behavior and she tells him a sad story about how her abusive stepmother (there's that Cinderella nod again) had sold her into slavery. She pleads with him to take her away from there, even promising to become his servant for life if he does. However, he's just a poor artist, feels he doesn't have much to offer and sends her on her way.

As soon as the mysterious young woman vanishes, yet another mysterious young woman arrives. She - Hung Yu (Bing-Hsin Hsia) - claims to be Shiu Sen's stepsister, though she's much more heavily-made up and expensive in dress than Shiu Sen, who wears peasant's clothes. Hung Yu wants to commission him to draw a picture of her. However, she wants it done immediately and he must be finished before the sun rises to collect his gold. As soon as he begins, the woman strips off her dress and comes on to the outraged artist. When he attempts to kick her out, she suddenly transforms into a blue-faced vampire and attacks, though Jiang manages to escape shaken but unscathed.

While fleeing down the mountainside, Jiang ducks into a cave, discovers Shiu Sen's grave hidden inside (revealing to him that she's actually a ghost) and is almost grabbed by zombie hands that emerge from the ground. It's then that he realizes that someone has stolen all of his drawings, so he's forced to return to the haunted village to retrieve them. In his absence, the seductress ghost has killed a wandering swordsman (Pei-Wen Hou). Luckily, he runs across Shiu Sen before he does her sister. A good ghost, Shiu Sen, further explains her predicament: She's trapped at the mercy of an old mistress who sends her and Hung Yu out to seduce men so she can drink their blood. His only hope may be convincing the old drunk, a former Taoist, to get sober long enough to help banish the evil spirits. After doing so, or so they think, Jiang retrieves Shiu Sen's bones and plans on giving them a proper burial so that she can finally be at rest.

Returning home to his grandmother (Ping Qiu) and kid brother, Jiang realizes he's now late on delivering Mr. Wu's artwork. He asks for a few more days, in which time Shiu Sen pays him another visit (he still has her remains so no rest just yet) and helps him with his artwork, which is a rousing success. She brings additional pieces to him during her late night visits and the two begin to fall in love. While it seems like a doomed relationship if there ever was one, hope is found through the possibility of revival if he can feed her enough of his own blood. Complications ensue thanks to Mr. Wu's daughter, Su Jin (Kong-Nam Ha), who has also fallen in love with Jiang, and a rival artist who is himself in love with Sun Jin and jealous of Jiang's sudden success. And even more complications ensue than that when those mountain ghosts find their way there looking for revenge.

Not every movie needs to reinvent the wheel. Some are just perfectly nice examples of what they are, and that's basically what we get here. The director deftly mixes horror, fantasy, drama and romance, and does just enough stuff differently, to land this firmly in hidden gem territory. And when I say hidden gem, this really is one, unlike any of the titles you'll find listed in books like Fangoria's laughable 101 Best Horror Movies You've Never Seen or highlighted on one of those awful countdown specials like 50 Best Horror Movies You've Never Seen. Good luck finding any information online for this one. Almost no one has even heard of it, or watched it, and it doesn't even have enough votes to register a score on any of the major movie websites.

Among the more novel touches here is how it handles its main characters. The artist is kind and a genuinely nice guy, but he's also a bit squeamish and has a bad habit of either running off or passing out whenever things get to be too much. In other words, he behaves like the vast majority of real people would in similar situations! With our nominal hero proving to not be much use in tackling the evil threats, this hands the reigns over to the drunken Taoist and the good ghost girl. We assume from the beginning that the former is going to be utterly useless, but he proves to still have some tricks up his sleeve, while the latter starts the film as your standard weepy / tragic figure but proves to be the most courageous character in the entire movie, not to mention the most talented artist!

In addition to a likable cast of characters, this offers up some really beautiful outdoor locations in the first half, fine art direction, nice camerawork with lots of tracking, crane and POV shots, some good, though sparsely used, make-ups and visual effects, and fine production values all the way around. There are also some interesting things plot-wise to spice things up, like a poisoning victim being resurrected to get revenge on their killer, a man emerging from a painting and a blessed bag that acts as a ghost vacuum to suck up spirits.

Currently, the only available print is a bad pan-and-scan VHS copy with some jagged editing, a large logo blur on the top right corner and cut-off English subtitles, meaning this also gets added to the list of films in desperate need of rescue. Sadly, in this case, that's not likely to happen. Since this was made by the Feng Huang Motion Picture Company, which was later dissolved into the Chinese-government-run Sil-Metropole, what we have now is likely the best we'll ever be getting. Feng Huang was known for making social issue films with a left wing political stance, meaning it wouldn't be one bit surprising to learn that China destroyed its entire catalogue of films upon acquisition.

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