When A Chinese Ghost Story (倩女幽魂) hit movie screens in 1987, it wowed audiences with its novel plot of man falls for female demon in an ancient Chinese setting. The unlikely couple played by late Hong Kong superstar Leslie Cheung (張國榮) and Taiwanese actress Joey Wang (王祖賢) quickly became a classic romance, and two sequels followed, as well as an animated movie.
Twenty-four years later, Hong Kong director Wilson Yip (葉偉信) has re-imagined the love story for a wider audience with a new cast, a new plot twist and modern special effects. The film opens in Taiwan on May 6. While the original was released during the heyday of Hong Kong cinema, the remake is largely targeted at the lucrative Chinese market, where censors once averse to superstition are now more open to supernatural-themed productions.
The 1987 version, directed by veteran filmmaker and action choreographer Tony Ching Siu-tung (程小東), takes inspiration from Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, Qing Dynasty writer Pu Songling’s (蒲松齡) famed collection of ghost stories. Cheung’s scholar-turned-tax collector Ning Caichen (甯采臣) becomes smitten with Wang’s Nie Xiaoqian (聶小倩), a lonely demon who serves as a hunter for a tree devil who preys on human beings. Ning solicits the help of demon catcher Yan Chixia (燕赤霞) to free Nie of her enslavement.
Yip, whose career has taken off with the recent success of the kung fu biopics Ip Man and Ip Man 2, both starring Donnie Yen (甄子丹), has cast two baby-faced young Chinese actors as the new couple.
Yu Shaoqun (余少群), who rose to fame as a young Mei Lanfang (梅蘭芳) in Chen Kaige’s (陳凱歌) 2008 biopic of the late Peking Opera singer, plays the innocent scholar.
Liu Yifei (劉亦菲), who made her Hollywood debut in The Forbidden Kingdom, the 2008 kung fu picture that marked the first collaboration between Jackie Chan (成龍) and Jet Li (李連杰), is the distraught ghost torn between love and servitude.
But the director has also spiced up the drama by adding a back story of Nie’s earlier romance with Yan, casting Hong Kong heartthrob Louis Koo (古天樂) as the gruff ghost hunter.
Veteran Hong Kong actress Kara Hui (惠英紅), who is enjoying a career renaissance, plays the tree devil — a role taken on by actor Lau Siu-ming (劉兆銘) in the original.
And then there is the advancement in computer graphics in the nearly two-and-a-half decades between original and remake. While the original boasted convincing creature effects and won a Hong Kong Film Award for Yee Chung-man’s (奚仲文) art design — Yee went on to receive an Oscar nomination for his work on Zhang Yimou’s (張藝謀) 2006 costume drama Curse of the Golden Flower — Yip has the benefit of an unfettered digital canvas, backed up by a US$10 million budget — some 70 percent of which was devoted to special effects.
Yip said he was drawn to Yu’s innocence in the Mei Lanfang biopic, Forever Enthralled, while by casting Liu as Nie, he wanted to instill a livelier personality.
“Her emotions are like that of a small animal, like a fox. Her active personality is unlike the melancholic tone of the previous version,” Yip told reporters at the movie’s Hong Kong premiere on Saturday. The film was released in China on Tuesday.
Koo said that he thought Liu captured Nie’s otherworldliness and unvarnished beauty well while Yu pulled off the scholar’s contrasting qualities of physical weakness and mental determination.