A Chinese Ghost Story II,
Synopsis: Surprisingly, for the commercially savvy Hong Kong film industry, a sequel to the 1987 Hong Kong smash and crossover Western favorite A Chinese Ghost Story was three years in coming. By comparison, producer Tsui Hark made five Once Upon A Time In China films in four years. Scheduling problems may have been a factor, as A Chinese Ghost Story II reunites most of the major players. Although more expansive and politically pointed than its predecessor, unfortunately this sequel is not the ghost with the most. In prison, the elderly, iconoclastic Chu wryly notes how shifting political sands alter the meanings of his works, labeling him subversive, disrespectful or dangerous. Who is Chu? Perhaps he is Pu Songling, the seventeenth-century author of Liaozhai Zhiyi, on which A Chinese Ghost Story was based. Or maybe this batty scholar is the Hong Kong film industry, whose irreverent movies seemed threatened by the 1997 Chinese handover. Pre-97 worries also informed Tsui?s Once Upon A Time In China a year later, and a fearful distrust of government lies at the center of A Chinese Ghost Story II. The corrupt government is presided over by despotic demons. Windy?s father faces death for criticizing the ruling group and Lau Shun?s High Priest, a genuinely unnerving monster amidst the rubber ghouls, enchants his followers with devilish incantations and uses visions of the Golden Buddha to mollify the protagonists. But despite such grand ambitions A Chinese Ghost Story II fails to successfully dramatize its political allegory. A surplus of poorly developed characters and plot threads leave the film disjointed and less than the sum of its glittering parts. Windy?s father (Lau Siu-ming, a Tsui Hark regular since The Butterfly Murders) is a blank catalyst for the adventure, and only Michelle Reis? plucky performance as Moon rescues her character. Too much time is given to broadly played monster moments (a better title would have been A Chinese Monster Mash), highlighting Dr. Who-style creatures and freewheeling comedy. Farcical contrivances with a semi-clad Windy, a bashful Ning and Windy?s fellow revolutionaries, involving stolen kisses and accidental groping, are also fun but lack the flamboyant precision of, say, Peking Opera Blues? (1986) acrobatic bedroom farce, where characters swung in the rafters to avoid the roving eye of Sally Yeh?s father. Compensation comes from Jacky Cheung and Wu Ma?s spirited performances as Taoist ghostbusters and from the late Leslie Cheung and Joey Wong who rekindle the passion they shared in the first movie. But once more a weak script dulls great moments: Ning and Yen?s reunion occurs off screen and Wong returns as a different character entirely, her resemblance to Sian written off as coincidence. Cheung and Wong share one memorably-charged moment, their freezing bodies pressed together for warmth, but flashbacks to the original A Chinese Ghost Story remind the audience what is missing. This leaves the action scenes and with Ching Siu-tung directing, the action is off the wall and off the ground. The director also includes one magical moment, as Sian and a wounded Ning flee through a pink-lit forest, pursued by the High Priest?s levitating handmaidens. The moment is brief, but lingers longer than the comedy monster sequences. The action highpoint is when Hu (Waise Lee), a captain charged with returning Windy?s father for execution, becomes born again good, battling invisible handmaidens and splashing a puddle of his own blood to reveal his foes. The film closes with a climax of Zu-inspired lunacy, as the protagonists battle a giant centipede, the demon overlord’s true form, and surf on an arsenal of swords into battle. With nonchalant bravado, the climax sees Autumn and Yen venture into the centipede and transmigrate their souls to leap to freedom. Despite Autumn?s soul overshooting his body Leslie Cheung manages to return for the sequel. By virtue of its allegorical ambitions and moments of visual magic, A Chinese Ghost Story II avoids the disappointing sequel tag. But, Tsui Hark would better marry political intrigue and spectacle in the landmark Once Upon A Time In China (1991).
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