Regarded by many fans as a classic of Eastern Cinema, A Chinese Ghost Story is spirited across to UK shores courtesy of Hong Kong Legends.
Ling Choi-San (the now sadly deceased Leslie Cheung) is a painfully un-intimidating debt collector, making his way from town to town, attempting to pick up the money owed.
Having been drenched by torrential rain in the films opening sequence, his ledger obliterated in the down-pour, Ling seeks a place to stay whilst re-writing his records, and is pointed in the direction of the forebidding Tin-Hok Temple.
Staying at the temple is no mean feat when Ling's neighbours are a group of lively corpses and a highly-strung Daoist Monk (Wu Ma), but his meeting with a beautiful young woman, Siu Sihn (Joey Wong) brings new challenges.
Ling begins to fall in love with Siu Sihn, as she too falls for him, not aware of the sad truth that she isn't from this world.
Upon realising this, but having already given his heart to this spirit, Ling vows to free her tortured soul from its keeper - the extendable-tongue wielding Old Dame (!).
Enlisting the help of Wu Ma's skilled Monk, Ling finds that a trip to hell and back is a small price to pay in order to honour the promise made to his love.
Whilst I wouldn't go as far as many have in entitling this a "classic", it's certainly an extremely entertaining and imaginative slice of Hong Kong cinema from director Ching Siu-Tung (with a little help from Tsui Hark).
The film's beautiful composition and characteristically stunning cinematography adds a wonderful ethereal quality to each scene.
For those who are expecting an action-packed horror flick they would be well-advised to steer clear, as Ching's movie centres on its romantic angle, ahead of its martial artistry.
Thankfully, due to the excellence of Cheung's acting - his naive and good-hearted character is impossible to dislike - and some reasonably scary moments, A Chinese Ghost Story draws you into a world you will not want to leave during its running time.
For my mind, and I'm sure many will disagree, the films biggest weakness is its lack of a real emotional punch during the films conclusion. That's not to say that the production is deficient in affecting performances, gentle humour, and touching romance - it has these in spades. But after the action-packed finale, the last scenes seem to lack a totally satisfactory conclusion.
Sadly, as has been said on many occasions, HKL's anamorphic print has been cropped slightly, in order (presumably) to edit out some print damage, or maybe to get rid of those pesky black bars (?).
The aspect ratio here of 1.78:1 is alien to the theatrical trailer found on the disc, which boasts a ratio of 1.85:1.
Whilst this amounts to only a small amount of missing image, it does feel as if certain scenes are rather cramped on either side of the frame - as can be seen by the repesentation below.
Apart from the cropping, the other aspect of the transfer that is somewhat disappointing is the colour palette on display.
For a film which previously had scenes bathed in warm blues, reds and yellows, this transfer seems to look slightly muted in comparison at times.
Aside from this, there is very little indeed to fault about this transfer.
A few shots appear somewhat soft - probably a fault of the source material - but otherwise this is one of HKL's finest-looking transfers in some time.
For a film set predominately at night, A Chinese Ghost Story was always going to test the DVD format. This doesn't appear to have affected HKL's authoring staff though, as the black levels and shadow detail on display are exemplary for the most part.
Pixellation is all but non-existent, although a small amount of grain is present during periods of the film.
Detail levels too are far in advance of any version I've yet seen, with the aforementioned night-time scenes benefiting greatly from this added clarity.
Having owned this on VHS for years, I was looking forward to contrasting it with the DVD.
Sadly, while the subtitles and picture quality were beyond comparison (aside from the cropped image), the soundtrack included is the poor Mega Star hack-job which arose on release of their DVD.
This is all the more frustrating as whilst a lot of the sound-stage is directed very clearly through the centre speaker, there are some extremely well utilised surround effects - rain and thunder being particularly prominant.
It, however, doesn't excuse this poor inclusion by HKL, as the soundtrack features dialogue and sound effects never originally mixed into the final version.
For first-time viewers, these elements (such as people talking, a lantern splashing into a bucket of water etc.) will be of no concern, although for fans (and myself), these changes hurt the film.
I'm unable to quite put my finger on it, but its as if some of the magical, dream-like quality of certain sequences has been watered down with the addition of these "extra" sounds.
On a few forums, I've seen these subtitles take quite a drubbing, with dubtitling accusations flying about wildly.
I have to say though, that these are some of the most accurate subtitles yet to make their way onto a HKL disc.
Every song is fully subbed, as is every sign, and tombstone.
The term "dubtitles" has always caused some problems. Just because a subtitle resembles the dubbed English track, it doesn't necessarily mean that it has nothing in common with the original language.
This is a case in point - whether the subs resemble the English dub or not is immaterial. The fact is, they're an incredibly accurate representation of the film's Cantonese soundtrack.
As a side note, for anyone somewhat confused by the "Dao" mentioned during Wu Ma's singing/swordsmanship demonstration, the word translates roughly as "Way".
So basically "your Dao" is "Your way" - something to bear in mind perhaps during that otherwise superb sequence.
UK Promo Trailer
Master Of Illusion
Although filmed before Leslie Cheung's death, this 25 minute interview with producer Tsui Hark centres solely on the performers and production of the film.
Utilising Hark's excellent grasp of English, the feature reveals much about the processes which took place in order to bring the production to fruition, and is certainly all the more interesting for it.
A 30 minute talk with prolific actor/director/everything else under the Hong Kong sun, Wu Ma!
Even here, at the age of 61, Wu still seems to be in great health, and discusses his career path through film and television with a warmth and openness that holds your attention.
His candid thoughts and feelings towards Leslie Cheung are also particularly eye-opening.
A seemingly lovely man and a very worthwhile extra.
Tribute To Leslie Cheung
This text-based "tribute" to Cheung is reasonably well written by Bey Logan, but to be perfectly honest it's an appalling addition.
Considering the man committed suicide on the 1st of April 2003, it is unforgiveable that it took HKL some 6 months to produce this desperately sparse "tribute", which lacks any real content and comes across as neither heartfelt nor informative.
HKL should be ashamed of themselves if they feel that this is a fitting eulogy for a man who has starred in some of the territories best films.
Bey Logan once again takes to the commentary mic and does a typically solid job.
• Bichunmoo • Bang Rajan • Musa • Swordsman • Avenging Fist • Naked Weapon • ZU: Warriors From The Magic Mountain •
Whilst deficiencies are evident throughout this disc, the most unforgivable is the lack of a proper biography for Cheung.
If you can look past these though, you are left with a disc with much to merit its purchase.
It may be some time before HKL manage to top the picture and subtitle clarity found here, so if you're looking for a change of pace from your usual guns and kung-fu flicks, open a new chapter in your collection with this Chinese Ghost Story.