Shaw Brothers might be the the most internationally recognised name in Hong Kong film production. Operating from 1958 until 1986 (when they abandoned film to concentrate on television), after driving Cathay Organisation out of the film industry in 1970 they dominated the marketplace, with no significant competition until Golden Harvest made an international splash with Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon (1973). During this peak period, they released two stories in the classic Chinese ghost story mould directed by Chou Hsu-Chiang, The Enchanting Ghost [Gui wu li ren] (1970) and The Bride from Hell [Gui xin niang] (1972).
The Enchanting Ghost is loosely based on “The Bookworm [Shūchī]” by Pu Songling from his hugely influential Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio [Liaozhai zhiyi] (1740). While the original source introduces the supernatural right from the beginning, the movie chooses to tease the viewer for most of the movie with “supernatural” events which are shown to have a rational explanation, before letting loose in the final sequence.
Following the death of his father, the scholar Lang Lu-Zhu (Yang Li-Hua) is evicted from his house by magistrate Master Shi (Lui Ming), who has colluded with Lang’s uncle Long Zhong-Yuan (Lin Bing) to fake a record of unpaid debts which will allow the uncle (after a suitable passage of time) to seize the house for himself. Penniless and left with no other options, Lang packs his meagre belongings and moves into the local haunted house. That night, hearing what he thinks is a ghost, a candlelit exploration of the top floor reveals Yan Ru-Yu (Chang Mei-Yao) and her dying mother (Sha Lee-Man), who have sought refuge from an attack of some sort. After her mother’s death, Yan decides to remain with Lang as his wife and uses an abandoned loom to weave clothing which Lang sells to support them. After a number of misunderstandings with the friendly townsfolk and a narrowly averted assassination attempt on Lang by his uncle (fearful that his treachery will be discovered), they all become convinced that Lang is married to a ghost. Master Shi is dubious and returns to the house with the uncle, catching them unawares. Because he’s a dirty old man, he arranges to kidnap Yan, ultimately conspiring with his wife (Li Hong) and her maid (Lee Chi-Lun) to arrange her death so that she can never reveal the cause of her dishonour. Yan then returns as a ghost to take her revenge.
Lang, Yan and Shi are all taken from the original story, but Shi’s villainy takes a different form and there’s no ghostly revenge finale. Yan was originally a paper cut-out figure from one of Lang’s books who was able to manifest as a human – the only remnant of that here is a snippet from one of Lang’s scholarly texts (a poem by Emperor Zhenzong) stating that he will find jade-like beauty through his studies, connecting to Yan Ru-Yu whose name translates as “face like jade”. Interestingly, the scholar Yang is portrayed by a woman playing a man, a common casting convention in Huangmei opera and other traditions but a potentially baffling choice to those coming from a western perspective. Yang Li-Hua is convincing in the role, but the standout performance comes from Chang Mei-Yao, who is placed into the widest variety of settings and thus given a better opportunity to display her range.
I’m unaware of a literary source for The Bride from Hell (or more accurately The Ghost Bride), which was written by Hsu Tien-Yung following his Taiwanese film The Fairy’s Bride [仙妻] (1971) (about which I could find very little – it doesn’t even have an IMDB entry). In contrast to The Enchanting Ghost, The Bride from Hell opens with the ghost, who is met by Nie Yun Peng (Yang Fang) and his servant Da Huo Zi (Ko Hsiao-Pao) at the side of a lake with her face turned away, before they unknowingly encounter her again in the house where they take shelter. Anu (Hsing Hui) manufactures a situation which requires Nie to propose marriage, and the same happens with Anu’s servant Wei Yin Erh (Ching Hsia) and Da. Returning to Nie’s hometown, several of his older relatives identify his wife as a ghost and depart in haste. Nie later learns from a Taoist priest Master Tai Yi (Chang Feng) that three respected members of the town made their fortune 20 years ago by highway robbery. Among their victims was Feng Ai Jiao, a woman with a remarkable resemblance to Anu. As the film plays out, various town members try to deal with the ghost while being egged on by the secret villains, while Anu/Feng seeks her revenge. There is also a feeble comic relief subplot in which Nie’s servant Da becomes convinced that his own (mortal) wife must also be a ghost, which might be more amusing if it didn’t take up so much time.
The director really lets loose on the atmospherically filmed ghost effects, including some wire work to show her flying through the air. Wang Chi-Ren’s musical compositions boost the effectiveness of these scenes considerably, calling on a wide range of percussion and string instruments employed in a variety of ways to assault the ears. As with The Enchanting Ghost, the actress playing the ghost is the focal point of the film and does a fine job, although Yang Fang doesn’t quite hit the same heights here as Chang Mei-Yao did in the previous film.
Both of these films are engaging examples of their genre and time, although neither of stand out as classics for the ages. If you were to pick just one to watch, The Enchanting Ghost offers more nuance, a clearer narrative and more emotional kick, but The Bride from Hell wins if you’re simply after some ghostly action.