Wuxia was dead to begin with, by the time “A Chinese Ghost Story” rolled into theaters in 1987. The golden age of directors King Hu (“Come Drink With Me”) and Chang Cheh (“One-Armed Swordsman”) had long since passed. The new wave of Hong Kong martial arts films were mysteries (“The Butterfly Murders,”) comedies (“Encounters of the Spooky Kind”), and gangster films (“A Better Tomorrow”). To return to the genre meant either to knowingly do homage or to do something completely different. “A Chinese Ghost Story” splits the difference. One half of the film takes inspiration from the classic ghost story collection “Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio,” a favorite of Chinese film directors including wuxia master King Hu. The other is a bizarre horror comedy with a rapping Daoist monk, camera tricks lifted from Sam Raimi films, and non-stop skewering of wuxia conventions.
The genius of “A Chinese Ghost Story” lies in its dual effectiveness as romantic adventure and uproarious spoof. The role of Choi-san is played by legendary Hong Kong superstar Leslie Chung, the modern equivalent of having Beyonce play the put-upon lead in your movie. But his relationship with Siu-sin (played by a young Joey Wang) is treated sincerely, and given a tragic ending in keeping with Chinese wuxia tradition. The film’s action strikes a similar balance between comedy and seriousness, keeping fights convincingly dangerous even as the finale goes over the top and then some. Across the ocean in 1987, fellow cult classic “The Princess Bride” similarly found a happy medium between winking pastiche and sincere delivery. “A Chinese Ghost Story” does much the same for its chosen stomping ground, Hong Kong cinema.