A Privileged Source of Information


Daisy Ng Sheung-Yuen


A gust of wind extinguishes the lonely candle in the room, a gush of fear rises in your gut as a shadow appears…

Such is a typical scene in a ghost movie. Since at the time of writing it is the seventh month in the lunar calendar (and this year, being a leap year, has two seventh months), I think I will talk about ghosts: for the seventh month in the Chinese calendar is called the “Ghost Month”. The traditional belief is that ghosts and spirits will emerge from the underworld and roam the earth during this month. The Ghost Festival celebrated in the mid-month honors deceased ancestors and pacifies wandering spirits with street operas and sacrificial offerings.

Ghosts and spirits figure prominently in the collective consciousness of the Chinese. One of the best-known and widely read classics is the mid-18th century Strange Records from a Chinese Studio by Pu Songling, a collection of nearly five hundred supernatural tales. Stories from the collection have been repeatedly translated into the vernacular, rewritten by other authors and adapted into films. The deities, ghosts, spirits and monsters in Strange Records have also entered into our everyday repertoire, the most notable example is the derogatory term “fox spirits” which refers to foxy women who steal other women’s men, a clear reference to the mass of alluring and seductive fox spirits in Strange Records (though some of the fox spirits in these stories are male, hardly surprisingly in a predominantly patriarchal culture, this label is only used in denigration of the female sex).

Ghosts and spirits continue to haunt our cultural imaginary in the 20th century as technology helps us to visualize phantoms and spectres on screen. Interestingly, the most prosperous era in Hong Kong film history for ghost films is the 1980s. Many critics ascribe the boom in ghost films during the 80s to the sense of doom related to Hong Kong’s future in face of the impending change of sovereignty in 1997. From early to mid-80s, Hong Kong’s silver screen was haunted by modern ghost films and vampire movies, many of which are a hybrid of horror movies, action flicks and comedies. In a way it is like celebrating the Ghost Festival: procure an outlet and dispel fears with carnivalesque spectacles.

The popularity of ghost films peaked in 1987 with a revival of the costume genre spearheaded by the phenomenal success of A Chinese Ghost Story directed by Ching Siu-tung and produced by Tsui Hark. The raving box-office success of this film sparked off a wave of costume ghost movies which are all but variations of the typical formulae, namely, a romantic (and often sexual) encounter between a human male scholar and a beautiful female ghost. A Chinese Ghost Story is representative of the generic plot inspired by stories from Strange Records: the hero is a poor scholar who takes shelter in a dilapidated temple; there he meets the beautiful heroine and falls in love, not knowing that she is a ghost in forced servitude to a tree monster who controls her through possession of her ash urn. Every night she and other ghostwomen are forced to lure guileless men with their sexual charms for the tree monster to feast on their life essence. Failing to seduce the hero, the ghost woman decides that he is a good man worth saving, reciprocates his love and tries to warn him away. They consummate their love before parting; however, the tree monster discovers their liaison and ensnares the heroine into the netherworld, intending to marry her off to a demon as punishment of her disobedience. The hero is powerless to intervene or even save his own life; luckily a reclusive Taoist swordsman living in the same temple helps to rescue the distressed lovers. He battles the monster and brings the ghost woman back from the netherworld to reunite with the hero; nevertheless, the union is shortlived. To liberate the ghost from her nebulous existence so that she can reincarnate, the hero has to bring her ashes back to her hometown for a proper burial; thus ends their ephemeral relation.

A Chinese Ghost Story exemplifies an anxiety of gender identity. The ghost woman embodies every desirable trait of femininity in conventional definition: beauty, frailty, submissiveness, seductiveness, devotion and self-sacrifice; and yet she also connotes danger. She is the ultimate femme fatale: her ageless beauty and undying love are associated with endless mystery and unsettling threat, for the enchanting spirit is also the unwilling agent of a perverse monster depicted as a hermaphroditic or masculine woman (a seemingly androgynous figure is invariably constructed as perverse or monstrous in popular Hong Kong costume kungfu movies). The masculinity of the hero is under threat not only because his life is endangered by his liaison with the ghost woman which leads to a close encounter with the monster but also because he himself is powerless to save her from her bondage. The traditional form of Chinese masculinity represented by the gentry-scholar must be supplemented with the machismo of the swordsman in order to defeat the monster/masculine woman and save the ghost/feminine woman. Male masculinity is re-affirmed through salvaging a “pure” femininity projected onto a disembodied female spirit.

Paradoxically the body (more precisely, the female body) is at the center of the costume ghost genre. It is the site of desire and the central spectacle of the film. The body is what links the immaterial spirituality (the desirable, bewitching ghost) with the carnal corporeality (the fearsome, cannibalistic monster). While desire is projected onto the idealized figure of the ghost woman, disgust and fear are displaced onto the gender-ambiguous and repulsive body of the monster represented as a monstrous tongue in the movie. Carnality occurs precisely at the moment when the polarized binary terms meet: throughout the film the ghost woman is shown to seduce different men, each time at a sexually suggestive moment the small bells shackled on one of her ankles start to ring, summoning the monster-tongue that will suck dry the life force of the victim who has succumbed to her allure. The very moment the spirit turns corporeal (that is, the very moment when intercourse with the ghost is suggested but not shown) seems to be the exact moment when beauty turns ugly and lethal. The only exception is when the hero makes love with the ghost woman, it is presented in a dreamlike sequence with a female voice singing in a dreamy voice a lingering wish that dawn will never arrive. However, given the earlier scenes of fatal seduction, for the spectator this romantic moment is belied by a disquieting sense of the monster lurking beneath the surface. Inevitably the union, between the man and the ghost woman as well as of spirit and body, cannot but be a fleeting dream. Soon afterwards the lovers are forced apart and the focus from then on is the rescue of the ghost woman’s remains (her ash urn) from the monster’s snare. Once again the spirit is disembodied, being reduced literally to ashes. Finally when she is reincarnated, she will be reborn as an infant and will no longer be the desirable sexual being for the hero (and the spectator).

The disembodied aestheticization of femininity is best illustrated in the correlation between painting and ghost. The hero chances to see a portrait of the heroine painted before her death. He is enchanted by the beauty in the portrait even before encountering her ghost, and yet when he meets the ghost woman face to face he does not seem to recognise her to be the same person in the portrait. Only later in an erotic scene in which the ghost woman tries to hide him in her huge bathtub to disguise his human scent from the monster does he notice the resemblance between the ghost woman and the beauty painted in the portrait which now hangs in her room. In the end when the ghost woman departs for reincarnation, the portrait is all that is left for the hero to remember of her. Tellingly, in a sequel to the film the hero falls in love with another woman who looks exactly like the painted beauty.

Another costume ghost film, Picture of A Nymph, whose plot also seems to have been inspired by one of the stories in Strange Records too, has this Pygmalion motif. A ghost woman, fleeing from the Demon Queen, hides inside her own portrait painted by a scholar after his brief encounter with her spirit. When the scholar is away, she materializes out of the portrait and cleans his room like a dutiful wife. Her secret is out when once in her hurry to get back into the portrait upon hearing his footsteps, she drops a shoe. The hero’s Daoist friend draws his attention to the one bare foot of the beauty in the portrait and it dawns upon the hero that it is the painted beauty who has been his mysterious housekeeper. Feigning sleep he manages to trick her out of the painting to get her shoe and catches her. Later he enters into the world of the portrait with her and there they consummate their love. At the end of the film he sacrifices his life for her by choosing to remain in the underworld with her. The portrait that is left behind then magically displays the hero and the ghost woman standing together, attesting to the ideal of an everlasting love crystalized in time.

The popularity of the costume ghost genre may be seen as a reflection of our dream of possessing ageless beauty and never-ending love, and yet projected on the phantasmagoric screen are also fears of gender ambiguity and transgression as well as confused and contradictory feelings towards body and sexuality. To exorcise the ghosts of antiquated ideas of femininity and masculinity, we must problematize the naturalized, unreflective representation of desire and sexuality on screen.