The Hong Kong horror film revival
They once haunted our big screens with regularity, but since the turn of the millennium, ghosts and vampires have been hard to find in Hong Kong cinema – until this year. Ben Sin explores the history of the local ghost film genre, why it disappeared, and whether a reincarnation is at hand…
As far as filmmaking goes, Tales from the Dark, the two-film anthology of ghost stories that was released this past summer, couldn’t be more different from Rigor Mortis, the Chinese vampire film that’s due to hit the big screens later this month.
Whereas Tales from the Dark featured an A-list cast of veterans and young upstarts (Simon Yam, Tony Leung Ka-fai, Fala Chen, and the recently retired Dada Chan), was directed by a group of veteran filmmakers, and produced by local film industry bigshot Bill Kong of Edko Films, Rigor Mortis stars a group of middle-aged actors who haven’t had prominent film roles in well over a decade and is directed by a rookie filmmaker.
Despite their differences, both films share the same goal: they’re designed to not only pay tribute to, but also reinvigorate, the Hong Kong ghost film, a major part of Hong Kong cinema in the 80s and 90s that has mostly fallen off the local cinematic radar over the past decade.
Much like our kung fu films, Hong Kong ghost films have always been a different beast to their Hollywood counterparts, mostly because ghosts in Chinese culture differ from ghosts in Western culture.
Oscar Ho King-kay, a professor at Chinese University specialising in cultural practices, says that, unlike Western ghosts, who are usually portrayed as pure evil, Chinese ghosts are full of reason and logic.
“They are often women,” Ho explains, referring to Chinese ghosts. “The ghosts in our culture, going back thousands of years to the earliest appearances in Chinese literature, often have reasons to act. We are a culture that believes in karma.”
Last autumn, Ho, along with other film scholars and professors at Chinese University and Lingnan University, started a film programme, titled ‘Haunted Screen: Hong Kong Ghost Films’, dedicated to the studies of ghosts in Chinese culture. They believe the genre, though hugely popular decades ago, has never been seriously analysed by film critics or scholars.
“Hong Kong cinema has incorporated elements of ghosts and reincarnation in our films since the 50s,” Ho says. “The concept of dying with peace of mind, or not, is a major element in our belief and culture. If we die for unjust reasons or without having accomplished something we really wanted or needed to do, we come back as ghosts. Our spirits can’t reincarnate until the matter is solved.”
That has indeed been the plot device for the majority of Hong Kong’s ghost films, starting from the 50s – the post-war decade in which Hong Kong’s film scene truly became an industry – with Zhu Shilin’s The Living Corpse, on to the 60’s Mid-Nightmare, a two-parter that starred local screen icon Betty Loh Ti as a phantom-like ghost, to the industry’s (and the genre’s) bloom in the 80s with films such as A Chinese Ghost Story and Rouge.
The 80s and 90s – the so-called ‘golden era of Hong Kong cinema’ – in particular, featured ghosts that were not just not scary, but often friendly, and out for love (Spiritual Love, which starred the beautiful Cherie Chung as a ghost who falls in love with Chow Yun Fat) or fun (the Happy Ghost series, starring Raymond Wong as the joyful titular protagonist).
Of course, traditional ghosts only made up half of Hong Kong’s ghost films during that era. All those spirits looking for love or revenge had to share the stage with another supernatural force – Chinese hopping vampires, better known locally as gong zi.
Wei Ping, a film scholar who has worked for the Hong Kong Film Archive, Lingnan University and UCLA says vampires first appeared in Hong Kong films in the 50s and 60s, in titles such as The Living Corpse and Kung Leung-yeung’s The Voyage of the Dead.
The Living Corpse (1958)
But those were either left-wing depictions of evil societies or crude variants of the Western vampires,” she says. “There was no ‘authentic’ Hong Kong vampire film until The Shadow Boxing [was released] in 1979.”
That film, directed by the recently deceased martial arts filmmaking legend Lau Kar-leung, marked the first time gong zis appeared in their iconic Qing officials’ costumes.
“The Shadow Boxing was also one of the first, if not the very first, to highlight depictions of mysterious Taoist rituals required to fight these vampires,” Wei adds.
The Taoist vampire fighter was further cemented in 1985’s Mr Vampire, widely considered as the film that pushed the gong zi trend onto Hong Kong pop culture. Wei argues the presence of the Taoist good guy was what made the gong zi films a distinctly Hong Kong affair.
“Taoism has a long history in Hong Kong and its modern development can be traced to World War II when many Guangdong Taoist priests fled to Hong Kong,” Wei says. “It then flourished in Hong Kong in the 1980s under the city’s harmonious political environment, free exploration of religion and economic development.”
That made Taoist heroes in Hong Kong ghost films important because it helped define these films as ‘local products’ and not knockoffs of Western films. While distinction from the West was important, Wei theorises these films were also meant to take the fight north of the border. Indeed, Wei points to the Sino-British Joint Declaration, signed in 1984 by UK and Chinese officials to announce The Handover in 1997, as a turning point for Hong Kong’s gong zi films.
“All those [gong zis] before 1984 were mostly stage props that did not provide narrative momentum,” she says. “But in Mr Vampire, released in 1985, they became intruders that attacked Cantonese speakers.”
She continues: “It is not difficult for us to make the analogy that [battles in the film] reflected the tension and conflict between Hong Kong and China. In this context, vampires wearing Qing officials’ costumes became symbolic, and seem to stand in for the corrupt China representatives.”
These allegories went beyond just gong zi films. In the 1994 ghost film The Chinese Ghostbusters (which starred Lam Ching-ying as a Taoist priest, a role he first portrayed in Mr Vampire), a ghost famously said, ‘many of you will die after 1997’.
Dr Sylvia J Martin, an assistant professor of anthropology at Pomona College in Southern California and a TV and film veteran who spent time in Hong Kong researching the local film industry and how it relates to anthropology, agrees that Hong Kong ghost films are often used to represent the anxieties of Hongkongers – even today. She points to this year’s Tales from the Dark as an example: “In [Tales from the Dark], we see Simon Yam’s character dealing with the extreme poverty and cramped living quarters that Hong Kong people increasingly face. There is a lot of public anger at real estate tycoons and the growing socio-economic disparities. The ghost genre is a powerful one for expressing loss: loss of possibilities, loss of autonomy, loss of dignity, loss of life. But it can also offer the potential for recovery and redemption – laying the ghosts to rest. So besides being a diversion, ghost films can address serious issues.”
But while ghost films set in realistic contemporary settings – our time, our world – might be representations of Hong Kong anxiety, there was another subgenre of ghost films in the 80s that drew from ancient Chinese culture: the folklore ghost stories.
The most popular of these was undoubtedly A Chinese Ghost Story, a 1987 megahit that turned actress Joey Wong into a pan-Asian star. The film, loosely based on a short story published by Qing dynasty writer Pu Songling in 1770, helped start the trend of folklore ghost stories in the city. These films pulled from thousands of years of Chinese history and beliefs, and provided Hong Kong audiences with the chance to connect with their Chinese roots.
Joey Wong - A Chinese Ghost Story (1987)
“A Chinese Ghost Story started that subgenre [of folklore ghost stories], which was at once lighter in tone – the ghosts weren’t out to possess or kill – and more poignant,” explains Chinese University’s Ho. “It didn’t have to worry about social context and Hongkongers’ problems.”
Ghost films would continue to be a popular genre in Hong Kong cinema throughout the 90s, though they would become low budget, campy affairs
compared to the more fantastical, ambitious fares like Rouge or A Chinese Ghost Story. The 90s was when local screen veteran Law Lan, well into her 60s and with over four decades of experience, would enjoy a career resurgence playing a ghost granny type (dubbed lung poh, literally, ‘old dragon lady’) and Louis Koo – before he became the A-list star today – starred in a string of cheap, mediocre ghost films (The Troublesome Night series, which spawned 18 – yes, 18! – sequels between 1997 to 2003).
Martin, who during her research on Hong Kong film production tagged along to various film productions in the 90s, said local filmmakers told her ghost films were more practical to make because of the cheaper production values – darkly lit scenes, after all, require less electricity. And Oxide Pang, perhaps best known for co-directing arguably the highest profile Hong Kong ghost film of the 2000s (2002’s The Eye) agrees. “Ghost films are the easiest to make,” he says. “It’s very easy, quick, and cheap to stage a scary scene.”
The Eye (2002)
So if ghost films are so practical to make and are so representative of local culture, why did the genre decline over the past 10 to 12 years? Even taking into account the lower output of the local industry when compared to its 90s peak, ghost films have made up a far lower percentage of Hong Kong cinema in the past decade (Wei estimates that ghost films made up over 20 percent of all films produced in the 90s; over the last few years, it’s closer to five percent), while gong zi films have completely disappeared for two decades.
Nina Paw Hei-ching, a local screen veteran who has appeared in over 30 movies and close to 50 TV serials in her four-decade career, attributes part of the ghost film’s decline to more sophisticated filmmaking.
“I think ghost films are inherently campy and that fit the era of 80s Hong Kong cinema,” she says. “Hong Kong films today are much more sophisticated, with high production values and a Western style of filmmaking. In the 80s, films were often written and shot on the fly.”
Chin Siu-ho, one of the three leads in Mr Vampire and playing the main character in Rigor Mortis, also shares similar views, specifically when it came to the decline of gong zi films.
“I think the gong zi films we made back then [Mr Vampire and its sequels, along with a bunch of spinoffs and ripoffs] fit the tone of Hong Kong cinema in the 80s and 90s,” Chin says. “That was the era of dubbed dialogues, off-the-wall plots, and general campiness. Once the 2000s came along, Hong Kong cinema got serious, and those films no longer fit the tone.”
The artistic evolution of Hong Kong films is only part of the reason for the decline of the ghost film. The major reason, according to all interviewees, is the familiar villain: Mainland censors.
“The main reason ghost films mostly disappeared [over the last decade] is because China won’t show the movies,” says Pang. “Our industry has been increasingly making films catering to the Mainland, so that’s why there haven’t been as many ghost films.”
Pang, who, along with his brother Danny, might be the highest profiled and most prolific makers of Hong Kong ghost films in the 2000s, even concedes he wouldn’t return to the genre any time soon.
“I don’t think I can get funding if I were to make another ghost film,” he says. “But when I wanted to make a 3D action disaster film? Lots of funding.”
Ho considers the situation unfortunate: “For centuries, Chinese literature has revelled in ghostlore. Ghosts are so important and crucial to our culture, but yet, China won’t allow ghost films simply because they want to maintain control over religious beliefs.”
And so, it is apt that 2013 is the year Hong Kong filmmakers are trying to revive the ghost genre, because this is the year that ‘traditional’ Hong Kong films are supposed to be making
At this year’s Filmart – a market for Asian producers and distributors to promote and sell their films – Bill Kong, president of local distribution powerhouse Edko Films, along with several local filmmakers and producers such as Fruit Chan and Mathew Tang, announced a new project, Movie Addict Productions, that aims to produce local-style Hong Kong films – free of Mainland partnership, free from Mainland shackles.
Kong said at the time of the announcement: “The local audience is eager to see pure Hong Kong movies, as evidenced by a series of local hits recently. What’s exciting about making a pure Hong Kong movie is that there are no boundaries or restrictions in terms of creativity.”
The first of these ‘no boundaries, no restrictions’ films Kong and his new company produced? This year’s Tales from the Dark.
Basically, it comes down to this: Hong Kong ghost films can come back from the dead, if local filmmakers are willing to bite the financial bullet and make films that won’t be able to sell in China.
To Mak, whose Rigor Mortis is sure to be a hit even if it doesn’t screen in China – it’s received good reviews at festivals around the world and has secured distribution deals in North America and all throuhgout the rest of Asia – ghost films can be revived on our big screens.
“But let’s not call it a ‘return of the ghost film trend’. I think the word ‘trend’ is so shortsighted,” he says. “Everything happens in a cycle – fashion, music and, obviously, film.”
In other words – don’t call it a (ghost film) comeback. It’s been here for years.