Saturday, November 10, 2012

Enchanting Shadow – review

Director: Han Hsiang Li

Release date: 1960

Contains spoilers

Until recently told so, by Leila, I was unaware that firm favourite Hong Kong movie A Chinese Ghost Story was actually a remake. Discovering this made the original film a must find.

If you followed the link to A Chinese Ghost Story you will see that I looked at it is a ‘Vamp or Not?’ The upshot was a blog reader’s poll where it was decided that it should be classed as an Honourable Mention rather than a vampire flick – taking, as it does, some vampire tropes and drawing them into a story of demons and ghosts. I have mentioned before now that the word Guǐ means ghost but is also found in the kanji for vampire (which is suck blood ghost) and this leads to some crossover and confusion when considering Hong Kong cinema. However, this original film is definitely a vampire film (whether intended as one or not) and one produced by the Shaw Brothers. It was also shown at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival, making it the first Mandarin film in colour to show at a major international film festival

the temple's pagoda
The story itself will be familiar to those who have seen A Chinese Ghost Story, though this is perhaps not as elaborate. It begins with two travellers arriving at Jinhua temple, a crumbling ruin of a complex. They bed down for the night. One of them hears laughter (male and female) and then the man’s scream. He runs in and sees his companion dead, bleeding from his foot. Something, unseen by the audience, moves towards him as he backs away in fear.

Lei Zhao as Ning Caichen
A horse and trap carries a young man, Ning Caichen (Lei Zhao), into town. The inn in town is full due to soldiers and refugees being in town (we discover later that the country has been invaded and is at war). Caichen asks whether there is a temple nearby and is told that the nearest is Jinhua, some ten miles north. The innkeeper also suggests that he wouldn’t want to stay there as it is reputed to be haunted, a suggestion Caichen laughs off. However he then discovers that the carriage drivers will not take him there. Eventually one agrees for an increased fare.

dancing with sword
When he gets to the temple he meets a swordsman called Yan Chixia (Chih-Ching Yang) – in the remake he is a Taoist swordsman, in this a Buddhist. Caichen asks whether the temple is haunted but Chixia suggests that it is superstition (though he actually knows more than he is letting on). Later in the evening Caichen hears the swordsman singing about a hermit’s life, they talk for a while but, as bells tinkle on a pagoda, he chivvies the young man to bed.

Betty Loh Ti as Nie Xiaoqian
Caichen sits up writing in his book (he is a rent collector by trade) rather than going to sleep and hears an instrument being played. He follows the music to a garden where he spies a beautiful woman, Nie Xiaoqian (Betty Loh Ti), playing and composing a poem. A string breaks and she spies his lurking shape but, just after she calls out to ask who is there, she is called to attend ‘grandmother’ (an honorific I suspect). The old woman is playing cards and, when she asks who Xiaoqian was speaking to and the girl denies anyone being there, jokes with her unnamed fellow card players and suggests it was a ghost.

Xiaoqian and Caichen
Meanwhile Caichen has snuck closer and finds her poem. He puts it on a desk but then starts making alterations to it. Xiaoqian catches him but likes his alterations. She has him write a poem to accompany a painting she has created but part way through the grandma catches them together and throws him out of the garden, accusing him of being a playboy and seducer of women. Later Xiaoqian goes to him and tries to seduce him but he spurns her (for proprieties sake). Her advances are orchestrated by grandma so she can devour him but, of course, his honourable nature brings them closer together (in this it is less romantic than in the remake and more a friendship where she trusts him to help her).

blood taken from foot
I won’t cover how their relationship develops in any further detail but I will have to discuss aspects of the lore surrounding grandma (also called, at times, old devil) and include in that the fact that she is eventually killed. We hear from the swordsman that she is a ghost herself, and from Xiaoqian that she dominates her because Xiaoqian is a weak spirit. She has Xiaoqian seduce men and then sucks their blood, drawing it through the foot. I had a look in Bane’s Vampire Encylcopedia for a vampire type that specifically draws the blood through the foot and only found the African vampiric witch the Axeman, who draws blood from the big toe. Thus, whilst not entirely unique, this manner of feeding is rare. (EDIT 26/12/12 - I have just been reminded of the Armenian legend of the Dakhanavar, who sucked blood through the sole of the foot, as documented by Baron August von Haxthausen in 1854.)

The film is called Enchanting Shadow but the shadow we see is that belonging to the grandma and it is menacing rather than enchanting. Of course seeing the shadow of the vampire as it approaches is a common movie trope that began with Nosferatu. There is no evidence, of course, to suggest that the earlier film actually inspired the use of the trope here, indeed we don’t know whether there was a conscious decision to make a vampire styled movie or whether it just so happened to involve tropes that are common within the vampire genre.

The old devil
That said we do know that the grandma has two faces, that of a normal looking, if somewhat severe, old woman and then a misshapen face with fangs. It is also interesting to note that, at the film's climax, the grandma is fighting the swordsman when the cock crows and she turns and runs. This isn’t a shock as the ghosts of Chinese cinema often vanish with the sun to reappear at night. We only see Xiaoqian at night or dusk and their beautiful garden is a wreck in daylight. The swordsman throws his sword and pierces the grandma as she runs and she rapidly decays to a skeleton – Chinese cinema ghosts are normally spectral but tied to their bones (indeed Caichen is transporting Xiaoqian’s bones back for reburial to help her reincarnate). When it comes to Grandma it would seem that she is that rare thing a vampiric ghost, at once spectral and physical, or that is my reading of the film.

rapid decomposition at death
The film is great and features some superb lighting (in places I'd go as far to say worthy of Bava) and excellent cinematography. All in all I do prefer the remake, possibly because it was the first version I saw but I do think, in honesty, it is a superior piece of cinema. There is no denying, however, that this is a worthy piece of Hong Kong film-making too. 7.5 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

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