Guest reviewer Lee Broughton returns with an assessment of an obscure period chiller expertly assembled by Shen Hsiang Yu. One of the Shaw Brothers’ early attempts at screen horror, this superior gothic romance with a supernatural twist failed to find an audience upon its initial domestic release — a circumstance that led to the studio changing tack and pursuing a more exploitative line of genre flick. However, 45 years on it plays like the kind of film that jaded and/or discerning genre fans might well take great delight in discovering.
The Ghost Lovers
Region B Blu-ray
1974 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 92 min. / Yan nu huan hun / Street Date March 12 2018 / available through Amazon UK or Amazon US / £14.99
Starring: Ching Lee, Wei Tu Lin.
Cinematography: Cheng-Min Tsui
Film Editor: Hsing-Lung Chiang
Art Director: Mao-Lung Lin
Original Music: Yung-Yu Cheng
Written by Yi-Lu Kuo
Produced by Runme Shaw
Directed by Shen Hsiang Yu (aka Sang-ok Shin)
Reviewed by Lee Broughton
Following the loss of her parents Miss Lianhua Song (Ching Lee) has spiralled into a state of severe depression and is suffering from a terminal malaise. Her aged wet nurse Yuegui hopes that a timely appearance by Miss Song’s long lost fiancé, Shilong Han (Wei Tu Ling), might be enough to save her but it is not to be. The pair were children when they last saw each other and there seems to be little chance of him returning now. However, unbeknownst to Miss Song and Yuegui, Han has spent years nobly amassing the 1000 silver dollars that his father owed to Miss Song’s family and he is close to reaching the Song estate when he is robbed and left for dead by bandits. Luckily Han is found by his childhood man-servant, Zhangniu, and Zhangniu and his wife are able to slowly nurse the young man back to health. When it is announced that Miss Song has died and her family’s fortune has been bequeathed to Han, a number of imposters duly attempt to claim his inheritance.
Yeugui knows that these men are charlatans and she requests that they each spend a night in the estate’s mourning hall with Miss Song’s corpse. The young woman’s spirit subsequently scares them off in a number of different ways. In spite of the avaricious Zhangniu’s pleas, Han refuses to claim the inheritance until he can honour his father’s dying wish by settling the debt of 1000 silver dollars first. This allows Miss Song’s cousin Zinghu and her husband to hatch a plan to steal the family’s fortune which prompts Yeugui to take desperate action that ups the supernatural ante significantly. Soon Miss Song’s ghost is visiting and wooing Han but each visitation seemingly drains him of his own life force and he is soon in danger of dying too. Miss Song and Yeugui’s ghosts are very powerful spirits and Zhangnui and his wife are terrified of them. However, the couple feel compelled to overcome their fears and they begin searching for ways to expel the spirits and save Han’s life.
I wasn’t too sure what to expect from The Ghost Lovers. Shaw Brothers enthusiasts tend to favour the studio’s more exploitative and over-the-top horror films from the 1980s and some even openly reject their earlier ghost story-based efforts for being too tame. As it turns out, The Ghost Lovers proved to be a pleasant surprise. It’s a quality production that features some outstanding technical aspects and a fairly touching narrative that possesses much in the way of intrigue and charm. Indeed, The Ghost Lovers actually plays more like an art house production than a slice of popular cinema and, at an aesthetic and narrative level, it can be aligned to shows such as King Hu’s Legend of the Mountain (1979) in which ancient China is impressively rendered courtesy of commendable set and costume design work and the supernatural is given an interesting local flavour.
Being a Shaw Brothers production means that there is a fair amount of studio-bound bits of business to be had even during “exterior” scenes but the “outdoor” sets employed here are really quite convincing. Furthermore, the show does sport a number of scenes that were genuinely shot on location and these make great use of some impressive countryside vistas. I imagine that The Ghost Lovers is just about as gothic as a Hong Kong movie might get: atmospheric lighting brings a chill to mist-shrouded woodland scenes, empty town streets after dark project a particularly ominous air and the candles that are mysteriously blown out in still rooms produce a palpable sense of unease. A scene where holy men dig up Lianhua Song’s stone coffin and hammer a paper incantation to its lid with a large metal stake is particularly striking.
While its title might hint at something more salacious or titillating, The Ghost Lovers’ narrative and content has more in common with Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights than drive-in horror or exploitation films. This is a genuinely affecting period love story in which Miss Lianhua Song just happens to return from the other side in order to consummate a marriage that takes place after her death. For his part, Shilong Han is an intensely honourable man who has been — and remains — determined to settle his father’s debt before contemplating taking his rightful place beside Miss Song. It’s easy to draw loose comparisons between Han’s desire to return to the place of his birth as a self-made success who can settle the outstanding debt and Heathcliff’s return to Wuthering Heights in Bronte’s book. The same goes for Miss Song and Catherine Earnshaw’s respective hauntings of their childhood loves.
Miss Song’s devoted wet nurse Yeugui might be versed in the mystical arts that can bring Song’s spirit the closure that it needs but her scheming cousin Zinghu, Han’s concerned man-servant Zhangniu and the priests and Buddhists that he implores to help his master all possess the power to derail Yeugui’s plans. As such, The Ghost Lovers’ supernatural aspects really come to the fore during the conflicts that arise during the film’s engrossing final third. Here the ghosts are seen to materialise and dematerialise in an effective manner and good lighting and back-lit smoke effects are employed when Yeugui’s ghost first infiltrates Zhangniu’s property. A passing Buddhist observes this spectacle and warns Zhangniu that the Devil has invaded his home.
While Lianhua Song and Yeugui’s ghosts take on the same form as their old physical bodies (albeit sometimes bathed in an ethereal blue light) the ghosts are able to change their appearance when they need to scare off meddlers like Zhangniu. There are a couple of really effective scenes where a mobile camera suddenly reveals that a now hideous looking Yeugui is lurking close to someone who poses a threat. Interestingly, there’s a brief burst of some typical Shaw Brothers style martial arts action when Zhangniu hires a team of tough mercenaries to guard his property from the ghosts: they get to briefly show their skills with giant nunchucks and powerful karate chops before the ghosts quickly send them packing in fright. These ghosts can be malevolent when they need to be but the reason for their seemingly malicious actions is revealed in the show’s satisfying finale.
For a film like this to work it has to be convincing and involving enough to suspend disbelief. Thankfully, The Ghost Lovers effortlessly comes up trumps on both counts. Director Shen Hsiang Yu has put together a novel gothic romance-cum-ghost story that will undoubtedly satisfy fans of such fare. The director is aided in his efforts by a pretty tight script, excellent art direction, good special effects and some excellent cinematography by Cheng-Min Tsui. Almost every angle that Cheng-Min Tsui’s camera adopts and virtually every move that it makes are noticeably good. Another boon for the show is its rounded characters and the excellent acting that brings them to life.
There’s little information regarding who plays who on the film’s Internet Movie Database page beyond Ching Lee and Wei Tu Lin, who are both suitably charming and sympathetic in their characterisations of Miss Song and Han. The aged wet nurse Yeugui is a particularly strong, active and determined character who pretty much drives the show’s narrative. There’s a touch of comic relief to be found in Zhangniu and his wife but this is never overplayed and they remain a likeable and interesting couple. Zhangniu’s gambling habit means that they bicker and fight much of the time but when Yeugui’s ghost decides to kill one of them as a punishment for their interference neither will accept the other’s offer of self-sacrifice. It’s a really touching scene. Yung-Yu Cheng’s excellent soundtrack score, which is a wholly appropriate and effective mix of gothic horror and romance orientated cues, adds a further worthy dimension to this intriguing and impressive production.
88 Films’ Region B Blu-ray of The Ghost Lovers is a high quality presentation of an obscure film. Indeed picture quality here is near enough excellent. There are just one or two long shots present where a warped camera lens appears to have been used but that seems to be a common feature in a number of Shaw Brothers flicks from this period and is obviously inherent to the show’s original cinematography. The presentation’s sound (a Chinese language track supported by English subtitles) is of very good quality for the most part. The sole extra feature here is an informative 4 page booklet written by Calum Waddell which offers insight into the Shaw Brothers’ horror flicks more generally (arguing that a “Confucian sense of sexual morality” tends to be found in a number of them) and interesting details about the show’s key personnel.
Reviewed by Lee Broughton
The Ghost Lovers
Region B Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good / Excellent
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: 4 page booklet.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: May 4, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Lee Broughton
CineSavantText © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson