Ling Huan Shao Nu (Wang Cheng, 1992)

As mentioned in my review of Drunken Dragon, I review things out of order. In keeping with the season, I’m watching horror movies, or at least horror-tinged movies. And as much as I would love to write an overview of the whole Hello Dracula film series, I can neither find the movies nor information about them in English and even the Chinese Wikipedia page is, perhaps understandably, less than comprehensive.

The Hello Dracula films are Taiwanese, jiang-shi (hopping vampire) themed children’s films. Taiwan’s film industry produced a gaggle of fantasy movies in the eighties, of which Hello Dracula is one of the best, in part because it is one of the oddest, and one of the least appropriate for its intended juvenile audience by western standards. Ling Huan Shao Nu (灵幻少女) is the final film in the series. The movie I previously reviewed, I believe, is the second, although I reviewed it under the impression that it was the first. There are six films starring Liu Chih-Yu as Ten-Ten and Gam Tiu as her grandfather, and another film (3-D Army) with a different actress playing the part of Ten-Ten.
Ling Huan Shao Nu opens with Ten-Ten chasing her grandfather, who has abruptly left, into the woods, where hopping jiang-shi vampires accost her to the iconic theme of John Carpenter’s Halloween (this will not be the last time that it plays, nor the only bit of music pilfered from a western film). Ten-Ten wakes up, suddenly, accidently punching her adopted sister Yuan-Yuan in both eyes. Grandpa dispatched Yuan-Yuan to bring Ten-Ten to the altar, where they, and fellow disciple Ah-Tsun, will pay homage to their deceased elder. Cue goofy dance routine – a staple of the series – here.
Grandpa charges Ah-Tsun with clean-up duty after the ceremony finishes, but Ah-Tsun decides that he will practice his Daoist magic instead. He lets a spirit loose which makes a bigger mess than what he initially had to clean. Ten-Ten helps him contain the spirit, and Yuan-Yuan tattles on them, and then leaves them to clean the mess up themselves.
Ten-Ten and Ah-Tsun plot revenge using an out-of-body spell that allows Ah-Tsun to possess the body of the visiting Mr. Chen to torment Yuan-Yuan. If you are wondering if this is headed anywhere, the answer is no. After punishing Yuan-Yuan for telling on them, it’s off to Mr. Chen’s home, where a malign spirit haunts the Chen family. Using the same out-of-body magic to confront the ghost, Ah-Tsun gets separated from the battle. And while Ten-Ten and her Grandpa fight the evil ghost, Ah-Tsun meets Orchid, the ghost of a beautiful young girl who wants to reunite with her lover in the afterlife, but is betrothed against her will to the King of Ghosts. Ten-Ten, Ah-Tsun, and Grandpa then beat up the King of Ghosts, saving Orchid from an eternally unhappy marriage.
With the Chen family safe and the King of Ghosts out of the picture, Ten-Ten and Ah-Tsun try to help Orchid, who, having missed her opportunity to reincarnate, is destined to wander the earth as a lonely ghost. Ten-Ten uses Daoist soul-transference to send Orchid on her way. What this means, I have no clue. But it apparently awakens Grandpa’s old nemesis and fellow student Jomoro. Jomoro plans to kill Grandpa and Ten-Ten, but Grandpa uses the last of his magic to teleport Ten-Ten away before he dies, with Ah-Tsun’s soul transferred into the body of a turtle and Yuan-Yuan killed in battle -- nobody bothered to transfer her soul into a barely sentient animal. And then the Daoist family's home explodes, and the credits start to play.
 Like the other movie in the series that I have actually seen, the goofy comedy slowly descends into bloody morbidity by the end of Ling Huan Shao Nu, and the worst part is that there is no resolution to the conflict. This was the last film in the series released. But unlike the previous movies, which had clear indicators of a temporal setting (such as the Republican army troopers led by Boon Saam), Ling Huan Shao Nu seems completely unconcerned with verisimilitude or internal consistency. The jiang-shi vampires only appear in the opening dream sequence and the ghosts and evil spirits Ten-Ten fights wear costuming straight out of Tsui Hark at his nuttiest.
It is that lack of concern with not only believability, but historical and mythic precedent that makes Ling Huan Shao Nu quite fun to watch. Rather than jiang-shi, the Daoist team has to fight horse riding ghosts in suspiciously European armor and skull faced villains and ambiguously gendered warlocks. Cheesy special effects fly all over the place, the young lady who plays Orchid seems to channel Joey Wang as she flutters about on wires, and the actor who plays Ah-Tsun wears a vest of exploding fire-crackers as punishment for tormenting a procession of ghosts. He walks away without a scratch, much less a second degree burn.
And if the final film moves at an even more break-neck pace than its predecessor, it’s also easier to follow. And thanks to the cast being older, it’s also less unsettling when they handle dead bodies or flirt whilst surrounded by dead bodies. But even so, the final scene is so bloody that I cannot comprehend what sort of kid could watch this movie without scarring his or her psyche. And that too is kind of what makes Ling Huan Shao Nu fun. It presents the macabre as a joke, but that last scene is kinda horrifying.


Axing of the Coffin (Fu Ching-Wa, 1969)

When it comes to legendarily silly re-titles, Crash Cinema actually beat Dimension Entertainment for the title of “best ever.” This 1969 supernatural melodrama, the first film of director Fu Ching-Wa, found its way onto DVD through some rather fortuitous circumstances. Some guy, recently returned from a trip to Taiwan with a bunch of film reels, posted on what was then the “kung fu fandom” message boards, wanting to know what he should do to sell his newly acquired film legacy. Somebody wanted to know what he had, and he posted an impressive list of titles, all obscure, with some, like Pan Lei’s The Sword, thought to be lost in their original format.

I’m guessing that the movie I just finished watching was on that list under the title Chuang Tzu Tests his Wife. But that doesn’t sound so cool to the sort of customer who buys DVDs at the brick’n’mortar, and, although the reel has embedded subtitles, it has no on-screen English title. So Crash Cinema, one of the companies to which the individual who posted at “kung fu fandom” was directed, could rename Chuang Tzu Tests his Wife whatever they wanted when they released it on DVD. And they chose an attention getter, I have to admit. Axing of the Coffin: it sounds like the title of an Iron Maiden tribute album.

This movie is actually a remake of the very first movie filmed in Hong Kong in 1913, and the very first Chinese film production internationally distributed. Chuang Tzu (in pinyin: Zhuangzi) marries a young woman, and decides to test her loyalty by faking his own death. While his wife prepares funeral arrangements, a young man comes to call on Chuang Tzu for tutelage, but takes an interest in the young widow, which she reciprocates, forgetting the funeral arrangements and enjoying the new courtship. When the young man reveals himself to actually be Chuang Tzu, her shame and embarrassment lead her to suicide.

Axing of the Coffin apparently follows the plot of the original film, which I have not seen, but makes additions, such as the villainous Chi Hsuan who attempts to take the young woman by force before Chuang Tzu marries her. Saved from the advances of General Chi, Szu Chin enjoys a happy marriage with Chuang Tzu, frolicking in a garden playing with butterflies. Chuang Tzu’s occupation as a travelling sage takes him abroad often, leaving Szu Chin lonesome for his company. A meeting with a woman who refuses to leave her husband’s grave. The encounter gets him to thinking about his wife’s loneliness and need for companionship, and inspires him to test her loyalty to him.

The original story sounds sadistic enough, but the update further supplements its exploration of Chuang Tzu’s jealousy with a sequence where he tests his wife by disguising himself as the Chi Hsuan and threatens to rape her. Szu Chin passes this test handily; threatening the apparition of Chi Hsuan with her own death should he touch her.
His second test is even more elaborate, as he fakes his own death, disguises himself as a younger man who courts Szu Chin, and fights Chi Hsuan who returns, for real this time, to try to marry Szu Chin. Chuang Tzu, still in disguise, kills Chi Hsuan and marries Szu Chien, but pretends to fall ill to a strange disease which only a concoction made out of fresh human brain tissue can cure. The only fresh source of human brain tissue, unfortunately, is in what Szu Chien believes is her dead husband’s coffin. So she proceeds to pick up an axe and try to extract Chuang Tzu’s brain herself.

At this point, the goes into full out horror mode, with Chuang Tzu rising from his grave and floating around in optical printing effects and spooky blue lighting. He chases the confused and terrified Szu Chien about their home, demanding to know why she would be so disloyal to him.

As his magic disappears and Szu Chien realizes that it is morning, Chuang Tzu appears behind her in the flesh. Ashamed of herself, Szu Chien flees into the woods, Chuang Tzu chasing after her, and hangs herself. Chuang Tzu realizes the grave sin he has committed against his wife, and holds her body, calling her name.

In some versions of this story, Chuang Tzu turns himself and his wife into butterflies, and as they flutter away together they slowly turn into dust as they fly away together. The film seems to set this up in scenes where Chuang Tzu and Szu Chien admire butterflies together. This sort of mystical ending would put Axing of the Coffin in line with other fairy tale-esque horror films of the time, like the Korean film The Thousand Year Old Fox, but the ending as it is strikes an appropriately melancholy note.

Axing of the Coffin is actually more unsettling in its premise than its horror segments. The supposedly wise Chuang Tzu really seems to get off on toying with his wife’s emotions, and I wanted her to actually run off with a good-hearted young scholar by the end of it. But, I have to admit that the horror sequence is an entertaining showcase of late sixties effects work and cinematography. The sequence benefits from an effective performance from the lovely Sam Juet-Jam. But the standout is Tung Lan as Chi Hsuan. Often cast as a villain in Shaw Brothers films, he snarls his way through the scenery like its just delicious.

This movie probably is an interesting little curio, but it is difficult to imagine that there is too much of an audience for faintly misogynistic, mystical Chinese tragedy these days, especially given that it features none of the outrageous grotesqueries of later Taiwanese and Hong Kong horror films and strains to create the sort of atmosphere seen in similar films, like Bao Fang’s Painted Skin or Li Han Hsiang’s The Enchanting Shadow.