100 years after the events of A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) and A Chinese Ghost Story II (1990), a young, somewhat accident prone, monk named Fong (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) and his Buddhist master (Lau Shun) wander into a lawless town. Pursued by thieves intent on nabbing their golden Buddha statue, the hapless duo take refuge at the deserted Orchid Temple, despite rumours that it is haunted. Sure enough, elsewhere, lovely lady ghosts Lotus (Joey Wong, of course), Butterfly (Nina Li Chi - now married to Jet Li), and Jade (Tiffany Lau Yuk-Ting) lure the nasty thieves into a trap and turn the men over to the hideous Tree Demon (Lau Siu Ming), who slurps them up with its fifty-foot tongue.
Lotus then sets out to seduce the flustered Fong. He struggles to maintain his monastic vows, but a touching romance blossoms between these moral opposites, much to the anger of Lotus’ sister/rival, Butterfly. Her devilish ways lead to the elder monk being captured, while Lotus is unwillingly betrothed to Tree Demon’s friend, the Mountain Devil. The only way to save the ghost maiden is to retrieve the ashes found in her burial urn, hidden somewhere in the enchanted forest. Aided by avaricious Taoist swordsman, Yin (Jacky Cheung), Fong braves spirit hordes and the terrible Tree Demon to find the urn, retrieve his master, and save the world from the gargantuan Mountain Devil.
Opinions differ as to who was the guiding light on this third instalment of the hugely successful series. Some say Ching Siu Tung wanted to prove he could make a movie without Tsui Hark’s interference. Others claim Hark ran the whole show this time round. Regardless, A Chinese Ghost Story III upholds the series’ high standard of lavish sets, exquisite photography and expertly choreographed fantasy action. The plot might seem like a simple replay of part one, but co-screenwriter Hark tweaks the story in intriguing ways.
Characters are a little more cynical in part three. Joey Wong’s ghost is less virtuous, although kittenish and appealing. Lotus led a miserable mortal life and now happily seduces men to their doom (“I’m evil. I’ll never change”). Jacky Cheung is no longer the happy-go-lucky Taoist, but a self-serving swordsman (“Money before everything”), always tallying his fee with a handy abacus (in a delightfully eccentric Hong Kong film moment, Yin asks his money if it belongs to him and the coins all nod!). Far from being dispiriting, their lack of moral fibre forms the basis of each character’s slow redemption, sparked by Tony Leung Chiu-wai’s innocent, idealistic Fong. It’s strange seeing the suave superstar of In the Mood for Love (2000) in an early, comedic role (although not as weird as seeing him play Tsui Hark’s geeky sidekick in I Love Maria (1988)!), but he pratfalls with the best of them. Only Lau Shun’s self-righteous monk disappoints, a poor substitute for Wu Ma’s rapping Taoist, although he does have amazing, extendable earlobes!
Another theme involves individual freedom. Despite monastic vows and the laws of the spirit world, the film argues everyone is free to choose how they live their life, their morality, and whom they love. Hark suggests sometimes transgressing rules and boundaries leads to a more rewarding life. Here, transgression is multiplied: not just a man falling in love with a ghost, but a monk falling in love with a woman. This might be the most sensual of the three movies (a memorable intro finds Lotus and her lovely sister Jade in bed, licking each others wounds - steady, lads!) cranking its dreamy, intoxicating visuals and luxurious costumes up to eleven, and featuring Joey Wong at her most scantily clad. At one point, dismayed by Fong’s refusal to bed this beauty, Yin cries: “Seduce me! I’m easy to seduce!” Jacky Cheung got his chance with Wong in A Chinese Legend (1992). By now, Joey Wong had played dozens upon dozens of lovelorn, supernatural heroines in films good (Portrait of a Nymph (1988)) and bad (Kung Fu vs. Acrobatic (1990)). Thankfully, the iconic actress found ways to differentiate her characters. Here she is kittenish and appealing, one step away from her most challenging roles with Tsui Hark, in Green Snake (1993) and Swordsman III: The East is Red (1993).
Meanwhile, Ching Siu Tung serves up some of the most far-out, phantasmagorical visuals of his career: from the grotesque tree demon surrounded by his giggling, bald concubines, to the spectacle of extremities gone wild. Butterfly shoots out her long, red fingernails like twirling blades. Lotus wields an arsenal of fireballs, flowing sleeves and lethal hair extensions. Mountain Devil rises from the mire in multiple forms: a shambling pagoda and a gaping mouthed rock formation surrounded by flying asteroids. It builds to a mind-blowing finale set among the spectacular, heavenly clouds where a gold-painted Fong brings down a holy blast of sunlight. Once again, Joey Wang’s ghost girl makes a selfless sacrifice, but this time Hark and Tung offer up an intriguing, slightly suggestive, twist. Tsui Hark went solo to produce the fourth installment, the groundbreaking A Chinese Ghost Story: The Tsui Hark Animation (1997), and added the only ingredients this everything-but-the-kitchen sink film series lacked: a giant robot and a talking dog.
Hong Kong director, producer, writer and actor and one of the most important figures in modern Hong Kong cinema. Hark majored in film in the US, before returning to his homeland to work in television. Made his directing debut in 1979 with the horror thriller The Butterfly Murders, while 1983's Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain was a spectacular ghost fantasy quite unlike anything in HK cinema at the time. Other key films of this period include Shanghai Blues and the brilliant Peking Opera Blues.