Not to be confused with the 1968 Shaw Brothers movie of the same name. This Golden Swallow was one of many, many supernatural romances that appeared in the wake of A Chinese Ghost Story (1987). Bumbling scholar Lao Chi Chiu (Wong Yiu-Ming) rescues a little swallow from three naughty kids, little suspecting the bird is really lovelorn lady ghost Hsiao Hsueh (Cherie Chung). Enamoured with the mortal man she shields him from her soul-sucking demon mistress (Ivy Ling Po). The vengeful spirit spares Lao’s life on the condition he return to the mortal world, never to see Hsiao Hsueh again. Unbeknownst to the demon, Hsiao Hsueh follows her beloved and courts him all over again in the guise of a human girl. Three years on the pair settle into domestic bliss raising their cute little daughter, even though dumb Lao has no idea his wife is the ghost he once knew and still pines for his lost love.
Plot-wise this is almost indistinguishable from A Chinese Ghost Story but that of course is the point, although the story derives from a Sung Dynasty tale called Dark Robe Land that predates the Pu Songling story that inspired the earlier film. As with most Chinese Ghost Story imitations it is not the tale so much, but the telling. The tellers in this case were comedians Richard Ng and Eric Tsang, who conceived, produced and co-wrote Golden Swallow and scored something of a coup by casting Huangmei Opera star Ivy Ling Po in her comeback role as the ice demoness. Sporting dark doll-like eyes and a frosty pallor she is genuinely terrifying, a long way away from the plucky songbirds she once played in Shaw Brothers musicals.
English viewers may know Eric Tsang best for his dramatic role as a triad boss in the acclaimed Infernal Affairs (2002), but the portly comic is also a prolific producer and director, notably of the trendsetting Aces Go Places (1981). He and Richard Ng throw a number of idiosyncrasies into the mix, not least themselves as wacky, squabbling Taoist swordsmen Hsiang Tao and Hsiang Yu. They bring a lively satirical edge that never fails to engage, but the awkward erase and rewind story-structure causes a few headaches. The film actually opens with sword hero Fong Ching Tien (Norman Tsui Siu-Keung, star of Bastard Swordsman (1983) and many Shaw Brothers classics) doing battle with the ice demoness, but he vanishes from the narrative for a lengthy stretch and we have to watch Lao Chi Chiu and Hsaio Hsueh woo each other not once, but twice.
Taking the traditional Joey Wong role is the lovely and talented Cherie Chung, one of the brightest stars of the era, so memorable in New Wave classics An Autumn’s Tale (1987) and Peking Opera Blues (1986). Sadly, Cherie is not at her best here. In fact at times she looks almost bored. Compare her tepid romance with wet blanket co-star Wong Yiu Ming to her sparkling chemistry opposite regular co-star Chow Yun-Fat in another ghost story Spiritual Love (1987). She livens up for the finale which is beautifully poignant and redeems the somewhat chaotic battle between swordsman Fong and the demoness. Director Oh Sing Pui, a former cinematographer and occasional actor whose other notable genre movie is the Sammo Hung ghost comedy My Flying Wife (1991), weaves a marvellous ghostly ambience, mimicking the New Wave style: deep blue filters, flowing silks, explosions of colour amidst dreamy slow-mo romance. He pulls off the fantasy action set-pieces with great panache from the grasping tree demon that erupts from the earth to the trippy journey to the demon’s icy lair. And provided you can keep an open mind about Cantopop, the score is quite lovely. For all its flaws, this still ranks among the best Chinese Ghost Story rip-offs.