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When one thinks of the Shaw Brothers, the most immediate thing that springs to mind are a barrage of martial arts films that poured out from China between the late sixties through to the early eighties. Motion pictures that featured people beating seven shades of brown stuff out of them was certainly their bread and butter, but they occasionally ventured into other areas, and one such example of this is 1974's supernatural tale, The Ghost Lovers.

Jorg Buttgreitt would have had him fuck her after she croaked.

Young and beautiful Song Lian-Hua (Li Ching) lies dying, her arranged marriage to Han Shi-Long (Lam Wai-Tiu) is destined never to be realised. Han and Lian-Hua haven't seen each other since they were children, as a result of Han's father leaving the area under dubious circumstances.

A mysterious young stranger is robbed on his way into town and is later revealed to be Han, and he races to his fiancé’s (death) bedside, only to be told that he is too late. Han soon realises that he is not the only person claiming to be the long-missing son of the former town governor and also becomes aware that death might not necessarily be the end...

The Ghost Lovers, directed by Shin Sang-Ok, at times plays like a stage-play, with few sets and various comings and goings of a smallish number of characters – the exterior sets have more than a whiff of unreality about them, with painted backgrounds and and fairly cramped shots whilst supposedly “outside”, but this serves to reinforce that what the viewer is watching is closer to a play than a film. There is an extended sequence which sees nine potential Hans all turning up and being weeded out as imposters that plays like a farce; it's very amusing and deftly performed by all concerned and might have seemed heavy-handed and out of place, but it works wonderfully well, providing some genuine amusement amid all the death and supernatural goings-on.

If the first act is farcical, the second centres on whether Lian-Hua is truly dead or if her “death” is merely a ruse to bring her love back into her life. At times it seems as though the latter is true and that she isn't dead – or even ill for that matter. Once is becomes clear that Lian-Hua indeed IS dead and that she begins to show the more ghostly side of her new status, the film kicks into an entirely different gear, leaving behind the more comic aspects and centres upon the dramatic and the existential. Lian-Hua's wet nurse, by her side as she lay dying, kills herself in order to be with Lian-Hua on the other side. In her new ethereal capacity, the wet-nurse both tries to marry her recently-deceased charge, and also protects her from those who would seek to profit from her death. The film climaxes as Lian-Hua's wet nurse trying to get her to marry Han and consummate their union so Lian-Hua will be able to leave her ghostly form behind and enter Heaven.

It wouldn't be a Shaw Brothers film without SOME sort of martial arts in the thing and there is one such scene in The Ghost Lovers; it seems pretty clear that the demonstration scene in the film was almost a mandatory requirement. It's not too bad as an example of physical prowess and the power of martial arts, but it seems out of place and something of an afterthought, as though the Shaws looked at the film and thought that their audience might walk out of feel cheated if they didn't see something being broke using either a hand or a foot.

Whilst there is a pervasive atmosphere of doom over the proceedings, there is a fair amount of comic relief that at times borders on farcical. Kim Mu-Yeong and Joo Yong provide laughs as a husband and wife who are at loggerheads more often than not. One scene has a terrified “drunken” husband hit with a broom by his disgruntled wife, thinking that he had been out on the tiles instead of having being traumatised by ghostly goings-on. The two of them are also fuelled by greed, wanting to get their hands on some of Han and/or Lian-Hua's money and their attempts to line their own pockets sees them ultimately get their comeuppance in a fitting manner.

As the hero, Lam Wai-Tiu is a likeable enough lead, projecting a sense of vulnerability as Han, a man who came to put right the failings of his father, but became embroiled in matters of the  supernatural variety.  Li Ching is great as the ill-fated would-be bride, handling the demure and the macabre equally proficiently, though it's sad to note that the actress passed away earlier this year. Chan Mei-Hua as the wet nurse impresses throughout the film, especially during the final act where she scares and manipulates the husband and wife, who are out to get Han's inheritance.

The route of avarice is, ah, forget it. Who the fuck is still looking at this thing anyway?

The music score by Jeong Yoon-joo seems to ape those of Hammer's James Bernard, particularly during the opening titles, which, combined with the style of opening credits (blood red spooky font over painted vistas) REALLY makes it look and feel like something Major Jimmy Carreras was overseeing. During the weeding out of the imposters sequences, one of the would-be Hans cockily makes his way into the room with the body of Lian-Hua and his sense of bravado is augmented by traditional Chinese music, with judicious use of horns and crashing symbols, but this soon changes when his bravado is stripped away and his cowardice is revealed and replaced with music more fitting his true nature. Speaking of that scene, the suitor decides to take advantage of the allegedly deceased nature of the young woman and proceeds to remove his clothing in order to indulge in a bit of post-mortem copulation, only to be stopped in his tracks in a manner that we will not spoil here; it's a bit of a head-scratcher that this film could show someone about to have sex with a corpse and get away with it, yet a few years later, Bruce Lee had to be seen to be arrested at the end of Game of Death[i].

[i]The Ghost Lovers
features some most impressive optical effects which - unlike many others of the period – have no signs of degeneration through optical compositing; one can only assume that the various on-screen materialising and de-materialising was achieved through in-camera methods such as the Pepper's Ghost effect. However they were achieved, they look fabulous and serve to enhance the supernatural qualities of the film.

Director Shin Sang-Ok handles the lighter moments with a comedic touch that is genuinely amusing, allowing the buffoonery to have enough time on the screen to enable an audience to be sucker-punched when the more horror-based aspects of the story begin to emerge. The ShawScope widescreen cinematography could have been a bit much in a fairly intimate film with very little location work and a handful of studio sets, but the director manages to keep things lively and overcomes what could have been a stumbling block.

<Insert vaguely witty remark here>

Video


The Ghost Lovers is something of a “lost” film in the Shaw Brothers canon; it was apparently released on VCD years ago (this was the primary format in China before DVD superseded it) and was supposedly not given an official release on any other format until now. Opening with the classic “ShawScope”, logo, the 2.35:1 image looks pretty damn good considering the obscurity of the film; colours are robust and there is some natural-looking grain present. The AVC-encoded transfer averages out at around 27mbps and there is precious little in the way of damage to the print.

Audio


Presented in LPCM 2.0, the mono Chinese track is perfectly discernible, with clear dialogue and a good representation of  Jeong Yoon-joo's alternately playful and suspenseful music score. There is no English language option, presumably because the film is so obscure that it was never dubbed into English.

If there is one aspect that is disappointing about this release, it's that it is at times marred by the subtitles, which seem as though they were translated by someone for whom English was not their primary language. Some of the translated dialogue is awkwardly worded and at times a little difficult to make sense of. It's not a fatal flaw but it IS a little frustrating whilst watching.

Extras


There are no supplementary features on the disc (the film is almost a “lost” film, so that is forgiveable), but there IS a booklet containing an essay by journalist and academic, Calum Waddell, who provides some welcome context to the film and a fascinating insight into the extraordinary life of director Shin Sang-Ok, which saw him kidnapped in the seventies by Kim Jong-il and forced to make what were effectively propaganda films until he managed to escape some years later.

It was probably the year of the rabbit.

Overall


Amid a slew of martial arts films, Shin Sang-Ok's The Ghost Lovers is a surprising and enchanting change of pace for the Shaw Brothers. It's an amusing – and at times thoughtful – look at the ever-present factors of love, death and avarice. Kudos to 88 Films for releasing out this one-of-a-kind film.

N.B. These images are for illustrative purposes and do not reflect the quality of the disc.


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