Sunday, March 1, 2020


I am continuing to celebrate the release of Strange Tales of Songling with reviews of movies that helped in inspire the game. Today I want to talk about The Enchanting GhostI wrote about this movie briefly in my Five-Boning Chilling Monsters and Villains for October at Shaw Brother's Universe. But here I am going to give a full review (spoilers and dark subjects ahead). 

The Enchanting Ghost (1970) was directed by Chou Hsu-Chiang, and stars Chang Mei-Yao as Ruyu, and Yang Li-Hua as Yuzhu. It also features Lui Ming as Master Shi, Li Hong as Master Shi's wife, and Julie Lee Chi-Fun as Chun Tao. 

The movie is about a scholar, Yuzhu, who loses his property to a scheming uncle and a man named Master Shi. Without a place to reside, Yuzhu moves into an abandoned estate with a reputation for being haunted. There he meets a woman, Ruyu, who initially seems to be a ghost, but is really just a normal human, taking refuge with her dying mother after an attack by robbers. Yuzhu and Ruyu form a life together at the estate and eventually marry. There life is blissful but the joy is interrupted when Yuzhu's Uncle and Master Shi hear rumors that Yuzhu has married a pretty ghost and go to investigate. When Master Shi sees Ruyu, he lures Yuzhu away to abduct and imprison her. At Master Shi's estate, Ruyu is raped by Master Shi, then poisoned by his wife before being released. The poison causes Ruyu's skin to peel and her hair to fall out. Ashamed and unable to return to Yuzhu, she commits suicide but comes back as a ghost, haunting her killers to death.  

I am not going to lie, The Enchanting Ghost is slow paced but in my opinion, this is what makes it work. It is also not the kind of movie most modern viewers are accustomed to. While The Enchanting Ghost is a horror movie, the supernatural is mostly hinted at until the very end, and by today's standards the terror is not overwhelming. I don't state these things to criticize the movie or discourage people from viewing it. Rather, I want the reader to clearly understand what kind of horror movie this is, so they don't go in with misguided expectations. 

Ruyu and Yuzhu
The reason The Enchanting Ghost is effective is it builds the relationship between Ruyu and Yuzhu, and gives you a character to truly care about when she is in peril. You want her to escape. You want her to return to Yuzhu so they can be together. So it is all the more horrifying to witness the brutal end that she endures. You sympathize with the ghost, and want her to get revenge. This is a film where the humans are the ones to fear and the ghost is to be pitied. And I don't think the movie could achieve this with a rapid pace or if it did anything other than dwell on Yuzhu and Ruyu's life together at the estate for the most of the film. 

There is a sense of doom hanging over the couple from the very beginning. The Enchanting Ghost foreshadows Ruyu's fate from the moment we meet her. Throughout the movie, the possibility of Ruyu being a ghost is toyed with. When Yuzhu encounters Ruyu for the first time, she is mistaken for a ghost. Later in the movie she dresses as a ghost to frighten away Yuzhu's uncle. Then there are rumors in the village that Ruyu is a ghost and has enchanted Yuzhu. By the time she actually becomes a real ghost, your mind has been prepared. 

Ruyu returns as a ghost 
In terms of special effects, the movie is simple but effective. I do think it works, but I also don't think it is going to frighten modern viewers very much. The movie does a good job of establishing and maintaining atmosphere, and it is easy to see the influence it had on later horror movies. I think the most effective seen in terms of horror, is when Ruyu is first introduced and we are led briefly to believe she is a ghost. There is another scene where Ruyu dresses as a ghost to frighten Yuzhu's uncle away, and this is similarly effective (especially when Yuzhu sees her in ghost paint and thinks she is supernatural). The early part of the movie does a good job making you question Ruyu's nature and wonder if she is in fact something more than a normal woman. But I as I said before, this is really a movie where you are meant to sympathize with the ghost, and fear her killers. 

The characters in the film are stark and clear. The villains are all knowingly wicked. That includes not just Master Shi and Yuzhu's uncle, but Master Shi's wife and his concubine, Chun Tao. It is the wife's idea to poison Ruyu for example, because she and Chun Tao are jealous of her beauty. The protagonists are both pure and innocent. Yuzhu is a scholar who desires only to read as many great books as he can, and seems to have no desire for riches. Ruyu is clever and virtuous, being the one to sense the peril posed by Yuzhu's uncle. I should note that Yuzhu is played by a woman (Yang Li-Hua). That isn't too uncommon in films made when this one was. 

The scene where Ruyu is raped and killed is unsettling and heartbreaking. Though Ruyu is presented as clever and is aware that Master Shi is evil, she is tricked when a servant comes to the house to tell her that Yuzhu took ill at a shop in town. The servant leads her to Master Shi's estate where she is imprisoned in a bedroom, then assaulted by Master Shi. These scenes are perhaps mild when compared to movies today, but you've spent so much time getting to know Yuzhu that your fully aligned with her as a character and this makes the horror palpable. In the morning, Master Shi's wife, and his concubine Chun Tao ask her to eat something before sending her home. They laced the food with poison and as she makes her way back to the estate, she collapses and wakens in the night to her hair and skin falling off. All the while Yuzhu is pining for Ruyu, wandering and calling her name. She hears him calling to her, and whispers a response "I am here Yuzhu", before plunging into pond to kill herself. 
Master Shi 
When Ruyu rises as a ghost, the movie becomes less about scares and more about revenge. Primarily she kills by confusing and tricking Master Shi, his wife and her concubine. Eventually the wife and concubine rise as ghosts as well and put an end to Master Shi. It is a satisfying revenge but the film ends on an ambiguous and sad note when Ruyu returns with her mother to the estate and greets Yuzhu (in what seems a daydream). The whole time, Yuzhu does not speak, only the mother speaks. It isn't clear what lays ahead for Yuzhu; but the viewer is left to wonder if Ruyu has come to protect or haunt her husband. 

Like I said earlier this is more of an atmospheric horror movie, than one designed to send you screaming. It does have its moments, they are just fairly restrained and most of the movie is devoted to establishing the characters, so that you care about them in the finale. But it is truly foreboding throughout. in fact, I think that is the chief tone of horror that is maintains. You know things will not end well, and The Enchanting Ghost teases you with hints. Ruyu is the more aware of the danger than Yuzhu, and in a crucial moment in the movie just as Master Shi is concocting his evil plans, tells him they must leave the house. A moment of delay on Yuzhu's part seems to seal their fate. 

The Enchanting Ghost was quite influential when I was working on Strange Tales, which is why I wanted to do a review of it. In terms of gaming, while this doesn't immediately seem like something that would lend itself to ideas, it certainly is worth viewing. My take form it was the possibility of creating a ghost the players care about. One way to achieve this is to introduce an NPC the party who is only turned into a ghost later in the campaign. But I think it could also be achieved inside a single adventure. The way the ghost is presented is also helpful for a GM trying to find an interesting way to introduce ghosts. 

I do recommend the Enchanting Ghost mainly to people who have an interest in seeing earlier examples of horror (especially if you are interested in Chinese Cinema). Also if you like classic movies, I think this will likely appeal to you. Personally I think it is one of the more interesting horror movies out there, and find my mind going back to it frequently.

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