Remaking Ching Siu Tung’s 1987 fantasy love story A Chinese Ghost Story was a bold move. The original is still a reverred classic, featuring a legendary screen couple in the person of the late Leslie Cheung and the now-retired Joey Wong, some of Ching Siu Tung’s most inventive choreography, and an effectibe blend of romanticism, tragedy and comedy, with crappy but well meaning special effects and a very popular soundtrack. It gave way to two sequels and a whole wave of fantasy love stories. A remake was always going to face a very tough challenge, especially since the legendary Leslie Cheung committed suicide in the early 2000’s, which adds a sheen of intensely emotional nostalgia to all his greatest successes.
Demon hunter Yan (Louis Koo in the role made famous by Wu Ma) fell in love years ago with demon Siu Sin (Liu Yifei replacing Joey Wong), but due to the forbidden nature of their union, had to leave her after suppressing her memories. Years later, naïve scholar Ning (Yu Shaoqun trying to fill the shoes of Leslie Cheung) is searching the forest trying to find a water source for a small village suffering from a drought, when he comes across a temple where he encounters life-sucking demons, one of whom is none other than Siu Sin. They fall in love with each other as she spares his life, thus finding herself hunted by her fellow demons. Things get more complicated when Yan re-emerges, setting demons, demon hunters, villagers and lovers on a collision course.
Narratively, the most notable difference to be found is the fact that the benevolent taoist demon hunter played by Wu Ma in the original, has been rejuvenated and placed front and center in the remake, in the romantic and in the action stakes. It allows the film to rely on the star power of Louis Koo while avoiding the Leslie Cheung comparisons by reducing the importance of the character he played in the original. Indeed, this remake does a whole lot of things right and manages to be a loving hommage (Cheung’s iconic song is used twice), while still being its own thing. The risibly fake but strangely endearing stop-motion special effects of the original have been replaced by superb CGI that look much better than in another fantasy remake of the same year, The Sorcerer and the White Snake. Humour is less omnipresent, here present mostly through some banter between Koo and Yu, and a funny turn by Elvis Tsui as the pompous mayor of the village. But the rest is as enjoyably overblown as in Ching Siu Tung’s film, from good action scenes choreographed by Ma Yuk Sing that are as CGI-fu as they are wire-fu (though the pick of the crop is the more down-to-earth match-up between Koo and Fan Siu Wong as a fellow demon hunter), to the romance that has been upgraded to a full-blown love triangle.
The cast is uniformly good, and marginally better than in the original. Louis Koo is impressive as the hardened but emotionally scarred demon hunter, assuredly carrying the film and in the process completely eclipsing (but it seems that was intentional) Yu Shaoqun, who is fine but forgettable and sometimes mildly annoying as the scholar. Liu Yifei, as far as this reviewer is concerned, completely surpasses Joey Wong as the love-sick demon : she’s just as delicate a beauty but she brings a certain steeliness to the character, where Wong made the character more whiny. Two supporting actors, however, are often close to stealing the show : Fan Siu Wong as a deadly, one-armed demon hunter is charismatic as hell, and Kara Hui as the cruelly sexy head demon is simply on fire, overacting a (very enjoyable) storm in each one of her appearances.
But for all its subtle (and less subtle) upgrades of the original film, A Chinese Fairy Tale is only surprising in its sly incorporation of references to other Chinese legends and wu xia fixtures. There’s the one-armed swordsman (here the one-armed demon hunter), the fox spirit from Painted Skin (Siu Sin sometimes appears as a little white fox), the white snake and the green snake (seen in Tsui Hark’s Green Snake for instance), and even a nod to The Bride with White Hair when Kara Hui’s deadly locks literally reveal their true colour.
Long Story Short : Not really a necessary remake, but one that manages to upgrade the original in many ways. Gorgeous-looking and very well acted, it is the best recent Chinese fantasy film. ***1/2