THE ENCHANTING PHANTOM (aka A CHINESE GHOST STORY: HUMAN LOVE) (2020) review

p2597931214After bringing back Vincent Zhao’s incarnation of Wong Fei Hung – albeit on the small screens – with The Unity of Heroes, and scripting Detective Dee: Ghost Soldiers (starring Kristy Yang as Empress Wu Zetian), one of the more high-profile and better-rated of the countless straight-to-VOD Detective Dee films, director Lin Zhenzhao tackles another beloved Hong Kong franchise with The Enchanting Phantom, a remake of Tsui Hark and Ching Siu Tung’s classic A Chinese Ghost Story (itself based on a Pu Songling story). Apparently at first destined for at least a modest theatrical release, the Covid-19 pandemic in the end sent it straight to VOD. And so we once again follow naïve scholar Ning Caichen (Chen Xingxu), who falls in love with beautiful demon Nie Xiaoqian (Eleanor Lee), and attempts to free her from the clutches of her dark master, hermaphroditic tree demon Lao Lao (Norman Tsui), with the help of Taoist demon hunter Yan Chixia (Yuen Wah).

While Wilson Yip’s A Chinese Fairy Tale dared to diverge wildly from Ching Siu Tung’s film, shifting dynamics, introducing new characters and adding references to other figures of Chinese fantasy (White Snake, Green Snake, the Bride with White Hair and more), Lin Zhenzhao stays more faithful – and Yun Kai Chi, who co-wrote the original, is credited here. The structure of the original is mostly followed and a few of its scenes are directly replicated, including Ning’s introduction, walking in the countryside to that legendary song. It’s no scene-for-scene remake, but the changes brought here contribute to upping the visual ante rather than modify the plot’s dynamic: the demons’ alluring trap is now on a kind of massive barge, there’s two Taoist demon hunters rather than one (joining Yuen Wah is Steven Cheung as an amusing, more bumbling rival who doesn’t seem to master the Taoist arts quite yet), and the Tree Demon is upstaged in villainy by the Black Mountain Dragon, a stone behemoth to which Nie Xiaoqian is to be married by force. And there is a nice reference to another Pu Songling story (itself adapted by Wu Ma into a Chinese Ghost Story knock-off in 1988’s Portrait of a Nymph), when Nie used a painting to trap a victim and later to escape her pursuers.

The film’s main shortcoming is the tragic lack of star quality and chemistry of its central duo. As Nie, Eleanor Lee has nothing of the haunting sadness and ethereal beauty of Joey Wong, looking more like an overeager cosplayer who’s just been dumped by her boyfriend. And as Ning, Chen Xingxu turns Leslie Cheung’s mix of naïveté and resilience into a whiny idiot. It’s not easy to care about them, and they’re overshadowed at every turn by Hong Kong veterans Yuen Wah and Norman Tsui, the former a perfect replacement for Wu Ma as the salty demon hunter, and the latter having a venomous ball stepping into Lau Siu Ming’s shoes – or rather roots.

Visually, Lin Zhenzhao does a lot with what must have been a relatively modest budget: despite uneven CGI, the battles between demons and demon hunters are enjoyable, with action director Su Guan bringing many inventive flourishes, especially when Yuen Wah fights a small whip-wielding demon in an abandoned temple riddled with flesh-slicing threads. The score by Wan Pin Chu (who’s scored much bigger Chinese fantasy recently, including Derek Kwok’s Wu Kong and CHing Siu Tung’s Jade Dynasty) is excellent, referential but no slave to James Wong’s classic music for the 1987 film. Xia Xiaoming’s cinematography and Yang Shuai and Zhong Weixi’s art direction also make the most of the limited means, especially in the film’s best scene, a descent into the Black Mountain underground that does as clever and evocative us of light, fog, emptiness and ghoulish costumes as Ching Siu Tung’s original did. Too bad the film’s reach exceeds its grasps in the finale, a fight against the stone behemoth that has direly shoddy CGI.

Long Story Short: A surprisingly solid remake of Tsui Hark and Ching Siu Tung’s classic fantasy romance, The Enchanting Phantom makes the most of its limited budget, despite a lead couple that pales direly in comparison to Joey Wong and Leslie Cheung. **1/2

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