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Classic HK ghost film reinvented 24 years later

HONG KONG (AP) — When “A Chinese Ghost Story” hit movie screens in 1987, it wowed audiences with its novel plot of man falls for female demon in an ancient Chinese setting. The unlikely couple played by late Hong Kong superstar Leslie Cheung and Taiwanese actress Joey Wang quickly became a classic romance and two sequels followed, as well as an animated movie.

Twenty-four years later, Hong Kong director Wilson Yip has re-imagined the love story for a wider audience with a new cast, a new plot twist and modern special effects. While the original was released during the heyday of Hong Kong cinema, the remake is largely targeted at the lucrative mainland market, where censors once averse to superstition are now more open to supernatural-themed productions.

The 1987 version, directed by veteran filmmaker and action choreographer Tony Ching, takes inspiration from “Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio,” Qing Dynasty writer Pu Songling’s famed collection of ghost stories. Cheung’s scholar-turned-tax collector Ning Caichen becomes smitten with Wang’s Nie Xiaoqian, a lonely demon who serves as a hunter for a tree devil who preys on human beings. Ning solicits the help of demon catcher Yan Chixia to free Nie of her enslavement.

Yip, whose career has taken off with the recent success of the kung fu biopics “Ip Man” and “Ip Man 2,” both starring Donnie Yen, has cast two baby-faced young Chinese actors as the new couple.

Yu Shaoqun, who rose to fame as a young Mei Lanfang in Chen Kaige’s 2008 biopic of the late Peking Opera singer, plays the innocent scholar. Liu Yifei, who made her Hollywood debut in “The Forbidden Kingdom,” the 2008 kung fu picture that marked the first collaboration between Jackie Chan and Jet Li, is the distraught ghost torn between love and servitude.

But the director has also spiced up the drama by adding a back story of Nie’s earlier romance with Yan, casting Hong Kong heartthrob Louis Koo as the gruff ghost hunter.

Veteran Hong Kong actress Wai Ying-hung, who is enjoying a career renaissance, plays the tree devil — a role taken on by actor Lau Siu-ming in the original.

And then there is the advancement in computer graphics in the nearly two-and-a-half decades between original and remake. While the original boasted convincing creature effects and won a Hong Kong Film Award for Yee Chung-man’s art design — Yee went on to receive an Oscar nomination for his work on Zhang Yimou’s 2006 costume drama “Curse of the Golden Flower” — Yip has the benefit of an unfettered digital canvas, backed up by a $10 million budget — some 70 percent of which was devoted to special effects.

Yip said he was drawn to Yu’s innocence in the Mei Lanfang biopic, “Forever Enthralled,” while by casting Liu as Nie, he wanted to instill a livelier personality.

“Her emotions are like that of a small animal, like a fox. Her active personality is unlike the melancholic tone of the previous version,” Yip told The Associated Press at the movie’s Hong Kong premiere late Saturday. The film was released in mainland China on Tuesday.

Koo told the AP that he thought Liu captured Nie’s otherworldliness and unvarnished beauty well while Yu pulled off the scholar’s contrasting qualities of physical weakness and mental determination.

Meanwhile, the addition of the ghost-ghost catcher romance creates dramatic tension. “I tried to evoke the question of whether (ghost catcher) Yan is jealous of (scholar) Ning?” Yip said.

Modern computer technology allowed him “to construct a world that is truly magical,” the director said.

Yu had the unenviable task of trying to match the performance of the late Cheung, who committed suicide by leaping off a luxury hotel in 2003. Cheung was one of Chinese pop’s biggest acts and earned critical acclaim for his on-screen performances in works such as “Days of Being Wild,” “Happy Together” and “Farewell My Concubine.”

Yu said he didn’t think too much about following in Cheung’s footsteps during shooting but is now aware of the comparisons after the movie’s release.

“There is that classic performance whose fans won’t allow you to alter it,” Yu told the AP.

“I am no match for Ge Ge in terms of acting skills,” he said, using Cheung’s nickname. “Ge Ge’s artistic heights are hard for me to surpass at this stage. All I can say is that I devoted my full emotions and my hard work to perfecting the role the director assigned to me as much as possible.”

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