A rich mix of action, fable and modern comedy mark the animated Chinese Ghost Story as kin to kung fu director Tsui Hark's live martial arts movies, but the magic, movement and raw visual poetry of this animated feature make this ghost story unique.
The anime, animation and Hong Kong film groupies who bought the DVD the very second it was available on American soil have already rescheduled their Settlers of Cataan gaming beer busts to see the film on the big screen at the Museum of Fine Arts.
As for other film fans, no one is suggesting you make a life change. The aim is to convince you that 84 minutes with the vivid colors, fascinating creatures and bizarre fantasy world of Chinese Ghost Story will be a refreshing evening. And though the conventions are as stylized and identifiable as Kabuki, this type of movie is easy to enjoy.
Movie stars throughout the world might be alarmed that filmmaker Hark followed the success of his live-action Ghost Story trilogy with an actor-free production, while the ordinary cinema fan has cause to cheer. The zesty, loopy qualities of the magic-action genre work are best realized in ink and pixel programming.
Some people, many good and fine people, would rather die, go to hell and burn in the flames forever than avoid making a huge distinction between Japanese anime and the Chinese style displayed in this movie. For the rest of the world, no need to quibble. The basic look of Chinese Ghost Story can be described simply: The humanoids are the same wide-eyed species as Speed Racer, random Cantonese pop tunes punctuate the plot, and the computer-generated backgrounds and major effects are dazzling.
There is a plot, more or less, but this movie is less about "what will happen next" and more about "what will we see next." If you've seen Heavy Metal on cable, or while stoned in high school, you have a sadly limited notion of contemporary animation.
Ghost Story's supersaturated colors, smooth camera movement and exquisite detail are beautiful, mesmerizing in the same way as moving water or roiling clouds or the intricate structure of seashells. Against the dreamy backdrop, we see Ning, a bill collector, lose at love and travel to the Vainly Beautiful City with his dog, Solid Gold. In that Day-Glo wonderland and other worlds, the boy and dog have magical, not particularly logical, adventures.
They meet Shine, the ghost girl. (Like Casper, she is a ghost whose death is never explained. Unlike the friendly ghost, she has fabulous robes, fangs and a cell phone.) Ning's attempts to woo Shine are complicated by other peculiar creatures (including a Halloween party dance floor packed with eye-demons), ghost busters (including a powerful and vicious monk) and wild rides on the galloping Staircase Boogie and the high-flying reincarnation train.
Things whirl, kicks are fast as lightning, and the almost nonstop action is punctuated by Hong Kong slapstick -- cheap jokes, like pepper used to invoke sneezes.
The contemporary action is mixed with heady streams of ancient legend. The fierce whiskers of Red Beard the Ghostbuster may owe something to Yosemite Sam, and his vast "Way of Ways" ghost-killing machine is extreme sci-fi; however, he also fights with "flying monograms," bewitched sheets of parchment marked with calligraphy. Their spells kill ghosts and at one dramatic moment form a bridge to the earth on which Ning and Solid Gold flee, racing from the clouds on a stream of papers.
And no, the Pokémon cuteness of the central characters does not clash with the brilliance of the background animation. In fact, in many cases the contrast between the simple rendering of figures such as Red Beard, Butterfly (a ghost) and Madam Trunk (an ancient evil spirit) make complex or delicate vistas, which might otherwise seem as foreboding as art school color plates, completely accessible.
An episode of Solid Gold's swimming typifies this blend: For no reason other than visual variety during a long heart-to-heart between Shine and Ning, the cartoon dog swims and plays in an eerie, gloom-lit lagoon. Images of moving water, slick rocks surrounding the pool and the mesmerizing play of light flickering off the water's surface are all a controlled study of animation art. For several minutes, the screen is soaked in blue and silver, broken only by the pale pink of Solid Gold's lolling tongue and Shine's headdress.
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Solid Gold's antics and the radiance of the visuals are not meant to distract from a long dialogue about love, friendship, betrayal and what have you, but the lovely pictures are something to ponder while the couple chatter. The conversation lacks the poetry of the imagery, though it's by no means extraneous. The eccentric story line, difficult even without the baffling cultural context, is served by a bubbling current of exposition and insults. Hark, a University of Texas grad, did his first work in television and brings a laugh-track rhythm to many feisty exchanges.
He saves his purely Asian sensibilities for love scenes, unrequited love scenes, and of course musical action numbers. Red Beard, to name one freakish being, barrels onto the screen mowing down ghosts by the truckload and singing, "Night, Night / I am excited!" and you know he means it. No wonder the ghosts are scared. This is TNT Nitro, MonsterVision and the Romance Channel all at once.
And that's worth something -- Chinese Ghost Story compels an investment in the characters, which is rare enough in cinema and quite a trick for a cartoon from another land.
Chinese Ghost Story. Friday, October 1, to Sunday, October 3, at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, (713) 639-7515.