(A.k.a. YAN NU HUAN HUN [original title])
Pretty Lianhua (Li Ching), heir to the Song family dynasty, lies ailing in her bed. Her aging wet nurse frets for her health. She's called in the family doctor, but upon inspecting his patient he regretfully declares that Lianhua is beyond help - he can't even keep her alive for another two days. Which is unfortunate, because the home's handyman, Deqi, has been sent on a journey to the neighbouring town - his mission being to return with Han (Lin Wei Tu), the nobleman's son that Lianhua has been betrothed to since her infancy. It's predicted that it will take Deqi two days to return with Han.
However, Deqi unexpectedly turns up at this moment and informs the nurse that he never got to meet Han; Han had already coincidentally set off in the direction of the Song home with a bag full of silver designed to pay off a debt his family owed theirs from years ago.
So, where's Han? Not far away, as it happens. Alas, he's been robbed en route and is lying unconscious in some bushes when drunken gambler Zhangnui finds him at the end of a typically wild night out. Zhangnui takes Han home and, upon discovering his identity, realises he's the son of the family he used to faithfully serve and who in turn always looked after him. A strong sense of loyalty remains.
Han explains that his parents are both now dead, and so the debt they owed to the Song family has been passed on to him. He's aware that he is due to be wed to Lianhua, which he seems happy about, but insists that - as a man of honour - he cannot arrive at her home without the money (which was unfortunately taken from him during the aforementioned robbery).
In the meantime, a public announcement is made to declare Lianhua as officially deceased. An appeal is put out to locate Han who, as her intended groom, is now heir to her family's fortune. Cue a host of imposters at the Song home's doorstep, all claiming to be the man the family haven't seen since he was a little boy.
The wet nurse has a cunning plan: she instructs each suitor to spend some time alone with Lianhua's corpse, which still lies peacefully in its bed. The nurse reasons that only the real Han will feel love for Lianhua upon seeing her - the others will turn and flee. Sure enough, each imposter is soon freaked out ... especially when the corpse begins to move and even smile. One man even gets as far as preparing himself for a necrophilic tryst with Lianhua, but scarpers when she responds with a passionate embrace.
After initially refusing to make a trip to the Song home due to his financial embarrassment, Han is compelled to journey there one fog-filled evening. He's greeted by the wet nurse who instinctively knows who he is, and leads him to Lianhua ... who is very much still alive. It transpires that her death was faked in a bid to foil her scheming cousins, the Lians, who were trying to poison her in a bid to get their hands on her inheritance. Now that Han has been reunited with his childhood sweetheart, the nurse implores him to marry the floundering Lianhua without delay - thus ensuring the family's fortune remains secure.
All of which may sound like a synopsis littered with spoilers, but the above merely outlines the first third of this 91-minute film. Needless to say, the film does embark into more overtly supernatural territory during its final hour ... in what can perhaps best be described as a stylish, ghoulish take on ROMEO AND JULIET.
THE GHOST LOVERS was first released in 1974 and stemmed from the esteemed Shaw Brothers production house. Directed by South Korean filmmaker Shin Sang-ok, the film was apparently a box office failure upon its release.
On the one hand, it's fathomable as to why THE GHOST LOVERS didn't have audiences flocking to see it. Released at a time when the horror genre was taking full advantage of relaxed attitudes towards onscreen sex and violence, the film is curiously coy in both departments (even the aforementioned moment of sexual assault is extremely timid by modern standards). Indeed, the Shaw Brothers responded to this film's lack of commercial prowess by taking their subsequent horror productions, such as BLACK MAGIC, down a far more graphic route.
However, for all the film's restraint in terms of exploitative action, it remains a beguiling proposition. It's an extremely attractive movie, Tsui Cheng-min's stunning cinematography framing well-lit compositions with impeccable, painterly care. Blue hues and smog-filled landscapes lend events an ethereal quality throughout, aiding Sang-ok's keen feel for atmosphere tremendously.
Performances are agreeable, the two leads in particular making it easy for the viewer to invest in their romantic endeavours and hope for an agreeable outcome against adversity. The plot has its share of surprises along the way, building its subtle horrors in a gratifyingly incremental manner.
There are moments of ill-fitting physical humour (the comical responses to the aforementioned tests the fake suitors are put through, for example) but these instances are not pronounced enough to counter the balance when it comes to this triumphing as an ambient, tasteful and surprisingly good-natured ghost flick.
88 Films treat us to the blu-ray world premiere of THE GHOST LOVERS. The disc contains the uncut film in an unexpectedly clean, sharp and vibrant 1080p transfer which really does look excellent - especially considering the relative obscurity up until now of this 44-year-old film. A natural, filmic presentation, the bold colour palettes are expertly rendered here while blacks remain stable throughout and fine detail can be seen even in wider shots. I couldn't find anything to quibble over.
Aurally, the original Chinese stereo track gets the uncompressed treatment and sounds mighty fine for the duration of playback. Optional English subtitles are well-written and easily readable at all times.
The disc opens to a static main menu page.
While there are no bonus features on the blu-ray itself, we do get a nice 4-page colour booklet containing enthusiastic and informative liner notes about the film's production company, its director and its female star.
This set also includes double-sided cover art and a nice slipcase.
While not top-tier Shaw Brothers horror fare, THE GHOST LOVERS is a visually arresting and atmospheric spook story and it's great to see it looking so good on UK blu-ray.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by 88 Films|