The Enchanting Phantom (Qian nü you hun: Ren jian qing)
China (2020) Dir. Lin Zhenzhao
It’s the same old story – boy meets girl, boy falls for girl, they are separated, can they get back together again? Except, as the title implies, this isn’t quite the same old story, as the girl in question happens to be a ghost…
Hapless scholar Ning Caichen (Chen Xingxu) is constantly plagued by bad luck, arriving in town and finding himself caught up in a feud between rival demon hunters, Yan Chixia (Yuen Wah) and a bumbling rival Zhiqiu Yiye (Steven Cheung). It is during this fight that Ning encounters Nie Xiaoqian (Eleanor Lee), a female spirit sent to suck his life force, only to be bemused by her bumbling target.
Xiaoqian is a servant to the hermaphrodite Tree Demon Lao Lao (Norman Tsui), keeping him alive by relieving men of the life force and passing it on to him. When she returns without fulfilling her duty, Lao Lao discerns her growing feelings for Ning, so he decides to marry her off to the Black Mountain Demon. With Yan Chixia’s help, Ning travels to the Black Mountain underworld ready to risk everything to save Xiaoqian.
Also known as Chinese Ghost Story: Human Love, the plot of The Enchanting Phantom might sound familiar if you have seen Ching Siu-tung’s seminal 80s flick A Chinese Ghost Story, as it is a remake. It is in fact the second remake, with the first appearing in 2011, though by all accounts the story deviated from the original, whilst Lin Zhenzhao has chosen to stay more faithful to the source material.
Despite sitting on my DVD shelf for almost two decades, I have not watched the original film or the 2011 remake, which I think I also have somewhere, so I am going into this fresh and without any point of reference for comparisons or differences. However, I am certain that the production values are a huge upgrade in this version, despite this being a minor project which due to the pandemic went straight to VOD.
Certainly, the visuals reflect this with many eye catching set designs and creative world building, such as the Black Mountain Underworld, a phantasmagorical head-trip of ghoulish delights. Elsewhere, the opening shot of a group of Taoist monk traipsing through the rain, carries a faint echo of Hark’s trademark nighttime aesthetic with a radiant blue hue overwhelming the image.
Ning Caichen may be a wandering scholar but he doesn’t appear to be a very bright one, portrayed a bumbling gauche nitwit who would have trouble dressing himself. He has no money or place to stay so what exactly does he have to offer people that will go towards paying his way? The only background we get for Ning is an apology to his ancestors at a shrine for being “unfilial” which is isn’t expanded upon.
Yan Chixia, a worldly Taoist monk far more savvy than those vanquished at the start of the film, might provide the true testosterone of the story but is hardly romantic lead material so the feckless but earnest Ning it is. Because Ning’s life source is so pure, Lao Lao thinks it will boost his in his quest to reverse the aging process, and tasks Xiaoqian with procuring it for him, by setting up an illusion of a temple where Ning will ask for a place to sleep.
The plan almost works except Xiaoqian didn’t account for Ning being so pure he would be able to resist her advances, largely for fear of being seen as taking advantage of her. This confuses Xiaoqian who had been led to believe all men were pigs and only want one thing from a woman, by way of vindicating their succubus acts. Now confronted with a dilemma, Xiaoqian seeks to learn more and realising Ning does fancy her, is warmed by the fact someone likes her as a person and not just for priapic reasons.
Such well intended sexual politics might seem out of place in a story with seduction as a core element but this is covered by the ancient period setting where chasteness was less of a social stigma. It also adds an interesting twist to the central dynamic with the woman as the predator forced to confront her own actions, even if they are predicated by misinformation, as opposed to the rampant male needing the reality check.
But this isn’t something that is discussed with any degree of intellectual insight or a view to provoke debate, it is a means to garner sympathy for our potential star crossed lovers and make the lines of good vs. evil as distinct as possible. In other words, it is to fill the bits in between the supernatural action scenes, which is what most people want to see anyway.
Ironically, the spectre of Tsui Hark – producer of the original – looms heavy over this facet of the film, largely eschewing CGI for wire work for the bodies flying about. The only time effects are used is to embellish visuals like bursts of mystic energy, swirling spirit figures, flying swords, etc. The Black Mountain Demon is a CGI creation of mixed results – as imposing as it needs to be but exposing the comparative modesty of the budget.
Even though Chen Xingxu as Ning gets top billing, he is overshadowed by veterans Yuen Wah and Norman Tsui, as both an on screen presence and commanding characters. Chen is fine but in his role but too dippy to take seriously, and fails to create any real chemistry with Eleanor Lee’s Xiaoqian, very attractive and definitely enchanting, but missing that charismatic spark as a seductress and love interest.
Maybe it is time I gave Hark’s original film an overdue watch to put The Enchanting Phantom into some sort of perspective. It’s an enjoyable enough distraction for 96 minutes but an oddly sterile one; it is not so much that it does anything wrong, rather something is missing to make it feel as substantial as it aspires to be.