Chinese Fairy Tales
For a few years, I have been aware that many of the fantasy tales found in Chinese cinema, have been influenced by a series of short stories called Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, written by Pong Song Ling in the 17th Century but collected and published after his death. I recently bought the book and have found it fascinating how these tales describe superstition in China in the 1600’s, with many of the themes still interwoven in the culture today. They either directly influence film, such as Painted Skin 2008 or the stories they describe are absorbed into an entertaining narrative in films like Encounter of the Spooky Kind 1980. Come with me on a journey into Chinese myth and legends, an otherworldly place, with its own rules and practices that is essential to know, if you enjoy the fantasy wuxia genre.
Strange Tales from a Chinese studio, holds a lot in common with The Grimm Fairy Tales. They are both based on oral stories that have been passed down through the ages, with no known author. Like the Brothers Grimm, Pu Song Ling merely wrote them down for the first time and sought to collect them in one place, a fine literary task! They differ from Grimm Fairy Tales, in the fact they are adult stories, even though many tales such as Snow White and Sleeping Beauty are much nastier and bloodier than their Disney counterparts, there main purpose is to teach morals and tell an engaging story to children. The Strange Tales can be bloody and can feature themes such as bestiality and faeces eating! The language is also quite sophisticated, the translator of the tales John Minford describes Pong Song Ling as a respected scholar, who wrote with other scholars in mind, thus the translated English features words you don’t come across in everyday vernacular. The stories are generally very short, some just filling a page, with the longest being 4-5 pages at the most.
The most common theme in the stories is a ghost, usually a beautiful woman interacting with a man who doesn’t realise that she is a ghost. More often than not these ghosts are described as fox spirits. The fox appears to refer to their character rather than their appearance, sometimes on inspection the ghost might display a bushy tail, but they are never seen in the form of a fox, rather they are cunning, sly and usually malevolent. This appears to be the most romantic and deceitful form a ghost can take and it is no wonder it has become popular to display them in film. The most famous tale from the book that has been directly adapted and expanded is the aforementioned Painted Skin.
The original story concerns a man who is transfixed by a beautiful woman who, taking her as his concubine (this seems to happen regularly in the stories and appears to have been an acceptable practice of the time), has his heart ripped out and eaten, as she turns out to be a demon who has to feed on human hearts to survive. She is only wearing the beautiful skin she displays and is a monster underneath. There is an obvious moral here, about beauty only being skin deep and the perils of lust and adultery, however the husband is let off the hook, as his wife hires a Taoist priest to defeat the monster and then brings her husband back to life with the help of a mad old beggar. The wife is actually the hero of the story, putting up with her husband’s foolishness, sorting the situation out, then being the bigger person by giving him a second chance, a powerful women indeed!
The film adaptation starring Donnie Yen, Chen Kun and Zhou Xun pads this out into more of a love story and states that the demon in question is a fox spirit even though this is not mentioned in the original story. Chen Kun plays General Wang Sheng, who rescues a maiden called Xiaowei from a desert tribe, unbeknownst to him she is actually a demon who feasts on human hearts to survive. He invites her into his home as a servant, which his wife isn’t too pleased about. Xiaowei quickly falls in love with the General and tries to seduce him. Things are made more complicated when Donnie Yen, a former general and close friend of Wang Sheng, is found unconscious in the desert. He teams up with a demon hunter and proceeds to convince the village that Xiaowei isn’t all she seems. Xiaowei shows all the characteristics of the creature from the original short story, she is beautiful and manipulative, she eats human hearts to survive and she eventually reveals she has a demonic form underneath her skin, which she can peel off at will. The film contains a sprinkling of good action scenes featuring Donnie, but it is at its best when it shows the manipulative powers of Xiaowei and how fox spirit/demons are able to assimilate themselves into someone’s household, taking control of their minds. A little too much is added to the film though, with a run time of just over 2 hours, considering it is based on a very short story, it certainly feels over baked and can drag in places. However Zhou Xun is exceptional as a demon obsessed with a human and it one of the best representations of this classic Chinese legend, to be shown on screen.
Zhou Xun reprises her role as the fox spirit in Painted Skin 2: The Resurrection 2012, in a common move for Chinese film making, it also stars two of the same actors from the first film, playing different roles. It features a similar plot to Painted Skin with Xiaowei falling in love with a princesses love interest, this time they are pitted against a demonic cult who are trying to bring their leader back from the dead. The cult bring an almost camp sense of fun to proceedings, complete with wolf men who run on all fours! It is a bit of a rerun of the first film, but doesn’t contain the same intrigue and manipulation from the fox spirit as the original.
The two Painted Skin films are an interesting example of an adaptation directly from a Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio story, however the greatest film that has been influenced by these classic ghost stales is Sammo Hung’s Encounter of The Spooky Kind 1980 wonderfully called Ghost vs. Ghost in Cantonese. You can see how Sammo took the stories he had either read or had been passed down to him and crafted a crazy but magnificent martial arts film out of it. These stories were clearly a fascination of his, as he went on to star in semi sequel 1989’s Spooky Encounters aka Ghost, It’s a Ghost! and produced the Mr Vampire franchise. But this is his tour de force.
Sammo plays Courageous Cheung, a simple but brave man who doesn’t believe in ghosts. His friends try to play trick a on him, as they ask him to peel an apple in front of a mirror at midnight, as according to the superstition, if you fail to do it in one go, something bad will happen. Naturally one of his friends has dressed up as a ghost to scare him, only for a real ghost to appear and pull his friend into the mirror. This is more of an urban legend, which is actually present in the west that has some variations, from brushing your hair in the mirror, to peeling the apple to get a ghost to grant you a wish. Despite escaping, it gets worse for Courageous Cheung as his boss is having an affair with his wife and wants to rid himself of the Courageous one, so Cheung is persuaded to spend a night in a temple, while the boss hires a Taoist priest to control a cross between a zombie and the traditional Goeng- si to finish Cheung off for good. What a plan it is, using his own stupid bravery against him. After surviving the attack, he is tricked into spending another night in the temple, so he consults a Taoist priest for advice; he tells him to get a selection of duck eggs and dog’s blood to combat the vampire, the dog’s blood itself is directly mentioned in the tale Magic Arts from the classic collection and is used to combat a spirit who is trying to trick the protagonist into thinking he is being haunted, a theme also prevalent in Sammo’s master piece. The genius of this film, is that it takes the really fun myths and conventions of these classic Chinese stories and adds some superb action sequences to really flesh them out. In Strange Tales, action is few and far between or is dealt in a single blow. Sammo crafts different kinds of action and how to defeat the various adversaries he comes up against, including Zombie Kung Fu, in a sequence where Courageous Cheung is stuck in the temple with a corpse, in a piece of action that I don’t think has been bettered.
Encounter of the Spooky Kind is one of the finest examples of adapting these tales and adding its own unique action scenes; of course many other films have been heavily influenced by the tales from A Chinese Ghost Story trilogy 1987-1991 to Mr Vampire 1985. As I was writing this I saw the trailer for Jackie Chan’s latest fantasy adventure Knight of Shadows: Between Ying and Yang 2019, in which he actually plays Pong Song Ling! Whether it is a nod to these tales or a full on adaptation, Strange Tales from A Chinese studio, continues to be a huge influence on Chinese film making, like the brothers Grimm; Pong Song Ling’s skill was to collect stories that tease and invigorate the imagination, speaking to people through the ages, as they contain themes that are truly timeless.