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Plot: scholar falls in love with a beautiful girl who might, or might not, be a ghost

A sadly little-seen and underappreciated gem in the ghost romance pantheon is Ghost Of the Mirror from director Sung Tsun-Shou. Significant for being the first major role for Brigitte Lin it is overlooked in favor of Shaw Bros The Enchanting Shadow (1960) and Tsui Hark’s A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), both of which tell the same story. Headed by Shih Chun from A Touch Of Zen (1961) and helmed by a director that specialized in drama and romance Ghost Of the Mirror is a historical curiosity that shouldn’t be the obscurity that it tends to be. Lin and Sung Tsun-Shou joined forces once again for the romance The Story Of Green House (1980). Ghost Of the Mirror is in dire need of a proper restoration. Hopefully some company will rise to the task of properly restoring, remastering and subtitling this forgotten piece of ghost romance history for rediscovery for the English-speaking world.

Brigitte Lin (right) and co-star Chiang Wei-Min (left)

Brigitte Lin is one of the great leading ladies of Hong Kong cinema, a veritable queen of the period costume and fantasy wuxia genre, and a multiple Taiwan Golden Horse Award nominee. She was a veteran from over 100 movies. Of the four movies that Lin acted in in 1973-74 Ghost Of the Mirror was the most significant for being her first major role. Lin was a staple in Taiwanese dramas and romance and Ghost Of the Mirror was her earliest period costume wuxia of note. Lin is often remembered for her cross-dressing roles in The Dream Of the Red Chamber (1978) and her celebrated reinvention under Tsui Hark in Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) and Peking Opera Blues (1986). Brigitte Lin is an actress from the non-verbal school of acting who conveys more with just her eyes and face than most other actors do with the combination dialog and gestures.

Ghost Of the Mirror, for all intents and purposes, is a loose adaptation of Pu-Sing Ling’s Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio which had been adapted earlier with Shaw Bros The Enchanting Shadow (1960) with Chao Lei and Betty Loh Tih and a decade later with Tsui Hark’s A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) with Leslie Cheung and Joey Wong. Chang Yung-Hsiang was a Taiwanese screenwriter that specialized in romance. While all the characters and locations have different names it’s rather evident that Ghost Of the Mirror is a direct imitation of Pu-Sing Ling’s most famous work without infringing upon the copyright. It too follows a righteous scholar in a remote location who falls for the charms of a doomed maiden, ensnared by a malignant force he can’t possibly begin to comprehend. It was probably down to a lack of resources that Ghost Of the Mirror wasn’t able to secure the licensing rights for their adaptation of the work. The score too seems randomly put together from stock library music as well as cues from Akira Ikufube's theme from Zatoichi and the One-Armed Swordsman (1971) and the various darker, slightly spookier moments of Pink Floyd’s ‘Echoes’ from 1971’s “Meddle”.

An unnamed Buddhist scholar who everybody refers to as Young Noble (Shih Chun) is instructed by his ailing mother (Chang Ping-Yu) to copy a number of sacred Sutra a hundred times to appease the gods to improve her failing health. To that end Young Noble agrees to relocate to remote, quiet surroundings, abstaining from consuming meat and liquor, bathing regularly, and avoiding the company of women. He sends his young servant Ching (Chiang Wei-Min) to scout a possible location and soon the moving is underway. Ching believes the well on the property is haunted but Young Noble discounts it as mere childish superstition. As he prepares himself to start copying the Sutras he soon feels a presence inexplicable. He soon discovers that the house is haunted by Su-Su (Brigitte Lin, as Pai Yin), the ghost of a girl drowned in the well who can only come out at night and is forced to kill people in servitude to the Dragon. Ching eventually finds a mirror in the well and when Young Noble sends him away after his find the mirror turns out to contain the essence of a second ghost, Yuenyi (or Yao Ying) who looks exactly like Su-Su but has a completely different personality. Under the influence of her malefic enslaver Yuenyi attempts to strangle Young Noble with her sari but she resists the Dragon’s ectoplasmatic force as she deems him too righteous to kill.

As a lifedebt of sorts for resisting the Dragon’s power Yuenyi suggests to be his servant for the duration of his assigned transcription task. Enamored of both the reserved Su-Su and the more enterprising Yuenyi, Young Noble explores the caves beneath the well and finds a bronze mirror in a box. Now that the mirror is out in the open it allows Su-Su and Yuenyi to keep him company in daytime as well. As time elapses Su-Su and Yuenyi start to merge into one. At this point Young Noble’s mother pays her dutiful son an unexpected visit at the isolated mansion and is initially disappointed to find him in the presence of a woman, something which he agreed to abstain from. Su-Su/Yuenyi explains that her intentions are nothing but honorable, and the old matriarch allows the two of them to be together, knowing full well that Su-Su/Yuenyi is a ghost. On the way back to the abandoned mansion the two run into a devilish old lady who turns out to be a manifestation of the Dragon. Young Noble continues with the completion of his transcriptions and the two decide to shield the house with Sutras he has already finished as a measure against attacks from the Dragon. In the night the Dragon attacks the mansion to reclaim his prized possession, Su-Su/Yuenyi. While he’s unable to save Su-Su/Yuenyi from certain death, Young Noble’s righteousness is powerful enough to exile the Dragon from the realm of the living, at least for the time being.

The on-screen romance between Shih Chun and Brigitte Lin remains quite chaste at all times. The contrasting personalities of Su-Su and Yuenyi allow Lin to showcase her versatility as an actress – and even this early on it’s clear that she was destined for superstardom given the proper means and vehicle. Su-Su is very reserved, aloof and content in her subservience while Yuenyi possesses a greater joie de vivre. She loves to dance, wears colorful veils and has an overall more positive frame of mind. Obviously the victim of a great tragedy the heart of Su-Su/Yuenyi is restored when she makes her acquaintance with Young Noble. Lin’s breakthrough would come with Tsui Hark’s mythological spectacle Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983). In some two decades hence from Ghost Of the Mirror – and after some considerable career peaks in between – Lin would find herself on the lower end of the spectrum once again with the disastrous and widely derided Louis Cha adaptation Dragon Chronicles – The Maidens of Heavenly Mountain (1994).

Ghost Of the Mirror has been largely eclipsed by the two adaptations before and after it. Shaw Bros’ The Enchanting Shadow (1960) and Tsui Hark’s A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), both told of a doomed and tragic romance between a Buddhist scholar and a ghostly maiden, and did so with far higher production values and to much greater effect. In its defense it isn’t as if Brigitte Lin wasn’t a suitable alternative to Betty Loh Tih and Joey Wong. Screenwriter Chang Yung-Hsiang certainly hits all the right notes in the story and the doomed romance between the two lovers is well-developed enough to make the ending fittingly tragic. The production is hampered by its obvious lack of resources but thankfully director Sung Tsun-Shou is able to do a lot with very little. The special effects-heavy finale is where Ghost Of the Mirror betrays its low-budget nature as much of it is puppetry and miniatures with sometimes very visible strings. Budgetary limitations notwithstanding Ghost Of the Mirror is a charming little movie that has been relegated to obscurity despite Brigitte Lin’s later international stardom.

    It might not have the rustic charm of The Enchanting Shadow (1960) or the mad frenetic energy, the slapstick comedy and the oh so bittersweet romance of A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) yet Ghost Of the Mirror is perfectly capable of holding its own. There are obviously superior, and better realized, examples of the form but Ghost Of the Mirror has much of the same creaky, rickety charm as those poorly funded Mediterranean gothic horror genre pieces that arrived in the wake of American Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. Ghost Of the Mirror draws from a different literary source and – mythology, but its objectives are largely the same. That Ghost Of the Mirror is overlooked in favor of its better known brethren is understandable. As serviceable and occassionally atmospheric as it it, it isn’t some lost classic or overlooked gem. As a historic curiosity it is interesting purely for being Brigitte Lin’s first major role. Other than that it’s a by-the-book Chinese ghost story that abstains from the overt craziness that came to define the post-A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) exercises in the genre. A little goes a long way and a little of Brigitte Lin in her earliest role of note is so much more than just that.

It would be an understatement to say that Italian combo Caelestis has undergone a steep evolution over the years. They dabbled in tranquil ambient/lounge, gothic-tinged alternative rock, shoegaze and dreamy post-rock and now the circle is complete as they return to their chilled out beginnings. “Sutra” is a four-part conceptual EP exploring the sacred words of the Lotus Sutra. It’s everything that “Telesthesia” hinted at but explored to much greater depth. For the most part “Sutra” abandons what little rock elements remained in Caelestis’ music. In its stead is a more pronounced and befitting world music - and New Age component.

Vera Clinco and Cataldo Cappiello

As far back as “Heliocardio” Caelestis has always explored universal themes as cosmic unity and love and “Sutra” now puts an Eastern spin on things. The inspiration for “Sutra” is, as the title would suggest, the Lotus Sutra (or the "Sūtra on the White Lotus of the Sublime Dharma”), one of the most influential Mahāyāna sutras that served as the basis for Mahāyāna and Tendai Buddhism. The four tracks each represent a part of the mantra Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō, that in the practice of shōdai or prolonged chanting is used to reduce negative karma and karmic punishments from lifetimes past and present with the goal to attain perfect and complete awakening. Caelestis, who under normal circumstances sing and write in their native Italian, this time around decided to meet their audience halfway. For the first time frontwoman Vera Clinco not only wrote her own lyrics for each song, now they are also in English. At long last Caelestis has managed to overcome the one barrier that has always kept them from reaching a wider audience. Hopefully “Sutra” will inspire the Caelestis duo to continue in English.

Central to “Sutra” is the tank drum played by Cataldo Cappiello and Caelestis forgoes most traditional percussion in the process. “Sutra” is all about compositional minimalism and instrumental efficiency. Keyboards, piano, guitars and drums all appear in limited capacity and their role is purely supportive. “Sutra” is built upon a foundation of Clinco’s alluring vocals and Cappiello’s instrumentation. Caelestis always had a penchant for creating an enveloping dream-like atmosphere and on "Sutra" said warm blanket-like component is ubiquitous. The trilogy of ‘Nam’, ‘Myoho’ and ‘Renge’ is the strongest, both compositionally and atmospherically, that Caelestis has ever sounded. The brief Arabic chanting in ‘Renge’ especially sounds promising should Cappiello ever feel the need to explore that side of their ambient/world music sound. ‘Kyo’, not necessarily to its detriment, is the most standard sounding of the bunch. Caelestis has always radiated with positivity and warmth but it never was the focus of their music. “Sutra” changes this by making it the EP’s entire raison d'être.

While Cataldo never has stopped growing as a musician and songwriter, Vera has perhaps changed the most of all. From her studio guest appearance on ‘Dove La Luce’ from 2012’s “Nel Suo Perduto Nimbo” to her mousy, unsure and somewhat awkward performance on “Heliocardio” to the transitional “Spyglass” single or more recently with “Telesthesia” la Clinco is by far the most celebrated (and celebratory) aspect of Caelestis as a unit. On “Sutra” Clinco it seems is finally unlocking and fully embracing the potential we always knew she had – and does it ever show. What a truly remarkable and emotive voice this ravenhaired, wide-eyed, leggy songstress has. The direction on “Sutra” isn’t new per se as such as it was already hinted at in 2016 and 2017 when the duo released music videos for transitional pieces ‘Agape’ and ‘Le Mie Ossa Sono Onde’. That doesn’t change the fact that “Sutra” is one of the most accomplished and engrossing pieces of music the duo has written thus far. For all intents and purposes “Sutra” as an EP offers the complete experience.

Buddhism and Eastern spirituality have been the backbone for Caelestis for a number of years now, although this is the first time they base an entire recording around it. Asian mythology and folklore has a wealth of interesting figures, stories and deities which they can use as an inspiration. The inclusion of one or more ethnic instruments as the guzheng, pipa (the Chinese lute), guqin, erhu or bamboo flute would further increase the deeply peaceful and relaxing nature of Caelestis' already dreamy, uplifting and meditative sound. Especially coupled with the deeply emotive kind of wordless, mantra-like chants and vocalizations that Clinco would probably excel at. "Sutra" has opened a world of possibilities wherein Caelestis can take its music. Hopefully the Asian aspect will be explored further as it fits their overall concept, outlook and philosophy. Cappiello and Clinco would be doing themselves a disservice at least not contemplating the possibilities now present.

That Clinco has served as a muse to Cappiello has become increasingly apparent in recent years. She initially debuted as guest vocalist on an earlier recording but took up the mantle as frontwoman for the "Heliocardio" EP. Since then la Clinco has become more of an intrinsic part of Caelestis, both vocally and creatively. Vera had already been involved creatively in the years prior, writing her own melodies and generally as an inspiration, and now "Sutra" sees her induction as a songwriter. The vocal melodies are stronger than they were in the past and the deeper Clinco involves herself in the writing, the more engrossing and elaborate these might grow on future recordings. As a starting point for their collaboration "Sutra" has more than enough avenues in which it can be further explored. Vera's silky vocals are at their best when they are put to smooth ambient songs. Clinco soars when her pipes are supported by a likewise dreamy tapestry of sounds.

Caelestis has never been afraid to experiment and evolve – and at long last they have found a functional equilibrium between instrumentation and composition, now perfectly in sync. Instead of adding to their sound the duo has subtracted to great and positively intoxicating effect. “Sutra” does more with less and Cappiello’s songs have never been more tranquil and soothing than they are now. Likewise, and not any less important, has Clinco almost literally found a vocal style that she’s obviously comfortable with. The little, innocent-looking, and unconfident girl that danced in the woods in the ‘Io E Te Siamo La Luna’ music video has, much like a caterpillar turning into a beautiful butterfly, grown into a fiercely intelligent and stunningly talented young woman in a scant few short years. The greatest reward of any record is the element of discovery. In case of Caelestis and “Sutra” it is rediscovery rather than discovery as Clinco and Cappiello always were brimming with potential. “Sutra”, if anything else, evinces that the two are now perhaps at the strongest they have ever been. For that reason “Sutra” is a true revelation.