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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.

Plot: small-time crooks and renowned amnesiac gambler teach the Triads a lesson

Like many a popular Hong Kong property the God Of Gamblers franchise has a confusing history with sub-franchises, spin-offs, and regular sequels following its initial box office success. What counts as canon largely depends on one’s personal preference as most movies in the franchise share the same talent and themes, but largely exist in their own continuities, an exception or two notwithstanding. Chow Yun-Fat, Andy Lau, and Stephen Chow at various points headline the proceedings, but the deeper one gets into the series (recurring roles for Ng Man-Tat and Sharla Cheung, among others, often as different characters from one installment to the next, don’t help either) the harder it becomes to make sense of the timelines and continuity. Some of ‘em are funnier, some of ‘em are not. Some have Jing Wong directing, others do not. What does remain a constant is that the God Of Gamblers franchise is filled with action, comedy, strikingly beautiful women and exciting high-stakes gambling matches against a variety of colorful opponents.

Ko Chun (Chow Yun-Fat) is a secretive black-tie gambler blessed with the uncanny ability to win high-stakes games even when the odds are seemingly stacked against him. For that reason he is known only as the God Of Gamblers. Ko Chun has a beautiful wife in Janet (Sharla Cheung, as Man Cheung) and lives a quiet life when not gambling. He also is a fanatic and connoisseur of preeminent chocolate and won’t settle for less. When Ko Chun’s Japanese acquaintance Mr. Wang (Luk Chuen) requests his services for a high-stakes mahjong game against nefarious loanshark Shing (Ng Man-Tat). He, of course, agrees to help his friend to even his incurred debt. Ko Chun faces Shing and his partner miss Shi (Michiko Nishiwaki) – who, judging by her set of tattoos, is involved with the Triads - and defeats them against impossible odds. Dishonored by their loss at the mahjong game the Triads send a gang of assassins to murder Ko Chun. For protection Wang sets him up with security detail Lung Ng or Dragon (Charles Heung Wah-Keung), but he’s unable to ward off the many assailants swarming Ko Chun.

Meanwhile small-time crook Michael Chan, who calls himself Little Knife (Andy Lau) on the streets, has set up a practical joke for a neighbour. Little Knife lives in the New Territories in a small house down at the waterline with his mother (Chan Lap-Ban), his girlfriend Jane (Joey Wong) and his friend Crawl (Ronald Wong). In getting away from a swarm of Triad assailants Ko Chun runs into Little Knife’s trap and crashes down a hill injuring his head. Little Knife and his friends find Ko Chun and decide to rob him now that he’s in a helpless state. To make ends meet Jane works as a hostess in a nightclub in the big city. Little Knife has an change of heart, mostly due to Jane’s intervening, and instead takes Ko Chun into the house, and nurse him back to health. Rendered amnesiac due to his head trauma Ko Chun has no recollection of his former identity, and has regressed to an infantile state – but has retained both his masterful gambling skills and his incredible love for chocolate. Thus, in lieu of actually knowing that Ko Chun is the God Of Gamblers, they dub him Chocolate. Little Knife decides to have Chocolate checked up by Dr. Toneg Wong (Dennis Chan) just to be safe. In the interim they use Chocolate for their own personal enrichment, but Ko Chun’s former gambling associates want to coerce him into playing one final high-stakes match against revered elderly Singaporean industry legend Chan Gam Sing (Bau Hon-Lam).

The titular star of the God Of Gamblers is Chow Yun-Fat, who at this point was mostly known as an actor in dramatic and romantic pieces as Love in a Fallen City (1984). Yun-Fat had finished a stint in the heroic bloodshed genre working with directors John Woo and Ringo Lam on HK action classics as A Better Tomorrow (1986), City on Fire (1987), Prison on Fire (1987) and A Better Tomorrow 2 (1987). For the romance An Autumn's Tale (1987) Yun-Fat won the Golden Horse Award for best actor. God Of Gamblers allowed Chow Yun-Fat to showcase his versatility as an actor as it combined all of the previous genres he had dabbled in. Jing Wong’s gambling movie broke Hong Kong's all-time box office records establishing gambling as a veritable genre. God Of Gamblers was the first high-profile appearance of Joey Wong after her star-making turn in Tsui Hark’s tragically romantic fantasy wuxia A Chinese Ghost Story (1987). Wong gets a few bars of Burt Bacharach’s ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head’ as a theme, to establish her character’s good nature and overall innocence. When we first see Wong she’s wearing a casual shirt and ripped denims, later she can be seen wearing a very flattering figure-fitting verdant corset-dress that accentuates her athletic build. Sharla Cheung had been in Wong’s The Magic Crystal (1986) and would feature in Royal Tramp (1992) and its sequel, Kung Fu Cult Master (1993), The Sword Stained with Royal Blood (1993) and Dragon Chronicles - The Maidens Of Heavenly Mountains (1994).

Most, if not all, the comedy is derived from Chow Yun-Fat’s Ko Chun regressing back to an infantile state after his head injury. His child-like antics, and the lenghts to which the gang have to go to provide their card-playing wünderkind with a steady stream of chocolate, do give Yun-Fat the possibility to show his range as an actor. At one point Little Knife is chased by Triad goons across bamboo scaffolding which is pretty funny. Ng Man-Tat excels as the lecherous Triad loanshark and Michiko Nishiwaki does most of her acting with mere glances during the opening mahjong game. Joey Wong, having played a good amount of spectral maidens by this point, is allowed to do something else than constantly looking misty-eyed and pouting. As Jane she usually acts as the gang’s voice of reason and conscious – and Little Knife only comes around until Jane tells him to. Sharla Cheung’s Janet is pretty much a supporting character and her involvement in the plot is minimal as such. Once Jane is reunited with Ko Chun at the end of the third act there’s a wonderful sense of chemistry between her and Chow Yun-Fat. Jing Wong always had an eye for beauty and Strawberry Yeung Yuk-Mui, who plays a card-dealing waitress at one of the games later in the movie, is no exception to the rule.

Depending on your tolerance for situational – and slapstick comedy shenanigans God Of Gamblers is one of those cross-genre exercise that could only have come from Jing Wong. When Wong’s on fire he hits the marks more often than not. When he doesn’t something as nigh on incoherent as Future Cops (1993) is usually in the cards. In the interim Andy Lau and Stephen Chow were given their own sub-franchises and The Top Bet (1991) installed Carol Cheng Yu-Ling and Anita Mui as the star gamblers. It wouldn’t be until 1994 that Wong produced an official sequel to his earlier smash hit. For reasons that remain largely oblique God Of Gamblers and its belated official sequel never quite catched on in the Western hemisphere despite pushing all the right buttons. Chow Yun-Fat, now a superstar in his native Hong Kong, would eventually conquer Europe and America with the award-winning Ang Lee period costume wuxia Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) with former Girls with Guns action star Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi. In 1989 Chow Yun-Fat was just starting to find his footing in Hong Kong genre cinema.