Remaking a popular cinema classic is always going to be risky. What if it is not as good as the original and is banished to celluloid hell for ruining or disrespecting a classic?
That possibility crossed the mind of Chinese director Lin Zhenzhao, whose film The Enchanting Phantom is the latest remake of Tony Ching Siu-tung’s A Chinese Ghost Story (1987). It was also considered by 20-year-old Singaporean actress Eleanor Lee, who takes up the female lead role that propelled Taiwanese actress Joey Wong Choi-yin to mega-stardom in the late 1980s.
“Remaking a classic movie is stressful for both the director and actors,” Lin says. “While doing so brings a lot of publicity, (we worry that) it’s very difficult to surpass the classic and fans might make bad comments.
“Eleanor lives in Singapore. She doesn’t know much about classic Chinese culture. So she felt stressed at the start of filming over having to play such a classic Chinese female role. But she is a smart girl and eventually got the hang of it.”
Fortunately, neither has cause to fret. Since its release on May 1 exclusively on Tencent Video, the supernatural romantic comedy has been winning legions of fans in China, particularly as cinemas were still closed across the country when it was released as part of government measures to contain the coronavirus outbreak.
With more than 170 million views, The Enchanting Phantom has already earned its producers more than 35 million yuan (US$5 million) after splitting profits with the video platform, off a production budget of 23 million yuan. The most successful online movie in China is the recently released remake of The Thousand Faces of Dunjia, which has earned over 50 million yuan via iQiyi and Tencent Video.
Lin says he made the movie for one simple reason ” he loves the story, which originates from a collection of ghostly fables known in English as Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio by Qing dynasty writer Pu Songling (1640-1715).
“I watched (the classic version) when I was in primary school. I’m excited to be able to direct its remake. I want to use my own visual and narrative style to give a new experience to the audience,” he says.
Produced by Hong Kong director Tsui Hark, A Chinese Ghost Story stars Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing as Ning Choi Sun, a young tax collector who falls in love with an elusive young woman named Nip Siu Sin (Wong), who turns out to be a ghost.
Nip is under the thumb of an evil tree spirit, who forces her to seduce unwary male travellers so it can suck out their yang (masculine) energy to feed on. While Wong played the role of Nip in the original with verve, portraying her as a flirty seductress, Lee was praised for injecting the role with innocence and playfulness.
Born in Taiwan, Lee graduated from the Beijing Film Academy and cut her teeth in showbiz by starring in an iPhone mini-movie directed by Hong Kong director Ann Hui On-wah. She has appeared in several drama series and movies in China including Tribes and Empires: Storm of Prophecy (2015) and The Big Boss (2017).
Lee is among a host of actresses who have risen to the challenge of playing Nip. Crystal Liu Yifei, for instance, stars alongside Louis Koo Tin-lok in the 2011 version from Hong Kong director Wilson Yip. Other actresses who have taken on the role include Yang Mi, Barbie Hsu, and Grace Yu Xiaofan.
Lin says The Enchanting Phantom is a tribute to the collective memory of Hong Kong cinema among the 1980s and ’90s generations in China
This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.
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