A Chinese Ghost Story is a movie that follows a young man named Ning. After the loss of his girlfriend he works as a debt collector to forget his troubles only to encounter more than he had imagined. Accompanied by his constant companion Solid Gold, Ning ends up in a ghost town and from there the adventure ensues. This movie explores some of China`s myths and fantasies as the viewer is taken through a world of drama, romance, and battles between good and evil.
Before watching this movie, I made some research on it and "don't expect to understand this one" seemed to be the key phrase. Still, the synopsis was interesting enough and so I watched it anyway (I'm a sucker for Chinese folklore), although just expecting eye candy. In the end, I liked it! Though I warn you in advance: if you are not familiar with Chinese folklore (specially the tale of Xiao Qian and the tax collector Ning), you will find some of the concepts awkward, at best. Like, for example, the idea of ghost busting: if you are not familiar with the myths of supernatural
powers possessed by Taoist masters, you will most likely laugh at it while recalling a certain American movie that has absolutely nothing to do with it.
Although it's not mandatory to know Chinese folklore in order to watch (and enjoy) the movie, you will miss out on a great deal if you don't keep up with all the Chinese mythological references (which the movie expects you to know, since it doesn't explain any of them). That said, the story is very singular, although odd and many times incomprehensible.
We follow Ning, a debt collector, and his dog Solid Gold. They're wandering around (seemingly aimlessly) and end up in a ghost town. It's a story of a human falling in love with an enchanting ghost, followed by bizarre giant monsters, with some generic warriors helping along the way. And don't forget all the Chinese mythology references too (eye candy).
Basically, don't watch this for the story if you have a short attention span. Although the creative storyline isn't necessarily directed to adults, it demands the comprehension of those at least 10 and up.
The art is nice. The character designs are Disney-ish in an unique way.
Animation-wise, watching it now, don't expect something grand. The animation is quite good for its time (for the characters and its motions, I mean) but it's outdated (this movie is over 10 years old). That being said, lets also not forget that this is Chinese animation so, obviously, the style is also different. Animation excels in character motions, specially in action scenes, which are greatly done, using very creative camera angles and charming colors. Down side would be the the CG used, which is on the very low quality side. In fact, the use of both 2D and 3D don't go very well together: the 2D is great, the 3D fails.
Character designs are unique to the individuals. A lot of the personality can be deduced from how the characters look like. Of course, most of them are pretty linear, like the "I trust everyone" Ning (you wouldn't expect that kind of personality on a debt collector xD), the "worship me" Evil Mountain, the "I'm awesome" Ten Miles, the "I'm god" White Cloud or the "too good for you" Shine. However, although there is nothing utterly wrong, nothing really stands out in this department.
Sound, sadly, is its biggest failing. The film was originally designed specifically around doing both Cantonese and Mandarin so you'd expect some failure there but, oddly enough, that's not where the failures appear. Actually, both audio languages are quite nice: the Cantonese brings less harsh character voices, since the dialogue sounds more like singing than talking, while the Mandarin is far more serious, with the extra work gone into drama. No, the problem is not the audio language.
We then have a few Disney-ish musical moments throughout the movie, although they sound lovely in both audio tracks. No, the problem is also not in the songs.
Unfortunately, it's the effects that fail the whole sound experience. They are mediocre and banal, at best. I even recognized sounds from a game, as well as numerous other films.
Although the dramatic aspects are well held, very often the sound intrudes on a well animated tense moment, ruining the whole experience.
The English dub is another fail, although not as prominent, because I recognize that it's somewhat hard to translate Chinese into English without it reading rather strange (cultural relativism). Nevertheless, the dialog is incredibly cheesy and, on many occasions, fails to deliver the original meaning of the story. I don't recommend it. The Mandarin and Cantonese tracks are both quite good and, although you are probably used to the clearer Japanese language, Chinese is very melodic so give it a try.
I liked the story and there were a few hilarious moments and awesome action scenes, but that was it. You can tell the movie is very ambitious and wildly imaginative. The love story portrayed is universal enough to be understood by anyone. So, if you can overlook the pathetic CG and the miserable sound effects, this movie will be something worth your time, otherwise, you watch it for the myth references only.
Sadly, it fails to stand out thanks to several factors already stated and though it is re-watchable once or twice (to hear both audio tracks), that is about all.