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March 20, 2012

Spiritual Love

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Gui xin niang
David Lai & Taylor Wong - 1987
Joy Sales Films All Region DVD

Deanie Ip was unknown to me when she won the award at the last Venice Film Festival for her performance in Ann Hui's A Simple Life. The film never gained traction even with a screening at Toronto as everyone seemed mesmerized by the Best Actor at Venice, Michael Fassbender and his exposed penis. In the meantime, Ip has racked up awards from various Asian film groups. Even with the awards and critical acclaim, it looks like I'll probably see A Simple Life the same way as I've seen all of Ann Hui's other films, as a subtitled DVD.

Checking into IMDb's information on Ip, her win at Venice is less surprising in light of the number of awards and nominations received over her career in Hong Kong cinema. I felt it important to see at least one Ip's earlier performances, and chose Spiritual Love more or less at random. The film is primarily a starring vehicle for Chow Yun-Fat, with Ip in a supporting role, although another of her performances that received an award nomination.

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Chow plays the part of an ineffective mob enforcer, Bob, who's better at sponging off his cousin, played by Ip, than he is at making collections for his boss. When not asking when her cousin is going to pay his share of the rent, Ip is involved as some kind of Taoist priestess although she alternates with Buddhist prayers. Chow finds an antique desk that contains the letter of a woman, Wei, whom in some past period was condemned to live in the afterlife as the wife of a horrid man. Bob has the correct horoscope to be the man to rescue Wei. Bob brings Wei back to life in then present day Hong Kong, much to the horror of cousin, Chin-Hua. Spiritual Love can be best summed up as a broadly comic version of that classic Asian genre of a man in love with a female ghost.

Wei is played by Cherie Cheung. In a scene that shows why Ip was popular as a comic performer, she has a duel with Cheung, an extended piece of physical comedy that combines a parody of martial arts moves with Chinese opera. Much of this is done in full shots so that one can appreciate the ability of Ip to move around with Cheung as the two hit, kick and use available household items as weapons. What may seem unusual for a film of this kind of genre is that it is also partially a musical, taking advantage of Ip's standing as a popular singer at the time the film was made.

This is not a film with anything resembling artistic aspirations. As likable as Chow Yun-Fat usually is, he is less interesting to watch than the rest of the cast, which including Ip and the charming Cheung, features Pauline Wong as May, the former girlfriend who decides she really wants Bob for herself. Aside from a couple of shots of the leggy Wong in her underwear, the actress is in a scene of where she threatens to commit suicide by hanging herself. Wong's scene is so darkly comic that it might cause that master of suicide humor, Billy Wilder, to momentarily hesitate. It's also a scene that initiates a final battle between May and Wei in a disco, complete with wonderfully cheap special effects and a large video screen that acts as a conduit between the real world and the realm of ghosts.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at March 20, 2012 08:53 AM