Golden Swallow / Gam yin ji

(1988, 1:85, O Sing-Pui)
* – Moments of Interest

To complain that “Golden Swallow” (a 1988 production not to be confused with the 1968 film directed by Zang Che) borrows heavily from Tsui Hark’s and Ching-Siu Tung’s “A Chinese Ghost Story” is not an entirely accurate criticism. The makers of “Golden Swallow” lift direct passages from Thomas Dolby’s score for Ken Russell’s “Gothic”, mimic images from John Boorman’s “Exclaibur”, and end the film with a climactic sequence straight out of Tsui’s “Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain”. While Hong Kong films may work off of each other and borrow from popular Hollywood films, the makers of “Golden Swallow” move outside the realm of artistic inspirations and into the land of plagiarism.

The plot is almost identical to “A Chinese Ghost Story” (to be fair, both plots may derive from the same traditional Chinese fable) in which a young scholar (Anthony Wong Yiu -Ming) falls in love with a ghost (Cherie Chung) who serves as a siren to lure men to their death at the hands of a forest demon. There are a few changes: this time the scholar is a lampshade-maker, the lovers do come together and live in the mortal world, and instead of one spirit-fighting swordsman there are three, though only one has the true power to defeat the forest demon. Beyond that, however, the film looks and plays like a copy of Tsui’s and Ching’s film.

This is not to say that the film doesn’t have any redeeming qualities;the cinematography by Arthur Wong is quite rich, the use of reds and blues in the art direction works in unison with the costume and lighting design to create a strong atmosphere of otherworldliness, and the graceful flying sequences and wire work help add to the sense of phantasmic beauty. Perhaps the technical quality of the production shouldn’t come across as a surprise, as the art director, Yee Chung-man, served the same duties on “A Chinese Ghost Story”, and the director, O Sing-Pu, worked as an assistant director on the early works of Tsui Hark (this may also explain the tendency to replicate Tsui’s “Zu” and “Ghost Story”)

The film’s flights of fancy come crashing down during the dramatic sequences, for Sing shoots them with little regard to tempo, space, or framing, letting the camera remain in static long shots and cutting to close-ups indifferent to dramatic emphases. The changes in style are jarring, and the indifferent attitude towards the drama severely impairs the crux of the film, the love affair between a mortal and a spirit. The photogenic but emotionally weak leads don’t help either, lacking both the charisma and passion of Leslie Cheung and Joey Wong in “Ghost Story” — Sing is content to have them stare at each other and unconvincingly declare their mutual love.

The shifts between the static, impoverished images and the dynamic, lush ones indicate that while Sing may know how to create a pretty image, he doesn’t know how to put a series of sequences together to create a smooth whole. As the case with a number of Hong Kong films, the action director may have a stronger grasp on film language than the main director. Unfortunately, the strengths of the action sequences are marred by a rushed third act, where the editing is so fragmented as to render events incomprehensible and gives the sequences a choppy and clumsy rhythm. The final result ends up being like a number of Hong Kong films, displaying a conflict and/or discrepancy between the style and skill of the assigned directors as well as a frenzied rush to a climax that undermines the film’s accomplishments and coherence, ultimately tarnishing the film as a whole. While there are many films that can overcome the patchwork, derivative quality typical of many Hong Kong productions, the makers of “Golden Swallow” seem to be working with different aptitudes and their differences, approaching with accelerated speed in the editing room, ultimately collide on the screen.


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