Shin Sang-Ok’s The Ghost Lovers is rather more of an audio-visual poem than a standard horror flick; anyone expecting to find an antecedent to modern Asian films will likely be left unsatisfied. Indeed in some ways Yan Nu Huan Hun predicts what was about to happen in the prolific ‘Prince of South Korean Cinema’s’ own life, because four years later he was kidnapped on the orders of Kim Jong-Il with the intention of creating a film industry north of the Korean border.
Filmed largely on rather cheap but lushly dressed sets that in a big way help to give the film its lyrical quality, this tells the story of twenty-year-old Mr Han, who has been engaged to Sung Lianha since childhood having never met her, his father owing hers a great debt and being too proud to come home to their village until the money was found. Piecing together the required amount, Han returns only to discover en route, after being robbed of the entire fortune, that Lianha is dying. Falling in with a local innkeeper, Han is told he is due to inherit Lianha’s fortune, but being unable to repay the debt is reluctant to make contact. So Lianha, who unbeknown to Han has died already, decides to reach out to him instead.
As you’ve probably gathered, this is a love story of sorts, although the supernatural aspect is never too far from the forefront. But it takes a much less intense approach to the hauntings than any modern film would probably do, and the scenes in which the locals encounter the surprisingly corporeal ghosts of Lianha and her ‘wet nurse’ are played as much for comedy as for frights. It’s also a little laissez-faire in fully sketching in any of the main characters, so that in the end the poetry in this is more greetings card – albeit the upper end of that spectrum – than it is Shakespeare.
Ultimately what Lianha requires of Han is to marry and subsequently consummate that marriage to her, in order that she might move on from the mortal world without the heavenly embarrassment of having died a maiden. And this part of the film, like much of the rest, is sensitively and intelligently handled. Thus frankly The Ghost Lovers will have less appeal to fans of J-horror than to those more enquiring about how the oriental genre developed, or simply those looking for something absorbing and different, and in its own way quite fulfilling.
There are no extras here to speak of (bar a small booklet by Calum Waddell), but this is a lovely transfer making the film look almost – but for the pacing and effects – like it might have been shot yesterday.
THE GHOST LOVERS (YAN NU HUAN HUN) / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: SANG-OK SHIN / SCREENPLAY: YI-LU KUO / STARRING: LI CHING, WEI TU LIN, SHAO-HUNG CHAN, FENG CHEN CHEN, MEI HUA CHEN, HAN CHIANG / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW