Spiritual Love (1987)
by: David Lai & Taylor Wong
at the Hong Kong Film Awards 1988:
Another 1987 Chow Yun-Fat film which I know sounds really negative but truth be told he did take part in some less than stellar movies during 1987-1988 in particular. David Lai's name may not ring a bell but he was the co-director of fan favourite Saviour Of The Soul (1991). David enjoyed moderate box office success during the 80s and explored the theme of ghosts in his Possessed films before doing Spiritual Love. Co-directing with David is Taylor Wong who did the fairly enjoyable Tragic Hero and the 1982 Shaw Brother's movie Buddha's Palm. Upon it's release this ghost romance performed well at the box office, most likely because of the audiences craving for anything featuring Chow Yun-Fat.
Debt collector Lao K (Chow Yun-Fat) lives with his ghostbusting cousin Chiu Hua (Deannie Yip from The Lunatics), is 9 months behind the rent but still decides to buy an old Chinese Desk after noticing something strange about it. In the desk he finds a letter written a long time ago by a troubled young woman. She writes that her wish is to be reincarnated by someone born at a specific date and is willing to sacrifice 3 years of their life by doing this. Lao K fits the profile and performs the ritual described in the letter. He forgets about it all but one night he discovers a young woman (Cherie Cheung) floating in the Hong Kong harbour. He comes to her rescue and as it turns out, she is the young woman from the letter...
Hong Kong cinema have produced many movies, even classics, with plots based on religious beliefs and rituals within it. Through some of these Western audiences have picked up a little knowledge to at least keep up with a movie featuring Taoism for example. In most cases a possible distribution in the West was unthinkable and filmmakers made their movies for a target audience familiar with the religion. It's not a given that, without sufficient knowledge, movies can not be enjoyed but it surely could've worked better with it. Spiritual Love falls somewhere in that category.
For a Westerner it's not entirely easy to say if Stephen Shiu's script is spotty or if some elements just don't travel because of the non-familiarity with Taoism. It could very well be a little of both but outside of this plot element there are a lot that we can understand and judge. David Lai and Taylor Wong's movie are like many other Hong Kong movies in that they jump freely between different moods throughout. It's not as insane as it usually is but in some movies it's rather enjoyable to see extremely broad comedy become straight drama in a heartbeat. Spiritual Love devotes time to drama but chooses to focus more on comedy. The latter aspect only works in parts despite Chow Yun-Fat being behind most of the humour. In the beginning we get a glimpse of Lao's life as a low life triad and his character leans more towards loudmouthed and unsympathetic. Comedy isn't broad as such but the banter between characters isn't more than mildly funny. A level that means Chow Yun-Fat is just present and not really putting in any huge effort. Having said that, Chow is the actor you can trust to make scenes like this a lot more watchable than the written word suggests. We return to this type of comedy from time to time but when Cherie Cheung's ghost character enters the plot, the interest level increases.
You can say it many times but the directors were blessed with having the screen couple Chow Yun-Fat and Cherie Cheung. By now they had acted together in three films (the previously being the romantic classic An Autumn's Tale) and their genuine chemistry was firmly established. Spiritual Love isn't as ambitious and getting the leads back together is probably partly a device to automatically lure in audiences (it worked). Despite that there's still winning chemistry between the two.
The character of Lao K is seen in a different light after meeting Hsiao-Tieh. His motivations for welcoming the ghost is not clear as day. Does he do it because of falling for her instantly or just because it's a beautiful woman that you have to take a chance with at least? At this point, that motivation doesn't matter as much but later we're meant to believe his love is so deep that he's willing to sacrifice a lot for Hsiao-Tieh. The believability falters here and the meaning of their romance becomes less than it should've been. Going back to comedy, Chow displays lighter and better performed comedy in scenes with Cherie and while it's not essential Chow-Chung acting, they make the movie so much more watchable.
Basically the truly positive aspects ends here. The plot remains a bit unclear and the introduction of a villain towards the end doesn't feel like a thoroughly thought out idea. That even makes the ending less exciting and previous, for this western viewer, confusing scenes doesn't generate true care for our characters when we reach the conclusion. David and Taylor doesn't slow down the movie though, even though it has negative aspects, and along the way we see some fairly neat visual touches. Taoist magic have been shot many times in Hong Kong movies and filmmakers do know how to make a sequence like that passable at least. David and Taylor's contribution is enhanced by having Deannie Yip as the priest, who displays the nice balance between the humour and the serious nature of her character. Jingle Ma's cinematography isn't all that unusual when shooting exteriors but is put to good use in various visual set pieces (most notably in the hell that Hsiao-Tieh is stuck in). The overall impression is that we've seen this before but David and Taylor doesn't make scenes like this worse.
By no means an action piece, we still get small bits of decent action choreography. Most of this can be seen in the Peking Opera duel between Chiu Hua and Hsiao-Tieh. Considering that Chung and Yip are doubled on occasions they still do commendable work on their own. It's a funny scene and something you'll only find in Asian cinema. Question though: Was 80s Hong Kong cinema also an opportunity to turn any scene in a movie into a music video? I know three examples of this now but regardless it's fun.
A few more notes about the acting. Chow displays enough of his wonderful charisma but another challenge this role had was the use of sign language. Lao K has a deaf mute character (Ng Hong Ling) following him around and the communication between them looks correct anyway. Paul Chun also turns up in a two scene role.
Again Spiritual Love may have flaws when viewed by an western audience but if you've liked the previous on screen chemistry between Chow Yun-Fat and Cherie Chung, take a chance on this lesser talked about effort.
The Universe 1.85:1 transfer looks perfectly fine. Throughout there are strong colours and decent sharpness for a 1987 movie. Light print damage is on display and certain shots (mostly effects ones) are tinted in blue or green.
The Cantonese 5.1 Dolby Digital remix only features some newly added foley effects in the beginning. While those are a distraction the rest of the film stays more true to it's mono roots. A mandarin 5.1 dub is also included.
The English subtitles presents the usual mishap or two but are very clean of errors that usually plague older movies. Japanese, Korean, French, Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese subtitles are also included.
Extras come in the form of two good Star's Files for Chow Yun-Fat and Cherie Cheung plus trailers for Spiritual Love, The Greatest Lover, Diary Of A Big Man, The Fun, The Luck & The Tycoon, Scared Stiff and Hearty Response.
reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson