Randy Astle and Dr. Darl Larsen, Theatre and Media Arts
Chinese folklore has been a rich mine for artistic production for hundreds of years, and continues to be so today. For example, Chinese ghost stories, such as in the medieval compilation of dozens of ghost stories in the work Strange Tales of Liao Zhai, have inspired artists for centuries. Many modern filmmakers have exhibited interest in this particular subgenre, giving it both serious and comical treatment. In particular, the New Wave in Hong Kong cinema that began in the 1980’s initiated the creation of innumerable films, usually slightly comic, that dealt in some way or other with magicians, vampires, ghosts, the underworld, and such subjects. The first such film, or at least the most influential, was Tsui Hark’s A Chinese Ghost Story, and it has been followed by a host of sequels (including Hong Kong’s first animated feature film) and other titles such as Mr. Stiff Corpse, The Bride with White Hair (1 and 2), Mr. Vampire, Zu: Warriors of Magic Mountain, Deadful Melody, Close Encounters of a Spooky Kind, Butterfly and Sword, Green Snake, the Swordsman films, the recent Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and dozens more, even including a host of erotica. Tsui Hark has been the main stylistic force behind these films—whether he was directly involved or not—and he has recently been acknowledged in the US as a master of modern cinema, with publicity in major magazines and retrospectives in New York and other cities.
My project was to create a short student-produced film within this genre. My background research indicated that this would be one of very few short ghost story films (as short films are uncommon in Hong Kong) and the first Chinese ghost story film of any length created in the United States. Such a project would be one of the largest and most complicated student film productions undertaken at BYU and would therefore provide me and my peers with a wonderful practical opportunity, and it would also help develop relations between the University and China. This would benefit the University because of its special country of interest policy towards China, and the Theatre and Media Arts Department specifically could benefit through eventual interaction with the Hong Kong film industry, which is comparable with the United State’s in scope.
I spent over a year developing the script, trying to make the story as true to Chinese mythology and culture as possible. To do so, I relentlessly studied films like those listed above; while I knew ancient culture was important—and I did read from Strange Tales from Liao Zhai—I knew that I wanted to contribute to current popular culture, and therefore must draw my inspiration from it. I used traditional character types in a rather traditional format, while trying to inject originality in how they were treated. The narrative reads as follows: Set in the middle ages, a beautiful female ghost is being held captive by an evil tree demon. She is forced to attract men sexually, remove their souls, and give the power to the demon, who plans on conquering all of China (sexual intercourse with ghosts and spirits is perhaps the most prevalent theme in all the folklore). A young country bumpkin who does not believe in spirits enters her “territory” against the advise of an old master magician/demon hunter (two other popular types), and he and the female ghost fall in love. He is rescued from the demon by the magician, convinced of the reality of the undead, and together the two attack and defeat the demon and recover the ashes of the girl’s body. When these are properly buried, her spirit is freed to be reincarnated in another life. The title, true to Hong Kong cinema’s campiness, was A Spooky Evening.
Preproduction of the film went roughly as planned. The script was completed, a schedule and budget drawn up, art design undertaken, and principle student crew members secured. One problem arose, however, that caused production to not be undertaken here at BYU: After selecting a director and working with him for months the departmental faculty eventually decided that he would not be allowed to direct. This was due to a number of factors. While they all personally believed that he was capable of executing the project, he had not taken a particular production course they saw as necessary, one he had planned on taking at the time we began working together. This devolved into a long series of negotiations and then a last-minute search for another director. None could be secured that I felt were artistically attuned to the nature of the project, and something this ambitious deserved to be done correctly. As the end of the school year approached (with my graduation) I determined that the best thing for the project would be to postpone it to some future date when, with the proper training, I myself would be able to direct it. As I plan to pursue a career in commercial film production, this will be possible either in graduate school or at some point in my professional career. I should note that I am not asserting that the faculty sabotaged the project; it is their job to ensure that department funds and equipment are not used on projects that will never see completion and, like any film studio, they receive many more proposals than they approve. In this case they were following policy and trying to avoid this project running off the rails; the problem occurred over a miscommunication of this policy until it was too late to remedy it.
Inasmuch as the film was not produced at BYU the final goal of my project was not attained. However, I have gained invaluable experience in researching, writing, fundraising, and producing. In all future cases I will have to work with some sort of approving body, and this was an invaluable experience in that regards. Also, while many films which get “postponed” are never produced, I still foresee having ample opportunity to finish this one if desired. Whether I ever create A Spooky Evening as a finished film or not, it will have been a wonderful experience in the realities of film production, one that will stand me in better stead for future productions.