The Happy Ghost I - V

As founding members of the film production company Cinema City, Karl Maka, Dean Shek and Raymond Wong were each responsible for bringing product to the screen. One of their more popular series of films – though not on par with the Aces Go Places series – was The Happy Ghost series that ran for five films from 1984 to 1991. These films were the work of Raymond Wong who produced and acted in all five of them – and in fact took the series with him after leaving Cinema City. The films were in fact quite popular initially, but waned dramatically after leaving the sponsorship of Cinema City:

1984 Happy Ghost – directed by Clifton Ko - 12th at the box office
1985 Happy Ghost II – directed by Clifton Ko - 10th at the box office
1986 Happy Ghost III – directed by Johnnie To - 11th at the box office
1990 Happy Ghost IV – directed by Clifton Ko -  30th at the box office
1991 Happy Ghost V – directed by Norman Chan/Raymond Wong - 46th at the box office

The films primarily attempted to appeal to a teenage audience with their youth oriented cast (except for Raymond of course), often times low brow humor and situations that dealt with the problems of teenagers – school, parents, romance and ghosts. Well, perhaps ghosts don’t play a large part in the lives of most teenagers – but the supernatural is what ties these films together and gives them an enjoyable element over other teenage films of the time. Raymond Wong plays a ghost from the Ching period that turns up in the modern age and invariably gets his friends into and out of trouble. Raymond’s ghost is an amiable one – in the tradition of Topper or Casper – rather than a typical HK revenge seeking ghost - not a scare in him and his main enjoyment is playing practical jokes on targets of authority – pompous people, teachers etc.

Much of Raymond’s Cinema City output is held in some disdain by Western HK film fans for the type of juvenile humor he indulges in, the innocuous plots and his preference to cast nubile teenage girls. Most of his films star a series of young starlets – and though nothing is ever shown of a sexual nature there clearly exists a distinct if faint Lolita like undercurrent with Raymond often clothing them in swimsuits, short skirts and tight shorts. He clearly had an eye for female talent though – and was responsible for introducing such actresses as Loletta Lee, Fennie Yuen, May Lo, Bonnie Law, Charlene Chan and Anne Bridgewater to the screen. They would become known as The Happy Troupe Girls and all but Ann would appear in this series.
In general, I have to admit that I enjoy these films to some degree on a couple of levels. From the perspective of today, the films seem wonderfully innocent even if at times they deal with serious subjects like abortion, the triads and death. It is almost like looking through a window at a different time – though I can’t imagine school life in the 80’s was quite as innocent as it appears here – look at Ringo Lam’s School on Fire for a very different version of school life in the 80’s (and which co-incidentally stars one of the Happy Troupe Girls Fennie Yuen and the sister of another, Sara Lee).  The humor is often puerile and rarely inspired, but is often just silly or genial enough to be contagious and make you laugh. The special effects are low tech for the most part, but they are enjoyable and occasionally clever and I have always been a sucker for these kinds of things. Finally, I think these actresses are great fun – and throw in Maggie Cheung who appears in one of them – and a real pleasure to watch in their early work. At this point, I would not say they are good actresses but they bring a real exuberance and sweetness to their performances that is infectious.

Happy Ghost

In the first of the series, Raymond introduces Loletta Lee and Bonnie Law to the screen. They and a few of their friends (Lam San-san the bespectacled one and Sara Lee in a small role) go camping, but when it begins raining they find shelter in a nearby temple. Inside is residing the un-reincarnated ghost of a Ching scholar who committed suicide long ago. Bonnie unthinkingly brings back the rope that he used to kill himself with and it turns out his spirit has been captured in this rope. Raymond jumps out of the rope and after initially scaring Bonnie they become the best of friends.

Raymond Wong, Lam San-san, Loletta Lee and Bonnie Law
It turns out that having a friendly ghost can be very useful at her all-girls Catholic school. He helps Bonnie at a track event by sabotaging her main competitor and by carrying her shot put a long ways and then carries Bonnie herself in the long jump. Once Bonnie introduces Raymond to her buddies Loletta and Lam San-san all four of them have a great time together. Their prime target of fun is the head nun – Teresa Carpio – who is intent on enforcing all the very strict rules of the Catholic all-girls school – low hemlines and no fraternizing too closely with the boys from another school.
Towards the end of the film, it turns more serious – Loletta gets pregnant, the pressure of succeeding in exams makes one of the girls get caught cheating with the accompanying shame and the nuns finally get wise to having a ghost in the school. With a strong knock on religious intolerance, the story has the nuns attempting to destroy Raymond’s spirit by exorcising the rope, while the girls attempt to save him and allow him to reincarnate.
Much of the story is on par with the Haley Mills/ Gidget films of the 60’s – innocent fun with a large sprinkling of goofy humor and enjoyable performances from the girls. It tends to be more sweet than funny.

My rating for this film: 6.5

Happy Ghost II

At the end of the first Happy Ghost, the Ching scholar was able to reincarnate and returns as Loletta Lee’s baby! How weird is that. Even stranger is the time warp that takes place in the second film of the series. The baby grows up into Raymond Wong – but no time actually seems to pass – the first film clearly takes place in the 1980’s with references to Boy George and so does the second film – even though in theory some 25 years must have passed. Just one of those movie things you have to overlook!

In this one Raymond introduces three more actresses who went on to reasonably successful careers – Fennie Yuen, May Lo (now also the wife of Jacky Cheung) and Charine Chan. They are members of a group at another all-girls school who call themselves the “Meanies”. Their mission in life is to simply be mean to people – in particular boys and especially teachers. Their assorted bag of tricks includes the basics – glue on the chair, rats in the drawer, a bucket of water atop the door. These pranks have driven away seven teachers  - but their new teacher Raymond has a bit of an advantage over the previous teachers. Since being born, he has had magical powers – amazing strength and the ability to make objects do all sorts of things. For him though it has been more a curse than a blessing because these powers have caused him to have lots of personal problems.
Fennie Yuen, May Lo and Charine Chan
The film predictably turns into a mushy To Sir with Love riff as the girls test him – get him fired but eventually realize how important he has become to their lives. One of their jokes leaves him deserted on an island – the same one in which Loletta and company had visited years before in part one. He ends up in the same temple and runs into his ancestor and complains to him about how these powers have made his life miserable – so the ghost takes them away. Soon of course Raymond wishes to have them back to help the girls and to fend off his love rival, Melvin Wong.
The film is harmless enough – not particularly amusing but genial in its way. It suffers from the too brief screen time of the ghost who made the first one click to a large degree. The girls are again the strength of the film - in particularly Fennie as the “Chairman of the Meanies” who cuts an attractive figure with her sleek short haired look.

My rating for this film: 5.5

Happy Ghost III

In part three Raymond returns again as a teacher – as do Fennie Yuen and Charine – though they seem to be playing different characters. This film though gets a strong jolt of star power with the inclusion of Maggie Cheung. I am not really one to use the word cute too often, but there is no other way to describe Maggie Cheung in this film. She almost overdoses on cuteness. This was an early film of hers – and she really wasn’t much of an actress yet so she pretty much depends on winning the audience over with her pouts and grins. Needless to say, I fell victim to every pout and every grin. Maggie just affects me that way.

There really isn’t a lot more going on in this film though it certainly has its pleasures and it supplies some innocent laughs along the way. Maggie is dead when the film begins – but Maggie is pretty cute even when she is dead. She is up in heaven getting ready for reincarnation. Tsui Hark - in a cameo - is in charge of matching up folks with their new lives and Maggie convinces him to find her a musical family because she was a failed singer in her previous life. Tsui finds just the right family and tells Maggie that she will be more popular then Teresa Teng, Paula Tsui and Anita Mui when she grows up. He tells her where she has to go to be reincarnated and at what time she has to be there. If you didn’t know already, the spirit has to jump into the womb just as birth is about to take place. You can’t be too late or too early. As in all things – timing is everything.
Everything gets bungled because of Raymond Wong and Maggie is told that she has to wait a month for the next opportunity for reincarnation. With a lot of time on her hands, Maggie decides to make life miserable for Wong for messing up her reincarnation. All of this is fairly pie in the face/falling trousers type of harmless stuff. Maggie can also possess other people and does so with Fennie Yuen, a student of Wongs, causing further complications with some triad folks.
Raymond first summons the Happy Ghost and but then decides the best plan is to romance Maggie. In a musical video number Maggie dances the night away. Problems lie ahead of course for this happy couple.

My rating for this film: 7.0

Happy Ghost IV

There were four good reasons for me to watch this fourth installment in the Happy Ghost series. They are Loletta Lee, Fenny Yuen, Charine Chan and May Lo – The Happy Troupe Girls. All these actresses had been discovered by Raymond Wong and had appeared earlier in the series – but here was an opportunity to see them all together.  Regrettably, it turns out that they have little screen time to display their charms in the film.

Loletta, Charine, Fennie and May Lo (clock wise)
Four years after the previous installment in 1986, Raymond Wong returns with this film. Unlike the previous ones, this one was not produced by Cinema City (which was in it’s death throes at the time) but the formula is much the same – a mix of the supernatural, comedy and teenage hijinks. Unlike the earlier ones though that tended to focus on Raymond and a supply of young female cuties, here it is primarily between him and the pop group Beyond (called Behind in the film) with some time left for his relationship with Pauline Yeung. Beyond is fine for what they do – sort of Monkeys like antics – and they sing three decent tunes, but to my eyes they had no screen personas to differentiate themselves from one another and they lack the spark that the Happy Troupe Girls had. Speaking of which – they are in the film but actually only appear in two musical video type interludes in which Beyond is trying to pick them up – without success. They are corny but enjoyable scenes and I wish the girls had stuck around.
Not that many people write about the Happy Ghost series as far as I know, but what little I have seen seems to suggest that most consider the last two in the series – IV and V – to be much weaker than the others. Perhaps so – but I was actually surprised at how amusing this was at times - I almost felt guilty to be laughing at much of this because the humor is so sophomoric – but I couldn’t help myself. Some of it is inspired while other bits were clearly stolen from inspired sources – but whichever - I still found it cracking me up throughout – in particular during the second half when it really gets going. Sure watching Charlie Cho urinate after his bottom and his genital area have magically been switched or Tommy Wong futilely attempting to kill Raymond Wong without realizing that Raymond was already in a state of death or having Lau Shun’s head being batted around until it lands in an aquarium might not sound all that funny but depending on your mood it just might!
Raymond, Beyond and Pauline Yeung
Charlie Cho is not happy with the fact that Raymond is wooing his girl, Pauline, and after his slight bottom/genital mishap he orders his right hand man Tommy to kill him – the results are often hilarious. At the same time four of Raymond’s students, Beyond, discover an old suit of armor in a cave and bring it back to their apartment. Within it lies the spirit of an evil swordsman, Lau Shun, who comes back and possesses them to help him out. He needs to murder the woman who’s ancestor killed him hundreds of years previously – this is Pauline Yeung. With the help of his Ching ancestor’s ghost, Raymond, does his best to protect her.
The special effects are quite good in this film – heads flying around, invisibility – and Tsui Hark adds some animation to the pot. By the way, don’t worry Raymond comes back to life and it all ends happily.

My rating for this film: 6.0

Happy Ghost V

Clearly devoid of all ideas, Wong still makes one more in the series – a serious mistake. This film is an absolute horror – not a redeeming moment in it and not an ounce of the charms from the previous films. I believe there was an American film in which a dog turns into a human made around this time and Wong takes this idea and makes a hash of it. The PR for this film was it’s casting – Raymond somehow talked Kris Aquino – the daughter of the then President of the Philippines, Corazon Aquino, into taking a part. In the outtakes in the end, they show a press circus during an interview so I guess it was a big deal.

Not to be cruel – but Kris is not all that attractive and not a very good actress. Here she plays a woman who loves her dog, Magic, more it seems than her boyfriend. The boyfriend does seem a bit of a jerk though and manages to lose Magic while Kris is away on a trip. Well as things often go – Magic saves the “life” of our old friend from the Ching dynasty and he allows Magic to turn into a human for 49 days. Long enough to be very irritating I have to say. He runs into Kris of course and they become friends  - though thankfully never have sex!

My rating for this film: 1.0