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Monday, June 30, 2014

Yangsze Choo's THE GHOST BRIDE

Last July, my friend Lydia sent me an article about a US-based Malaysian author Yangsze Choo, whose debut novel THE GHOST BRIDE had just been released.

The author was a family friend from Lydia's childhood.

In the book, its protagonist Li Lan receives a proposal of marriage from the wealthy family of Lim Tian Ching, a young man who died of fever a few months earlier.

After I went through the article, I was immediately curious about the book, especially because I've always been interested in the Chinese tradition of "ghost marriages", a marriage which either one or both of the parties are deceased.

I think I first learnt about this tradition in a 2002 Hong Kong TV series called COUNTRY SPIRIT 酒是故鄉醇 (yes, back in the day, like most Malaysian Chinese folks, I followed Hong Kong soaps with regularity and without irony), which depicts the love story between a widow, who is a part of a ghost marriage, and her house servant, in pre-WW2 Hong Kong.

As you can see from the music video of its opening theme, it's INTENSE stuff. Lots of slow-mo running and weepy faces.

In the one year since then, THE GHOST BRIDE grew in acclaim and popularity, I started seeing it in bookshelves everywhere. A heartening sight, to know that a book set in colonial Malaya is capturing the imaginations of the foreign world.

The reviews were great. (Kirkus Reviews, USA Today, Dear Author, Examiner.com) It was nominated for the prestigious Carnegie Medal. It was featured as Book of The Week on Oprah.com with a great blurb.

The Ghost Bride begins as a historical novel but takes an unexpected turn into a fantastical, ghost-and-murder mystery. What makes all this work is the sumptuous world of Chinese émigré culture and the love story that flows under it all—the kind so full of longing, the pages practically sigh as you turn each one.

Ever since I was on the verge of finishing RIVER OF EXPLODING DURIANS a few weeks ago, my mind had started to wander again, grasping for new ideas for a follow-up film. I'm too in love with the process of creativity and filmmaking to let myself rest.

During moments like these, I started to read again, with ferocious speed, trying to devour as much as I could for inspiration. Since April, I've read Robert Bolano's THE SAVAGE DETECTIVES, Charles Yu's THIRD CLASS SUPERHERO, Natsuo Kirino's REAL WORLD and GROTESQUE. I took a break after GROTESQUE because it was heavy, and I was involved in the reshoots of SECOND LIFE OF THIEVES and RIVER OF EXPLODING DURIANS earlier this month.

After that, I started reading the first few chapters of Tao Lin's TAIPEI, Mo Yan's LIFE AND DEATH ARE WEARING ME OUT, and Yangsze Choo's THE GHOST BRIDE, wondering which one I should commit to finishing first.

Two days ago, Yangsze Choo was in town for a book talk at the Kinokuniya KLCC.

I was there.

After that, I finished THE GHOST BRIDE in a day.

It was a compelling read, and despite numerous comparisons to SPIRITED AWAY and mentions of Hayao Miyazaki's influences in some book reviews I came across, I wasn't expecting the story to veer towards the fantastical. (I, ah, genuinely expected THE GHOST BRIDE to be a dreary depiction of a poor young woman tragically trapped in a Ghost Marriage.) The blending Chinese tradition, mythology and the lives of Chinese emigres in a non-entirely Chinese setting is very inventive and fun.