Netflix ushered in a spooky Lunar New Year with the release of its first Mandarin original series from Malaysia on January 23. The Ghost Bride is an adaptation from a 2013 novel of the same name by Malaysian author Yangsze Choo. Since the teaser trailer dropped, the six-episode series has been generating some buzz online, especially in the Asian community, for its spotlight on traditional Peranakan and Chinese culture, from the 1890s Malacca setting to the folklore-based premise. Pan Li Lan (Huang Pei-jia) receives a proposal to marry Lim Tian Ching (Kuang Tian), a son of a very wealthy family, with a deal that the marriage that would clear her family’s debt. The catch, however, is that the potential groom is dead.
In Chinese folk tradition, ghost marriages occur for various purposes, including to satisfy the request of the deceased’s spirit for a companion in the afterlife, as is the case in The Ghost Bride. Other Chinese practices and beliefs related to the afterlife, such as burning joss paper for the deceased and the mythological concept of the Ten Courts of Hell, also feature in the series.
Against this backdrop of ancient traditions, Li Lan provides a modern and liberal perspective. She refuses to be a ghost bride, openly disagrees with the restrictive rules of marriage and dreams of travelling to see the world. However, she would ultimately be forced to put family before herself when her father falls gravely ill, and her agreeing to the marriage in the underworld becomes the only way to save his life. To return to the land of the living, she must uncover the corruption in the hell linked to Tian Ching. Li Lan’s sacrifice is movingly portrayed, but it feels unnecessary as a plot point when one considers that it did not happen in the original novel. In the book, Li Lan’s father does not fall ill, she never agrees to be Tian Ching’s bride, and her desire to get out of the underworld and save her own life is strong and convincing enough as a motivation to drive the plot forward. By inserting this sacrifice into the plot, the Netflix series takes the cliched route to tie its heroine’s agency to filial piety.
Having Li Lan be Tian Ching’s bride also sets up more romantic tension in the underworld, where elements of horror and the supernatural then become secondary. While romance is a significant part of the novel—Li Lan has more than one love interest!—the the charm of the story lies not in the love story, but the vivid world that Choo builds and Li Lan’s adventure through it. The Netflix series skips the world-building for the spirit world and provides little introduction to the various supernatural beings and settings, which might be confusing for viewers who have not read the novel or are unfamiliar with traditional Chinese notions of the afterlife.
This is an adaptation that makes significant changes to its source material, and although doing so can potentially serve an adaptation well, Netflix’s The Ghost Bride omits many of the novel’s strengths and turns a highly original story into a predictable one.
The series struggles to find its voice and strike a balance between the many different genres of The Ghost Bride. There is a lot of comedy, even in scenes with violence and about expelling spirits. It’s a quirky, cheeky, Taiwanese drama-esque style of comedy, further accentuated in the delivery by the two lead actors, Huang Pei-jia and Wu Kang-jen (who plays the heavenly guard Er Lang), who are Taiwanese drama veterans. By the time the main characters enter the underworld halfway through the series, the writers’ and directors’ attempt to shift the mood to a darker seriousness falters. Without proper world-building, the climactic moments and revelations lack the intensity of real danger and fear and feel rushed toward an ending.
The darkness of the underworld also clashes with the melodrama happening in the land of the living. In the writers’ attempt to play up some family and romantic drama, the relationships between the female characters suffer. Li Lan and Tian Ching’s cousin Yan Hong (Jojo Goh) develop a friendship in the novel, but they rarely interact in the Netflix series, and it is hostility when they do. A minor character in the book named Isabel (Teresa Daley) is brought to the foreground in the adaptation, yet she gets no character development and merely serves to stir up tension as Li Lan’s rival in a love triangle. With female friendships on screen already so rare, it is disappointing that The Ghost Bride chooses to pit women against one another for the sake of drama.
One of the Netflix adaptation’s strengths is its visual portrayal of Malaya and traditional Peranakan culture. The filming was done almost entirely on location across Malaysia, including heritage sites in Penang, Taiping, Ipoh, and Johor Bahru, and with a nearly all-Malaysian production crew. As we follow the characters strolling along busy market streets and riding on trishaws, we are immersed in the vibrant life of old Malacca. The vibrant Peranakan culture shines through details like the kebayas and batik shirts worn by the characters, and the kuihs they eat. It is refreshing to see Asian cultural traditions represented so prominently yet quietly and naturally on screen for international audiences; even the Chinese superstitions and folk practices are not exoticized.
Despite adopting Peranakan culture in terms of their attire and food, the characters speak Mandarin instead of the traditional Peranakan creole language that mixes Malay and Hokkien. A possible explanation is that they are not Peranakan Chinese, but mainland Chinese who have more recently settled in Malacca. Mandarin is not the only language spoken in the series. Select the “Chinese” audio option on Netflix, and you’d be treated to some Cantonese and even a bit of Malay alongside the Mandarin. The Ghost Bride makes a commendable effort to reflect the confluence of cultures and languages in colonial-era Malaya and the Chinese diasporic experience. Showrunner Zainir Aminullah said that, between the creative team and Netflix, the language of the series “was decided to be Mandarin because [they] wanted to reach as wide and as diverse an audience as possible.” But in insisting on a Mandarin dominance, the creators erase the diversity of the world they are representing in the series and thus might alienate many in the audience, too. The representation of the non-Chinese in Malaya, in particular, is mostly absent and problematic. One of the very few Malay people we see in the series is solely and repeatedly referred to as “the Malay madman,” and his caveman-like appearance and grunting only reinforce the racist label.
The creators’ attempts to pander to the audience result in a show that is confused about what kind of story it is telling and what kind of Chinese diasporic and Southeast Asian experience it is representing. If a second season happens, and the final episode’s cliffhanger hints it might, it needs to do more justice to the richness of its story concept and cultural worlds.
Edited By: Keshav Kant