This is simply one of the finest films ever made, in my not so humble opinion. Read on, and I’ll tell you why.
First up, the director and producer were both determined that this would be a special swordplay movie, unlike the usual genre fare. Raymond Wong’s Mandarin Pictures is known for turning out well-crafted films, and this one was lovingly tended by all those working on it. No time or expense was to be spared in bringing this novel of love and betrayal to the screen, faithful in every detail.
Then there’s the cast. The classic beauty of Brigitte Lin, as the girl raised by wolves then trained as an assassin, is perfectly complemented by Leslie Cheung’s own beauty and irresistable charm. Francis Ng Chun Yu, as the evil cult leader who lusts after his wolf-girl, is appropriately imperious and dangerous, although he does do a tad too much groaning in the final scenes. Yammie Nam, as the clan sister of Leslie, is lovely and dangerous, like a snake, while other supporting players carry their roles sufficiently well that we don’t notice them much (mainly because we’re busy ogling the main cast). Oh, except for the girl who plays Francis’ sister, who to my mind should have been cut down in her first five minutes, to stop her from incessant and incredibly annoying high-pitched giggling.
The sets are deliberately mythic, evoking a China that never was, and the costumes are opulent and lovely. And also accurate, in at least some respects: I was pleased to see that Brigitte, flying gracefully through the air, was wearing sensible sheepskin boots, to protect her delicate feet against all manner of Northern weather. The soldiers costumes, however, are fairly accurate. This is probably because one of the minor characters, General Wu Shan Kwai, is a figure taken direct from Chinese history. He’s the one held responsible for the fall of the Ming empire and the subsequent rise of the Chings: he opened the gate to the Manchu invaders in about 1644.
The music, too, is haunting and sad, in a grand sort of way. No melodrama this: this is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, with well-defined characters, dollops of love, jealousy, hate, and betrayal. Nothing is done by halves here, as we see in an early scene: the Ming army, provisions stolen by starving villagers, embarks on a rampage to slaughter the peasants down to the last child. Alas for them that they’re interrupted by our whip-wielding heroine, who lays about her with her whip like a demon.
And of course there is no review of this film without comment on the cinematography. The whole is composed with such care as to render virtually every frame a poster (check it out if you don’t believe me). This is moving art at its very best. Nothing within shot is left to chance, from a falling rice bowl to the vine-draped pool in the ruined city, all superbly composed and lit.
And since it’s a love story, there must be a love scene. This one’s a humdinger. The initial conflict of the characters becomes a hungry passion that just about steams the water in the pool (probably they had to stay in it to stop from bursting into flames). There’s a story to this scene, too. Brigitte is a very modest woman, and has always been reluctant to do love scenes of any description, with anyone. She was only persuaded to do this one because she trusted the director and cinematographer, and was good friends with Leslie. The whole set had to be cleared, leaving just the two actors, the director, the cinematographer, and the lighting tech. Brigitte agreed to the scene, even given its overt eroticism, but insisted that it be done with one take only.
Overall, a lushly beautiful piece that deserves to be seen on the big screen, and watched with appropriately drop-jawed awe. Brigitte, Francis, Ronny Yu, Peter Pau, and Raymond Wong will all have a place in heaven for their work on this film. Leslie, poor lamb, is already there.