China’s big summer release for 2014 is The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom, based on the popular 1950s tome Baifa Monu Zhan written by Liang Yusheng. Its most recent and most favoured screen version is the 1993 Hong Kong pic The Bride With White Hair, directed by Ronny Yu and starring Brigitte Lin and Leslie Cheung in a beautifully lensed tale of romantic obsession amidst the clan wars during the Ming Dynasty. Like the mystical flower of Mt Shin Fung, The Bride With White Hair holds a special place in the minds of many Asian movie enthusiasts, who were first introduced to the joys of Cantonese films through this sumptuous blending of visceral cinema and Chinese legend.
The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom has been lavished with Sino money and star appeal. But is it any good? In short, no — it’s visually bland and emotionally limp. As a blockbuster, it would be described as mediocre. China’s Fan Bingbing (One Night Surprise, Bodyguards and Assassins) has the title role and rising star Huang Xiaoming (Badges of Fury, The Last Tycoon) plays the hero Zhuo Yihang, who begins a fraught but passionate romance with Lian Nishang, a.k.a. the Jade Rakshasa (Fan Bingbing).
It’s fair to say that Fan Bingbing had probably been selected for this role mainly for her classic physical beauty and her recent work in Hollywood’s Marvel movies (Iron Man 3, X-Men: Days of Future Past). Both are good marketing ploys; but she is far from being a good actor. I’ve heard Chinese refer to her as being a “flower vase”, a person who possesses beauty but has little substance. I’m a bit surprised her elder sister Li Bingbing (Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, A World Without Thieves) didn’t get this part, as she is a very talented actress, but does lack the supermodel looks of her sibling. In a pivotal and, literally, transformative moment in the film, the Rakshasa’s long ebony tresses are bleached a ghostly white. Inexplicably, from this point she then often drapes herself in black costumes and accessorizes to the max, looking more like a bespoke goth than a tragic heroine.
I’m reliably informed (Thanks Fred!) that Zhuo Yihang’s character has been substantially altered from the novel. In the film he is depicted as a solid citizen who would readily sacrifice himself for the common good. Leslie Cheung’s persona in Bride with White Hair is much closer to the literary source, as a lust-filled rebel heeding no person and respecting no office.
This film also makes the mistake of trying to cover all the narrative’s story lines, including the historical and political machinations of the final years of the Ming Dynasty. But for a 103 minute movie there are too many characters, too much exposition and not enough drama. At least the 1993 title had the good sense to concentrate on the romance and dump the history lesson.
Cantonese film-maker Jacob Cheung has the directing credit but he seems unable to do much with his material. Cheung is a class act and one of Hong Kong’s best directors, with films like the award-winning Cageman and the controversial Spacked-Out as genre dramas of the highest order. He has been regularly working in China for the past seven to eight years, but seems incapable of using his cinematic skills to the best of his ability there. Even the much praised 2006 Andy Lau pic, A Battle of Wits is, to me, Jacob Cheung stuck in low gear. The blandness of this latest release has director-for-hire written all over it, and the movie’s twelve-month gestation after production points to real problems with the product. Interestingly, Tsui Hark receives a prominent, albeit ambiguous, credit as “artistic consultant” which could mean a lot or not much at all. There’s certainly nothing in this pic which even comes close to the film-making brilliance of Hark’s recent CGI-fantasy flick Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon.
I’ve found this a particularly difficult film to review, possibly because there’s nothing strikingly good, bad or really offensive about the movie, except that it comes across so rigorously mundane. I recently revisited the Ronny Yu version and would have to say an initial or repeat viewing of The Bride With White Hair would be highly recommended if you are at all tempted to see The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom.