Thursday, October 29, 2009

Review – The Bride with White Hair

October 29, 2009

The Bride with White Hair – Hong Kong, 1993

Ronny Yu’s 1993 film The Bride with White Hair has many of the elements that have plagued films from Hong Kong for decades: occasionally unrealistic lightening quick swordplay, odd-sounding pearls of wisdom dispensed by a supposedly wise master who just can’t win complete obedience from his pupil, enemies that wait for armies to position themselves before attacking, characters that make wise cracks in order to get cheap laughs from the audience despite the gravity of the moment, and corny sexual banter that distracts from the drama of a given scene. It’s the kind of film in which characters, both heroes and villains, suddenly break out into boisterous high pitched laughter when no one around them has said anything remotely funny and then a moment later stop laughing as abruptly as they started, rendering the moment, if not the characters themselves, somewhat implausible. And yet, in spite of all of this, The Bride with White Hair works.

It does so not as a result of viewers having been desensitized to the ridiculous aspects so commonly found in films of this genre, but on the strength of its two main characters and the circumstances that surround them. These two characters are Zhuo Yi-hang (the legendary Leslie Cheung) and a mysterious woman (the equally legendary Brigitte Lin) who is first known to us only as the wolf girl. (She later goes by another name, but I shall not reveal it in this review.) In the film, Zhuo Yi-hang may be the most noble of his generation of Kung Fu warriors. As others in the clans jockey for prestige and commit crimes against those they deem their competition or the subordinates, Zhuo stands as the protector of the poor and the only one willing to confront those in the clan that act immorally. For this, he is constantly being verbally chastised and punished by his superiors. His contemporaries in the same clan, though, applaud his actions – at least to a point. As for the wolf girl, she is a bit of an enigma for much of the first part of the film. She viciously attacks what appear to be members of one of the eight clans of the Wu-Tang. However, these men are at that moment engaged in a brutal assault on a group of poor peasants whose only crime is taking food from the imperial stash out of desperation and hunger, hardly the action of violent guerrillas who need to be stopped at all costs. The wolf girl takes a certain ghastly delight in her side of the battle, especially in cutting her prey into eight pieces. However, by the end of the film, she will prove herself of better quality that anyone else, including the film’s protagonist.

The world in which Zhuo and the wolf girl occupy is one in which the powerful eight clans of Wu-Tang, once a power for good and righteousness, has become corrupted as a result of people’s desire for power and their sense that they are not bound by chivalrous concepts such as protecting those who cannot protect themselves. In fact, two of the greatest atrocities in the film are committed by the same group to which the film’s hero belongs. As the film progresses, we discover that the Manchurian cult that the wolf girl belongs to is even worse. This is a cult lead by a man who proclaims that killing ensures peace and who appears to gain longevity every time one of his enemies is put down. In one scene, we see him kill one of his followers simply because the man’s coughing bothers him.

A lot rests on the viewers’ ability to both empathize with Zhuo and the wolf girl and be able to root for them to somehow find a way to be together in the end. This is accomplished superbly, for their formal meeting is a fateful one indeed. After the attack on the peasants and the subsequent massacre of the men who carried it out, an injured peasant goes into labor, and her husband pleads with Zhuo for help. As the woman lies in Zhuo’s arms about to give birth and her husband pleads frantically with him to do something, the wolf girl suddenly appears to assist them. All it takes is a glance for her and Zhuo to establish a connection and with that connection, that recognition that there is another person with the same moral code as themselves – and the fact that they are both rather attractive people - something powerful comes over them. It causes her to flee and him to follow. It’s a fascinating moment, and its lingering effect makes it easier to forgive the following scene’s distracting and mistimed sexual innuendos.

Eventually, Zhuo is selected to lead the charge against the cult, and the wolf girl is assigned to destroy the eight clans. And so the two of them meet on the battlefield, each tasked with the other’s destruction, each feeling a bond towards the other that they can’t quite put into words. It is their relationship that gives The Bride with White Hair its somewhat hypnotic feeling. We are drawn into this relationship, and seeing all that they have to go through to eventually be together – if that is indeed what they are destined to do – we marvel at their courage to undertake it. It is particularly hard to watch what the wolf girl must go through to earn her freedom, and because of that, it is even harder to watch as Zhuo underestimates her level of devotion to him.

The Bride with White Hair is not a perfect movie, yet it is an example of a movie that succeeds tremendously despite its flaws. Director Ronnie Yu keeps the action at a steady pace, only slowing down to further the romance between the two lead characters and enable to hear the advancing rumblings of war sounding in the distance. Cheung and Lin are aided by the skilled performance of Kit Ying Lam, who plays Ho Lu Hua, the other woman seeking Zhou’s affections. She has a pivotal role in the film and makes the most of it. I also enjoyed the conflicted performance of Francis Ng, who plays “half” of the film’s antagonist Ji Wushuang. (Yes, I said “half.”) However, it should be said that the film belongs to Lin, for it is she who must first convince viewers that she is capable of extreme violence and then persuade them that deep down she is a victim who just wants to be love and believed in. She succeeds in both endeavors, and by the end of the film, I believe I too would have willingly volunteered to sit atop an elixir tree in the hopes of seeing just a fleeting glimpse of her. (on DVD)

4 stars

*The Bride with White Hair is in Cantonese with English subtitles.

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