In the waning days of China’s Ming dynasty, the Emperor lies gravely ill and sends his emissaries in search of a magical, life-giving flower that blooms once every twenty years. They find it atop a snowy mountain peak, guarded by legendary swordsman Cho Yi-hang (Leslie Cheung) who spurns their request and slaughters them all in burst of balletic swordplay.
“Who ranks higher than his majesty?” asks one dying official.
“A woman in my eyes”, replies Yi-hang and resumes his solitary vigil.
Thus begins one of the last great masterpieces of the Hong Kong New Wave, starring the biggest star Chinese cinema ever had: the unforgettable Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia. Seriously, Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan don’t enjoy half the adulation this child star-turned screen goddess gets from Chinese film fans. Riding high off her comeback role in Swordsman II: Invincible Asia (1992), Lin Ching-Hsia essays yet another iconic anti-heroine.
Lush, phantasmagorical colours evoke the fanciful world of wu xia, the Chinese swordplay novels where heroes can fly and wield magical powers. Yi-hang is just such a hero, swift of sword and sharp of wit since his childhood days training with Wu Tang Clan master Tzu Yang (Pao Fong). The cocky boy sets out to rescue a stolen goat from the haunted forest, but finds his life in peril from a pursuing pack of hungry wolves. Whereupon a beautiful, mysterious wild girl pacifies her brother wolves with her mystical flute-playing, saving Yi-hang’s life and capturing his heart.
Years later, a dashing Yi-hang heroically defends the downtrodden and poor. Although heir apparent to the Eight Clans of Chung Yuan, his heart grows weary of the martial life. Ambitious kung fu scholar Pai Yun (Law Lok Lam) believes the clans should break with tradition and appoint a new leader, his daughter Ho Lu Hua (Nam Kit Ying), whose amorous advances to her childhood friend Yi-Hang are politely declined. His heart still belongs to the wolf girl, now grown into a nameless supernatural sword maiden (Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia), invincible in kung fu, able to fly like a bird and rip bodies apart with a crack of her whip.
She returns to his life and he christens her Lien Ni-Chang. They rekindle their romance amidst an icy, crystalline pool while the world burns with war between Ming, Han and Ching tribes. But Ni-Chang is the prized warrior-concubine of the evil Mo Cult, led by Chi Wu-Shuang, a hideous back-to-back Siamese twin whose female half (Elaine Lui) taunts her brother (Francis Ng) for lusting after the wolf girl. Ni-Chang offers her body and endures horrific abuse to win her freedom, but lying in wait is a cycle of lies, hatred and mistrust that spurs her vengeful, monstrous transformation into the Bride with White Hair.
Essential viewing for Hong Kong film fanatics, this sweeping costume epic reworks “Romance of the White Haired Maiden”, a wu xia classic written by the prolific Liang Yusheng (who passed away on January 22nd 2009). The novel had been adapted previously as the cult favourite, if not especially coherent, Wolf Devil Woman (1982), but while its sprawling story has been condensed here, The Bride with White Hair is arguably even more ambitious.
Set against the backdrop of genuine historical events, director Ronny Yu mixes the philosophical fantasy and satirical aspects of wu xia with the doom-laden romance and pictorial extravagance of early Japanese horror, such as Kwaidan (1964) or The Ghost of Yotsuya (1959). Above all else it is a tragic romance, drawing explicitly - as Yu claims - upon Romeo and Juliet - and a meditation on a theme important to the HK New Wave: the courage and resilience of women. The foreign trained Yu actually kicked off the New Wave era with Jumping Ash (1976). Though he made horror movies like The Tenant (1982) and The Trail (1983) (one of the first “hopping vampire” movies), Yu had never tackled a period wu xia fantasy before and was reluctant to do so until persuaded by his wife. It was she who recognised its potential and inspired the re-centring of the story around Lien Ni-Chang, the wronged woman reborn as a vengeful otherworldly entity.
An important theme here is the difference between the righteous and self-righteous. Master Tzu Yang prattles endlessly about the righteousness of the Chung Yuan clans amidst a world rife with moral corruption, yet he does almost nothing to protect the persecuted peasantry. Ho Lu Hua is supposedly a gifted leader, held back by her gender, but callously murders the farmer to whom Yi-Hang gave her jade pendant. By contrast Ni-Chang, even though she serves an evil cult, fights bandits, saves peasants and delivers babies. Even Yi-Hang falls short, betraying his love on a moment’s doubt.
We’re left with a sense that this world order is set to be swept away, not just by the Bride’s supernatural fury but with the rise of Ching General Wu San Kuei (Eddy Ko), whom Yi-Hang met as a child. “Fear not the criticism of others, so long as you are at peace with yourself”, says General Kuei. “What kind of a life is it if you look to others for approval?” Little wonder many wu xia novels were banned in Mainland China for their satirical attacks on rigid, inflexible ideologies.
This was a troubled production, with the set suffering attacks from typhoons and triads. Its HK $50 million budget went into the construction of two enormous soundstages, a spectacular fairyland designed by Eddy Ma and bathed in amber, orange and dreamy blue hues by genius cinematographer Peter Pau, who would win an Oscar for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). To add further prestige, Yu recruited Japanese costume designer Emi Wada, celebrated for her work with Akira Kurosawa on Ran (1985). Wada’s beautiful costumes are yet another layer of splendour, yet it would be so wrong to dismiss the film as mere eye-candy. All these visual components combine to render gut-wrenching emotions as explosions of colour and kinetic force, a visual poem driven by rage, despair and heartache. Alongside the astonishing action choreography and Yu’s use of the frame-jumping “Step-Mark” process to give things a jittery, surreal quality, Lin Ching-Hsia and her incredibly expressive eyes become a kind of living special effect.
Hong Kong-born director of action and fantasy. Began directing in the early 80s, and made films such as the historical actioner Postman Strikes Back (with Chow Yun-Fat), Chase Ghost Seven Powers and the heroic bloodshed flick China White. The two Bride with White Hair films – both released in 1993 – were hugely popular fantasy adventures, which helped Yu secure his first American film, the kids film Warriors of Virtue. Yu then helmed Bride of Chucky, the fourth and best Child's Play movie, the Brit action film The 51st State and the horror face-off Freddy Vs Jason. He later returned to Asia to helm the likes of Saving General Yang.